Gilberto Freyre is considered one of the major figures in Brazilian thought. His essays exemplify rigorous scientific training combined with a keen artistic sensitivity to provide the reader with a glimpse of Brazilian society, particularly that of the northeast region.

Freyre’s life and work spanned most of the 20th century; he witnessed at first-hand many of the changes that took place in his native country—revolution, dictatorship (benevolent and repressive), Modernism, political apathy, political diversification, and democracy.

Throughout this turbulent century, Freyre was a methodical observer of society, and most of his insights were new and controversial, although many have come to be seen as part of the “national lore.”

In 1926 he wrote the Manifesto regionalista de 1926 (pub. 1952; Regionalist manifesto), in direct opposition to the ideals proposed during the Week of Modern Art (1922) that marked the beginning of Brazilian Modernism. The Manifesto develops two interrelated themes: the defense of the region as a unit of national organization and the conservation of regional and traditional values in Brazil in general and in the northeast region in particular.

As a scientist, Freyre followed the path established by Euclides da Cunha concerning miscegenation in the formation of the “Brazilian race.” Freyre, however, was more methodical and scientific in his writings. His greatest work, Casagrande e senzala (1933; Masters and Slaves), earned him international acclaim as the most solid interpretation of interracial relations to that date. The publication of Masters and Slaves marked the beginning of rigorous science essay production in Brazil. Critics have named this book as the first to separate scientific essays from purely academic and critical essays. Although other writers had already begun to study and write essays with sociocultural content, Freyre has rightfully earned recognition as the “Father of Brazilian Sociology.”

The relationship between “masters” and “slaves” is the basic premise of all of Freyre’s theories. Indeed, he paved the way for many of the current ideas concerning modern cultural studies and postcolonial observations. Only through understanding the nature of oppression—whatever its source—can one comprehend one’s culture. Similarly, only through “reading” the oppressor’s text—the text of the master—can one begin to understand one’s own text. Freyre applied his own thesis in his interpretation of Brazilian society. Unlike many essayists who describe Brazil in terms of what happens in the main population centers—São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro —Freyre studies the “periphery” of Brazilian society, including his native northeast and the northern region of Brazil. Both regions represent the “slaves” within a society, with many internal and external “masters.” Indeed, he criticizes the Brazilian elite, who habitually adopted customs they judged to be modern, emphasizing the “foreign” (French) over the “national” (Brazilian).

Freyre’s discourse is sober and precise. He uses a limited vocabulary characterized by only the most necessary scientific terminology. Like Graciliano Ramos, he limits the use of adjectives, providing the reader with a discourse that mirrors the dry conditions of the society and culture he describes. While not subscribing to the racist views founded on European positivism, Freyre is conservative in his views, particularly those that deal with women’s roles. His much-studied “masters and slaves” thesis falls short of including women as oppressed beings within a patriarchal society. Women’s roles, according to Freyre, are limited to those of wives and mothers. Indeed, his most emphatic (and, one should add, least scientific) view is that the best and only books women ought to read are cookbooks, particularly those that have been in the family for a long time; this, Freyre believes, will preserve the moral fiber of the family.

Freyre’s essays influenced not only scientific writing in Brazil, but also the development of the northeastern regionalist novel. Such writers as José Lins do Rego, Rachel de Queiroz, and Jorge Amado have all mirrored in their novels the social context and the language found in Gilberto Freyre.

CARMEN CHAVES TESSER

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