A History of Modern Brazil: The Past Against the Future

COLIN M. MACLACHLAN:  Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2003.


Just a few short years ago, those insearch of a good history of Brazil in English had very few choices,and the principal option was the late E. Bradford Burns' AHistory of Brazil (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993,3rded.). How dramatically this has changed. As Burns' text becomes moredated, instructors and the general public now have a growing list ofalternatives. In just five years, five new histories have appeared:Thomas Skidmore's Brazil: Five Centuries of Change (1999),the late Robert Levine's A History of Brazil (1999), BorisFausto's A Concise History of Brazil (1999), and JosephSmith's A History of Brazil (2002). To this sudden spurtof texts we can now add Colin MacLachlan's A History of ModernBrazil.

Although he wrote a dissertation oncolonial Mexico, as a graduate student at UCLA in the sixties,MacLachlan came under Burns' mentorship. (For the sake of disclosure,I should note that I was a student of Burns at UCLA in the lateseventies and early eighties.) A longtime professor of history atTulane University, MacLachlan is primarily a scholar of Mexico, buthe has published on Brazil as well. He is one of those rare scholarswho knows both Spanish and Portuguese America well. MacLachlan is nota newcomer to works of synthesis. With William Beezley he hasco-written El Gran Pueblo: A History of Greater Mexico(3rded., 2004) and with Jaime Rodríguez he co-wrote TheForging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico(1980). His Spain's Empire in the New World (1988) isanother sweeping overview that synthesizes a vast amount ofliterature on ideas and social change. Clearly, MacLachlan is notafraid to take on large topics.

A History of Modern Brazilis clearly aimed at the classroom. In less than 250 pages, MacLachlanmoves through two centuries of Brazilian history in eight chapters.Interspersed through the text are five vignettes to illustrate keypoints (on Pedro II, Copacabana Beach, Alberto Santos-Dumont, therain forest, and Toyota) and some helpful photographs. A usefulchronology and glossary are at the beginning of the book, and aselected bibliography at the end. MacLachlan jumps right into thestory with the declaration of independence in 1822. Just a few briefpages provide background on the colonial period. (In comparison, theSmith and the Skidmore volumes at least have a chapter on thecolonial background.) A single chapter covers imperial Brazil, twothen survey the rise and demise of the First or Old Republic. Nearlytwo-thirds of the book is on the period since 1930. Chapter Fourcovers Getúlio Vargas and his legacy, Chapter Five looks atmilitary rule, and Chapter Six is devoted to the return of civilianpolitics. Chapter Seven focuses on "Brazil in the New Century,"and the final chapter provides a sort of synthetic reflection on thematerial covered in the first seven chapters.

Muchlike Burns, MacLachlan strives to move beyond the usual political andeconomic narratives that so often characterize textbook histories.Music, dance, soccer, radio, television, gender, race, and many othertopics add to the standard political narrative. He does a fine jobbringing popular culture into the story. Unlike Burns, literature isvirtually absent from this survey, and the bibliography –noMachado de Assis nor Jorge Amado here. MacLachlan writes in a clearand fluid style, but sometimes mentions topics or issues before hehas adequately introduced them to the reader (e.g., positivism or the1937 coup). Some students may be puzzled at times by the flow ofevents and the connections with key issues (e.g. slavery and theParaguayan War). At times, the coverage is too concise. The bookcould also have been more closely proofread. Overall, however, thisis another welcome addition to the growing list of histories ofBrazil.

Marshall C. Eakin Vanderbilt University

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