Freyre, Gilberto (de Mello) (1900–1987)

views updated

Freyre, Gilberto (de Mello) (1900–1987)

Gilberto (de Mello) Freyre (b. 15 March 1900; d. 18 July 1987), pivotal Brazilian cultural historian and essayist of the 1930s. His historical essay Casa-grande & senzala (The Masters and the Slaves, 1933) popularized Franz Boas's anthropological concept of culture as an antidote to pessimistic race science. Freyre argued that Brazil's "mixture" was psychic and cultural in addition to racial. Modern Brazilians were not doomed racial mongrels but rather the fortunate heirs of the colonial plantation's fusion of Portuguese, Indian, and African culture. This energetic and erotic essay became a best-seller. It eventually inspired Carnival samba pageants (1962) as well as nationalist political propaganda. For example, the claim that Brazil was a model of racial harmony became a theme of Brazilian diplomatic initiatives. Many of the ideas of Casa-grande & senzala and its two sequels, Sobrados e mucambos (The Mansions and the Shanties, 1936) and Ordem e progresso (Order and Progress, 1959), established themes for the next generation of social scientists in Brazil. These included the centrality of the patriarchal family as a social institution, Brazil's historical formation as a slave society, the sugar plantation as an institution, and the importance of folkways, especially those related to the house, food, and healing.

Outside of Brazil, Freyre's ideas had their greatest repercussion in the United States, where his studies at Baylor (1918–1920) and Columbia (1920–1922) universities, bohemian life in New York, and travels in the South had refined his sense of Brazil's uniqueness. In the 1940s scholars influenced by Freyre, such as Frank Tannenbaum, challenged Americans to measure themselves against the model of race relations presented in Casa-grande & senzala. Their debates developed into the contemporary fields of comparative race relations and comparative history of slavery. Freyre's impact was not limited to the United States. Casa-grande & senzala was translated into at least six languages. Freyre lectured, visited universities, and received honors throughout the world, including an honorary British knighthood in 1971.

Freyre's history of Brazil took a nostalgic and regional perspective, centering on the rise and decline of the sugar plantations of the Northeast. According to Casa-grande & senzala, Brazil was founded in a burst of energy by the "miscible" Portuguese, who were culturally suited to the task of building a multiracial tropical colony. During three centuries of near isolation from Portuguese government, Brazil's "patriarchal" society centered around the self-sufficient plantation big house. In its kitchens and bedrooms, a cultural and sexual fusion of peoples was accomplished. The result was a culturally "Oriental" society, in which the Jesuit religious order was the only disciplined, "European" counterweight to patriarchal whims. Plantation paternalism harmonized Brazilians and encouraged racial democracy; but plantation slavery, "like a great economic God," divided Brazilians into masters and slaves and encouraged authoritarianism.

Sobrados e mucambos chronicles the decline of this order. Upon the arrival of the exiled Portuguese king in 1808, Brazil centralized, urbanized, and "re-Europeanized." During the nineteenth century, plantation families moved from country big house to city mansion. Once there, urban social institutions—doctor, street, and school—destroyed patriarchalism. The woman and the child emerged as individuals, free from the father's tutelage. Ultimately, "white" planter fathers acceded to the marriage of their daughters to mulatto men of talent, forming a multiracial, "semipatriarchal" establishment. Ordem e progresso argues that the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the overthrow of the emperor in 1889 completed the dissolution of patriarchy. From 1890 forward, republican Brazil cast about for identity, having symbolically rejected its father. By 1914 the institutions of the republic had begun to forge a modern order that could accommodate the challenge of the "social question" of the working class while preserving the legacy of racial harmony.

A political interlude from 1946 to 1950 marked a watershed in Freyre's career. Previously, he had been secretary to the governor of Pernambuco (1926–1930) and had briefly gone into exile in 1930. During the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, his sponsorship of two Afro-Brazilian congresses in 1934 and 1937 and the audacious reputation of Casa-grande & senzala placed him under political suspicion. With the fall of Vargas, Freyre was elected to the 1946 Constituent Assembly and the Chamber of Deputies by a União Democrática Nacional (UDN) coalition. While in congress, Freyre championed cultural causes, including the chartering of the Instituto Joaquim Nabuco de Pesquisas Sociais in Recife, which eventually became his institutional base. In 1949 he was Brazilian delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Freyre left political office in 1950, but he remained an active voice in Brazilian politics, now generally from the right. He contributed to the platforms of the pro-government Aliança Renovadora Nacional (ARENA) in the 1960s and 1970s.

After 1950 Freyre proposed the creation of a discipline of "Lusotropicology" that would study common aspects of the adaptations of Portuguese culture and rule to tropical colonies in Brazil, Africa, and Asia. Because Lusotropicalism appeared to embrace a defense of modern Portuguese colonialism in Africa, many other currents of social science in Brazil avoided it. Lusotropicalism never became a widespread intellectual movement. Furthermore, during the 1960s and 1970s, historians revised and criticized Freyre's descriptions of the supposedly benign components of slavery and race relations. Cultural anthropologists in the 1980s looked back to the insights of his early work but not to Lusotropicology.

Freyre's presence in Brazilian intellectual life was not confined to his roles as anthropologist, historian, or politician; he was also a distinctive literary voice. In the 1920s he urged the literary avant garde of his native Recife to explore region-alist themes in contrast to the futurist avant garde of São Paulo. Later, he published a sequence of two "semi-novels," Dona Sinhá e o filho padre: Seminovela (Mother and Son, 1964) and O outro amor do Dr. Paulo (1977), that portray the traditional family relations and religiosity of the Brazilian Northeast. It was the style of his historical essays, however, that was his major contribution to Brazilian prose. He sometimes invoked Proust as his model for the autobiographical tone and nonlinear style of Casa-grande & senzala; other critics have detected a baroque aesthetic with Brazilian roots.

See alsoLiterature: Brazil; Race and Ethnicity.


Gilberto Amado et al., Gilberto Freyre: Sua ciência, sua filosofia, sua arte (1962), a collection of interpretive essays.

Thomas E. Skidmore, Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (1974; rev. ed, 1993), on racial ideology in Brazil.

Edson Nery Da Fonseca, Um livro completa meio século (1983), a study and reference guide to Casa-grande & senzala. For criticism, see Thomas E. Skidmore, "Gilberto Freyre and the Early Brazilian Republic: Some Notes on Methodology," Comparative Studies in Society and History 6, no. 4 (1964): 490-505.

Carlos Guilherme Mota, Ideologia da cultura brasileira (1933–1974), 4th ed. (1978).

Luiz A. De Castro Santos, "A casa-Grande e o sobrado na obra de Gilberto Freyre," Anuário Antropológico /83 (1985), pp. 73-102, a review of critiques. Recent evaluations of Freyre's legacy include Richard M. Morse, "Latin American Intellectuals and the City, 1860–1940," Journal of Latin American Studies 10, no. 2 (1978): 219-238.

Gilberto Felisberto Vasconcellos, O xará de Apipucos (1987).

Roberto Da Matta, "A originalidade de Gilberto Freyre," BIB: Boletim Informativo e Bibliográ fico de Ciências Sociais 24 (1987): 3-10. There is self-analysis in Gilberto Freyre, Como e porque sou e não sou sociólogo (1968); and Tempo morto e outros tempos: Trechos de um diário de adolescência e primeira mocidade, 1915–1930 (1975), memoirs in the form of an edited diary.

Additional Bibliography

Araújo, Ricardo Benzaquen de. Guerra e paz: Casa Grande e Senzala e a obra de Gilberto Freyre nos anos 30. Rio de Janeiro: Editora 34, 1994.

Bocayuva, Helena. Erotismo à brasileira: Excesso sexual na obra de Gilberto Freyre. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 2001.

Chacon, Vamireh. A construção da brasilidade: Gilberto Freyre e a sua geração. Sao Paulo: Marco Zero, 2001.

Isfahani-Hammond, Alexandra. The Masters and the Slaves: Plantation Relations and Mestizaje in American Imaginaries. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Pallares-Burke, Maria Lúcia G. Gilberto Freyre: Um vitoriano dos trópicos. Sao Paulo: Editore UNESP, 2005.

                                           Dain Borges