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Reviewed by:
  • Roots of Brazil by Sérgio Buarque de Holanda
  • Dylon Robbins

Dylon Robbins, Sérgio Buarque De Holanda, G. Harvey Summ, Tropics, Periphery, Colony, Empire, Republic

holanda, sérgio buarque de. Roots of Brazil. Trans. G. Harvey Summ. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 2012. xxxv + 192 pp.

For many, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s (1902–1982) classic Raízes do Brasil (1936) hardly needs an introduction. Brazilianists will know it and its significant influence and reception. And many other Latin Americanists may likewise know it through its Spanish translation (1955) published by Fondo de Cultura Económica. It is, furthermore, a text that has enjoyed numerous reprints in both Portuguese and Spanish, in addition to its other translations to Italian (1954), Japanese (1971), German (1995), and French (1998). Its recent translation to English (2012) would seem somewhat overdue, and G. Harvey Summ’s smooth rendering of this central [End Page 330] text in Brazilian intellectual history is a very welcome arrival. Not only does this translation include Holanda’s original prefaces to subsequent editions, but also an essay on Roots by Antonio Cándido, an afterword by Evaldo Cabral de Mello, and a new preface for English readers by Pedro Meira Monteiro. This new translation of a classic text refreshes a sense of the field while bringing it within the reach of readers whose command of other languages might hinder their comprehension of what remains, despite some of the author’s inevitably more dated insights and ethno- or androcentric oversights and assertions, a comparatively sophisticated and wide-reaching analysis.

Roots of Brazil does not provide an image of a festive, picturesque, or dancing Brazil, but rather, a different notion of the tropics as periphery, as the relationships between culture and agriculture, about the transition from Colony to Empire to Republic, about the perceptions of lettered culture, its otherwise superficial prestige, and about a notion of public and private that challenges conventional models of civil society and political discourse. Sérgio is, at this earliest juncture of his formidable intellectual trajectory, on the left side of official discourse without departing entirely from it. He is critical of national political currents in the eventual formation of the Brazilian state, while not moving, save a few exceptions, beyond the textual evidence and concerns of what is, by his own description, a relatively circumscribed elite.

As the title announces, it sets forth to explore the origins of Brazil, regarding which Sérgio will boldly assert from the very opening of his discussion:

In the Brazilian case, no matter how unattractive it may seem to some of our compatriots, in truth we are still associated with the Iberian Peninsula, especially Portugal, through a long and active tradition, active enough even today to nourish our common soul, despite all that separates us. We can say that the present form of our culture came from there; all other elements were adapted as best they could to that culture.


And yet it would be misguided to assume that he calls upon static, homogenous, or categorical notions of the Iberian in elaborating his discussion. It is, in fact, just the contrary. Sérgio’s Iberia is a porous Mediterranean crossroads traversed not only by Moorish, Jewish, and Catholic influences, but, more significantly in the Portuguese case, by centuries of a sub-Saharan African presence within its borders. This is the unexpected facet of the text’s first chapter, “European Frontiers,” which implicitly suggests a range of frontiers both within and beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Through his discussion one may perceive how his notion of frontier expands beyond political or ethnic boundaries and comes to include as well the more fluid [End Page 331] social differences he suggests as characterizing Portugal in the Early Modern period.

In the second chapter, “Work and Adventure,” he forwards the proposition that we may divide “societies into two diametrically opposed principles that regulate human activity: those of the adventurer and those of the worker” (14). It is the expectations of the adventurer, and “his” notion of effort and reward, that explain in certain measure the specific approach of the Portuguese colonizers, one characterized by a...


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