Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) was a Brazilian sociologist and writer who proposed a new interpretation of Brazil and its past based upon a modern anthropological understanding of race.
Gilberto de Mello Freyre was born into a distinguished Catholic family on March 15, 1900, in Recife, Brazil. The distinctive characteristics of this northeastern region were to shape all his life and work. His father, a college professor, was a great admirer of Anglo-Saxon traditions and, after teaching English to his son, enrolled him in a Baptist missionary school run by Americans. Freyre's intelligence and conversion to Protestantism led his teachers to arrange a scholarship for in 1918 him at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Upon graduation Freyre headed for Columbia University, where he lost his religion but acquired a new enthusiasm: cultural anthropology. Professor Franz Boas had an especially deep influence upon him, and as his disciple Freyre learned that race mixture, rather than being the cause of Brazil's lack of development (as taught by then-prominent social Darwinists) was probably its highest achievement, whereas social and cultural factors, especially slavery, could account for the country's retardation. Freyre also became enthralled at this time by the possibility of interpreting Brazil by looking at its past. His master's thesis on social life in Brazil in the mid nineteenth century was published in English immediately upon completion.
After a year of traveling in Europe, Freyre returned to Brazil full of new ideas. One of them was the importance of regional differentiation within a country as large as Brazil. It was, he felt, by taking advantage of rich local traditions (from architecture to culinary arts) that Brazilians could maintain their identity in the face of an alienating modern world. With this in mind he organized a Regionalist Conference in Recife in 1925 and encouraged the development of local novelists, poets, and artists.
On a subsequent visit to the United States, Freyre traveled through the South, noted its similarities to his own northeast, and began to elaborate a broad thesis regarding the patriarchal origins of Brazil's social organization. In 1933 he published Casa grande e senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), in which he laid out this conceptual framework and richly illustrated it with primary documentation. He essentially described the relationship between Portuguese colonizers and their African slaves. He wrote in a personal style (almost stream of consciousness) that is sometimes repetitious and always disorganized but extremely effective in evoking a mood. In some ways Freyre tended to idealize the paternalistic relationship between masters and slaves, and this led to severe criticism. But the book won international acclaim for its author and gave all Brazilians a sense of national identity and of belonging together. It also made Freyre a household word among literate Brazilians.
Freyre was named to a chair in sociology at the University of Brazil and in 1936 published Sobrados e mucambos (The Mansions and the Shanties), a sequel to the earlier book in 1933. A third work in the series, Ordem e progresso, followed in 1959. In addition, he wrote extensively on sociological and sociohistorical topics and even published a novel and a book of poetry. Freyre was the prime mover in the first Congress of Afro-Brazilian Studies in 1934.
He was in his sixties when he turned to fiction and published his first novel, Doã Sinhá e o filho padre, subsequently translated as Mother and Son. Freyre's regular columns in various Brazilian newspapers later took on a very conservative tone. Although it is easy to disagree with him today, his critics sometimes forget his success in dislodging racist theories from prominence in Brazil at the very time they were taking on their most sinister proportions in Europe.
Freyre continued to write and lecture into his eighties. He was well recognized by American and European scholars as a sociologist, politician, and writer. Moreover, he has been acknowledged as the most influential Brazilian intellectual of this century. Freyre died July 18, 1987, in Recife. He was 87.
Freyre and his place in Brazilian literature are analyzed in John A. Nist, The Modernist Movement in Brazil: A Literary Study (1967), and Afrânio Coutinho, An Introduction to Literature in Brazil (trans. 1969). Freyre and his historical work are discussed at length in John Mander, The Unrevolutionary Society: The Power of Latin American Conservatism in a Changing World (1969). See also Jean Franco, The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist (1967).
Further information on Freyre can be found in Patricia Burgess, ed., The Annual Obituary 1987 (1990).