Metropolis by the sea – Modern Rio in the 20s

George Grosz, Blood Is the Best Sauce (Die Kommunisten fallen - und die Devisen steigen) from the portfolio God with Us (Gott mit uns) 1919, published 1920


Commentary on the book by Ruy Castro

Everything is beautiful in this book: cover, internal images, text between reportage and chronicle, the city itself. Written at a time when the still beautiful Rio de Janeiro suffers so much from militiamen, corrupt rulers, negligent businessmen and other far from modern disasters, the volume speaks of a good, festive dream, splendor, the spectacle of wealth.

Looks like a Brazilian version of the Roaring Twenties or A moveable feast – the second expression is the title of Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous book about Paris at the same time (HEMINGWAY, Ernest. paris is a party. Brazilian Civilization).

A journalist, Castro is not and does not claim to be a historian. The Great War (1914/1918) seems to him to be the decision of rulers or national states as subjects; the Spanish flu is an experience that equally affects all human groups (today it would be “in the same boat”), without nuances of treatment or prospects of survival among them.

There are no social classes in the book; the first mention of the impossibility of doing something due to lack of money appears on p 98; in this case, Eugenia Brandão, later Eugênia Álvaro Moreyra, not having attended schools because she had been orphaned by her father since she was 10 years old; most Brazilian children with living parents experienced this impossibility.

Although Ruy says that the war was the outcome of Belle Epoque, such an expression ends up synthesizing such a profusion of beauty. And, foreshadowing a polarization between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the book There's a drop of blood in every poem, by Mário Sobral (pseudonym of Mário de Andrade), does not appear as a Brazilian antiwar manifestation.

There is a strong dose of “social column” (a journalistic genre valued in that Rio de Janeiro, dedicated to celebrating the rich and famous) in the work, which describes the daily life and private life of this universe – the aforementioned spectacle of those who had time and money for those silks, those ones drinks, those hotels, those leisures. Even in the XNUMXst century, a significant portion of Rio's population does not have running water or a sewage system, but this disappears in the volume's vague allusions to poor generics.

Castro presents his Rio de Janeiro through strategic characters, with an emphasis on rich hostesses who control cultural scenes, four hundred high-sounding surnames and successful blacks and mulattos in high social spheres, a subtle denial of racism and other prejudices; João da Cruz e Sousa, who published missals e bucklers in 1893, he was not invited to join the Academia Brasileira de Letras, created in 1897; but the integration of black Brazilians into the Press is reaffirmed by Ruy on p 338. Some more ill will towards socially unsuccessful people, a situation seen as a personal problem for each one; it is worth asking whether such people were just failures.

João do Rio and Lima Barreto, located on opposite scales in these assessments, had their texts little interpreted, only referred to. [1] José Oiticica (1882/1957), described by Castro, was anarchist, atheist, defended “divorce (…), free love (…) unions without marriage (…), kidnapping of Catholic Church assets (…), agrarian reform, the internal debt default (…)”. The journalist concludes that “his other side – his exact opposite – saved him (…) a brilliant professor of philology and linguistics at Pedro II. He preached obedience to the classical writers and to the canons of the language (…). Married with all the civil formalities (…)” (CASTRO, p. 95/96).

I understand that, instead of the professor saving the anarchist, each “side” existed because of the “other” of the same. And why consider that militancy a “doom”? The probable answer lies in Ruy's identification with values ​​and institutions opposed by the anarchist – family, Catholic Church, State, property –, which is his right as a conservative militant.

Castro interprets Anarchism and Socialism (more Communism later) in Brazil as fruits of European diffusion through immigration; he separates “the majority of these immigrants (who) would dedicate themselves to earning a peaceful living” from the anarchists, perpetrators of attacks. He loses sight of nuances between different currents of Anarchism, alien to such practices, and estimates the set of those men and women in “two hundred militants in the country”. He then records the strikes of 1917 and 1919 in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, speaking of 50 workers paralyzed on the last date, an astonishing result for the action of just two hundred militants…

Young talents, almost all with university education, periods of study in Europe and rising prestige (Ronald de Carvalho, Dante Milano, Manuel Bandeira, Alberto Di Cavalcanti, etc.), deserve another welcome in the book: “None of them had subsistence problems” , asset and quality (CASTRO, p. 123).

Di Cavalcanti deserves special attention as organizer of the 1922 Modern Art Week in São Paulo: he encouraged Anita Malfatti to exhibit her expressionist paintings, introduced Oswald de Andrade to Malfatti, suggested that activity to Paulo Prado (who gathered São Paulo sponsors), guaranteed the carioca presence at the event, with names as important as Heitor Villa-Lobos, Manuel Bandeira and Ronald de Carvalho, among others.

Di Cavalcanti's strong presence at the Modern Art Week is traditionally recognized. Castro's emphasis means highlighting the primacy of Rio de Janeiro in Brazilian modernity. In addition, Mario de Andrade's conservative postures are highlighted, with an emphasis on Catholic moralism, without mentioning homoeroticism.

It would be worth thinking about a process that went beyond the Rio de Janeiro/São Paulo duality and embraced the country: Pará (Ismael Nery – referred to in photographs and text, already at the time he lived in Rio de Janeiro), Rio Grande do Norte (Luís da Câmara Cascudo), Pernambuco (Vicente do Rego Monteiro, mentioned in the text, with emphasis on Paris), Minas Gerais (Carlos Drummond de Andrade, mentioned in the text), Rio Grande do Sul (Augusto Meyer) and others. Câmara Cascudo ensured contact between Mario de Andrade and Argentine vanguardists, with whom he corresponded. Such states were not satellites of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Modernity could be born from all of them.

Information about women writers and feminist pioneers is restricted to the universe of the elites, without mentioning Anarcha-feminism as the universe of the specific demands of women workers for rights. When he says that “The women of Rio (…) were going out to work”, the author mentions “offices, stores and public services” (p. 275), not knowing the factories and farming of the poorest people since before.

In a similar sense, comments on the theatrical field ignore staging in spaces other than formal rooms, part of anarchist, socialist and communist militancy. One of the elite feminists, Deolinda Daltro, was satirized by Lima Barreto in the novel Numa and the nymph through the character Florinda Seixas, who led public demonstrations of drunken indigenous people – Castro did not record this, although he indicates the book (p. 348). When mentioning Chico Guanabara, Fluminense fan, “mixed race, capoeira profession – bully for hire (...) almost a miscreant” (p. 297/298), the character Lucrécio Barba de Bode, from the same novel, with some of these traits and lack of future, could also be remembered.

The writer presents abundant erotic literature produced at the time and concludes that “sex, even clandestine, was not a sin”, although he highlights a magazine of the genre with the name The Apple, allusion to biblical guilt: sin excited. And the adjectives about these works (“almost all magnificent”, p. 228) keep the reader short of arguments. The problem is repeated in the statement about “I regret nothing”, by Louis Guglielmi and Edith Piaff, is a plagiarism of “Amar a uma só mulher”, by Sinhô (p. 379), which would be more understandable if accompanied by scores and identification of notes and bars.

The book ends with the so-called Revolution of 1930, without mentioning the crash of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929 and the great world economic crisis that followed. A final statement summarizes the conception of Rio de Janeiro as the center of the country: “Rio had done its part – it had moved Brazil forward.” (p. 426). Being a city that received Brazilians from all states and foreigners from many countries, who moved Rio forward?

It was a modernity under the Law of Repression of Anarchism (Epitacio Pessoa administration), State of Siege (Person and Arthur Bernardes administrations) and Celerada Law (Washington Luís administration), but this hardly appears or figures in Castro's pages.

Rio de Ruy is fascination and fact divers.. [2] Beautiful weather? For most, maybe it was temporary…

* Mark Silva He is a professor at the Department of History at FFLCH/USP.


Ruy Castro. Metropolis by the sea – Modern Rio in the 20s. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2019.


[1] There was no time for Ruy to incorporate, for example, SANTOS, Poliana. The people and the paradise of the wealthy – Rio de Janeiro, 1900/1920 – Chronicles and other writings by Lima Barreto and João do Rio. Doctoral thesis. FFLCH-USP.

[2] Cf. BARTHES, Roland. “Structure of news item”, in: Critical essays. Translation by Antonio Massano and Isabel Pascoal. Lisbon: Editions 70, 2009.

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