Cunha, Euclides da (1866–1909)

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Cunha, Euclides da (1866–1909)

Euclides da Cunha (b. 20 January 1866; d. 15 August 1909), Brazilian writer. Cunha began his career in 1888 as a journalist for the prestigious A Província de São Paulo after interrupting his studies at the Military Academy of Rio de Janeiro and resuming his military education at the Escola Superior de Guerra (Superior School of War) from which he would graduate in 1892 with an engineering degree. His fame as a writer began with the publication of his first articles, both titled "A nossa Vendéia" (Our Vendée), suggesting a comparison between the French Revolution of 1793–1796 and its Brazilian counterpart, the messianic movement of 1874–1897 headed by Antônio Conselheiro (Anthony the Counselor) in the northeastern back-lands (canudos). Positive responses from readers and his own fascination with the subject prompted his newspaper to assign Cunha to cover the battles between the republican army and Antônio Conselheiro's followers. By the time he arrived at the war zone, the latter had crushed three military expeditions sent by local and federal governments. Thousands of republican soldiers had died and, baffled by the turn of events, government officials began to seek a plausible explanation for the series of defeats that had led the young and already fragile Brazilian republic into chaos and confusion.

During some thirty days spent in the battlefield, Cunha experienced scenes so tragic and horrifying that he was compelled to reevaluate his own view of the conflict. For Cunha, a confessed republican who had also been an ardent militant, it did not take long to realize that Canudos was not simply a clash involving primitive peasants and "civilized" men, but a brutal civil war.

Once home from the battlefield, Cunha began to write his most acclaimed book, Os sertöes (Rebellion in the Backlands), a powerful account of the war at Canudos. In it he strives to show that a misunderstanding and a breakdown in communications were responsible for the war between the two groups. The republicans thought of Antônio Conselheiro's movement as a means to restore the monarchy with the help of the British crown. The poverty-stricken members of his flock believed, on the other hand, that they were fighting the forces of evil, Freemasonry, and heresy.

It may well be that no other Brazilian journalist before or since Cunha has acquired such a deep understanding of Brazil's tremendous social problems. His ambition in writing Rebellion was not only to analyze the war but also to provide an account of the formation of the national identity of Brazil. Thus, the book delves into geology, geography, sociology, anthropology, military and social history, literature, and philosophy. Cunha's language is precise, metaphorical, and, above all, oxymoronic. He takes liberties with the use of technical terminology to render clear, precise descriptions of the complex geography of Canudos.

Despite the reliable voice of the narrator at the beginning of Rebellion, when Cunha presents himself as an unbiased historian, the book is not a completely objective historical account of the war. A divergence between its literary achievements and its scientific accuracy is noticeable. In his quest for truth Cunha did some intriguing speculating and arguing, especially since he knew little of geology and botany and had never seen Canudos before the last thirty-five days of the war. While many are inclined to ascribe the difficulties in Cunha's book to his peculiar language, undoubtedly some of his theories, for example, on what he called "physical determinism" (the influence of the backlands upon the individual) and on genetic anthropology (degeneration of the white race through miscegenation), today sound arcane and obsolete, though expressed with vigor and intelligence. On the other hand, his sociological theory of cultural isolation is still viable.

Soon after its publication in 1902, Rebellion was enthusiastically received by critics and became a best-seller in Brazil. The success of the book guaranteed Cunha membership in the Brazilian Academy of Letters, which he joined in 1903. Following literary fame came opportunities to work with the Brazilian government. In 1906, after returning from an official trip to the Amazon, where he chaired a committee to survey the borders of northwestern Brazil, Cunha began to write a report that became his next most important book, Contrastes e confrontos (Contrasts and Comparisons), issued in 1907. Cunha spent the last two years of his life working on his third book, À margem da história (On the Margin of History), posthumously published in 1909. In this collection of essays he demonstrates his maturity as a writer and thinker, and replicates the artistic qualities of his masterpiece.

See alsoJournalism; Literature: Brazil.


Samuel Putnam, "'Brazil's Greatest Book': A Translator Introduction," in Rebellion in the Backlands (1945).

Olímpio De Souza Andrade, História e interpretação de "Os sertões" (1960).

Frederick C. H. Garcia, "Duas apresentaçoes de Euclides da Cunha," in Luso-Brazilian Review 7, no. 1 (1970): 23-34.

Walnice Nogueira Galvão, ed., "Euclides, elite moderniza-dora e enquadramento," in Euclides da Cunha (1984).

Luiz Costa Lima, "Nos sertões da oculta mimesis," in his O controle do imaginário (1984).

Leopoldo M. Bernucci, História de un malentendido (1989), esp. pp. 189-218.

Additional Bibliography

Brandão, Adelino. Euclides da Cunha e a questão racial no Brasil: A antropologia de "Os sertões." Rio de Janeiro: Presença, 1990.

Gomes, Gínia Maria. Euclides da Cunha: Literatura e história. Porto Alegre: Editora da UFRGS, 2005.

Levine, Robert M. Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in Northeastern Brazil, 1893–1897. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Lima, Luiz Costa. Terra ignota: A construção de Os sertões. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1997.

Ventura, Roberto, Mario Cesar Carvalho and José Carlos Barreto de Santana. Retrato interrompido da vida de Euclides da Cunha. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003.

                                    Leopoldo M. Bernucci

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Cunha, Euclides da (1866–1909)

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