(or, the why’s and whereof’s of a historical study of a nearly forgotten Brazilian newspaper)
The article that the editor of Panoramas have invited me to introduce examines a São Paulo newspaper during the first phase of its publication history (1915-1922) while making a series of interlinked arguments regarding the politics and culture of twentieth-century Brazil.1 I was both flattered and surprised by the invitation. But looking back, there was much that was surprising or otherwise unexpected about the article. To begin with, I never expected to write on the history of the press, much less on the afternoon newspaper O Combate. Having written the article, at points I never thought it would see print. Once published, it received varieties of generous attention I never anticipated, not least on the Twitter feeds of Pablo Piccato and Thomas Rath—my nearest brush with social-media fame and a very personal coup for someone often ridiculed by family, friends, and students for his cranky absence from the world of digital sociability.
Turning to the article, the abstract published in the Journal of Latin American Studieslays out what I see as its most significant contributions:
An examination of the Brazilian newspaper O Combate, this article accomplishes four goals. First, it defines the politics of a periodical long cited but little understood by historians. Second, it documents O Combate's place, alongside other ‘yellow press’ outlets, in the making of a ‘public sphere’ in São Paulo. Third, it situates the same publications' role in the bringing into being of a more commercial, publicity-driven press, which would shed the yellow press's radicalism and abet the collapse of the public sphere of its heyday. Fourth, it suggests that O Combate's radical republicanism was one fount of the democratic radicalism of the late 1920s and early 1930s, as well as of the regionally chauvinist constitutionalism of 1932–7. In this rare application of the ‘public sphere’ idea to twentieth-century Brazil, readers may also detect an account closer to Jürgen Habermas’ original formulation than that found in the historiography of nineteenth-century Spanish America.
I doubt I could put it any better now, more than a year after having reviewed the page proofs and thus “put the newspaper to bed” in more than one manner of speaking. I certainly couldn’t do it any more concisely. Rather than rehearse those four (4.5?) arguments at greater length, it might be more interesting to complement their summary statement with some background on the article, on how it came to be written and where it fits in with my current work.
O Combate was enough of a presence in the secondary literature on early twentieth-century Brazilian history that I knew it by title before beginning my dissertation research in São Paulo in 2000. At that point, I was looking at the rank-and-file politics of more or less “liberal-democratic” or “liberal-constitutionalist” movements of opposition to São Paulo’s early twentieth-century political order, nominally republican but structurally oligarchic through 1930 (and arguably for some years thereafter). Work in the archive of the opposition Partido Democrático de São Paulo (founded in 1926) yielded evidence of the newspaper’s reach; reading in hemerotecas (periodical collections) brought to my attention a world of press outlets that enriched my understanding of São Paulo in the 1910s and 1920s. Those press outlets included both newspapers and magazines; among the latter the most important was O Parafuso (1915-1921), which I first read in the hemeroteca of the Arquivo Edgard Leuenroth at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in early 2001—back then, the São Paulo archival collections that I was most interested in were inaccessible from before Christmas into late January or February, so even Unicamp’s limited inter-semestral accessibility beckoned. The first issue I looked at, for mid-April 1917, was choc-a-block with antigovernment screeds and appeals to the capital-p People; it also featured an article lauding Nereu Rangel Pestana, the editor of O Combate, a “modest daily,” with an “upright line [linha recta], whether in its manner of serving the people, whether in the sense of criticizing the errors of those in power.” Other issues in Unicamp’s collection proclaimed O Parafuso’s support for striking workers, wartime mobilization, and opposition politicians, while issuing strident criticism of local political bosses, unscrupulous employers, and the great and good of the ruling political machine, to which were added dashes of scandal and invective intended to pique reader interest, as well as caricatures of statewide powerholders that were scurrilous, spot-on, and accessible even to those who could not read. Firsthand examination of O Combate followed; it confirmed that it was the magazine’s afternoon-newspaper counterpart, somewhat more staid than O Parafuso, but still riotously opposed to São Paulo’s establishment and trafficking in the same kind of oft-lurid scandal and for-the-people politics, the latter of which was not entirely isolated from—for lack of a better word—“mainstream” politics.
The magazine was the subject of a master’s thesis I’d already read. Indeed, it would have been rude of me not to read it, for its author, Brás Ciro Gallotta, ran the reading room of the Instituto Histórico e Geográfico de São Paulo (IHGSP), the institution that retained possession of the Partido Democrático’s archive at that point. But Brás’s interests were different than mine. As indicated in the subtitle of his very fine thesis, his were “humor and criticism” rather than politics and political culture.2 I was interested, to take only one example, of the endorsement, by O Parafuso and O Combate, of the opposition presidential candidacy of Rui Barbosa in 1919, when the liberal elder statesman and compiler of the Brazilian constitution of 1891 positioned himself against the candidate of the country’s most powerful state machines and made his only significant statements addressing the new century’s “social question.” At that moment, at least, O Parafuso and O Combate—critical, for-the-people tribunes—found themselves in agreement with the sterling example of the state’s respectable press, O Estado de S. Paulo. Humor and criticism on their own could not account for this political alignment, but reading Brás’s thesis alongside the magazine afforded glimpses of the political culture that informed it, as well as the public mobilization that surrounded it. I hoped to find a similar shortcut for O Combate and so asked Brás, a ready source of information on the historiography of the Brazilian press, to direct me to something to read on the afternoon newspaper, a thesis or perhaps an article or articles. There wasn’t one, he said. Hmmm, that was going to make things more difficult, I thought.
When I returned to the United States in the summer of 2001, I brought with me reams of notes from the archives of the Partido Democrático (PD) and Rui Barbosa, among other organizations and individuals, together with transcriptions from periodical sources ranging from the labor-left press, to the neighborhood newspapers of the state capital, to such “yellow-press” kin of O Combate as A Capital, A Encrenca, O Sacy, and, of course, O Parafuso. In Cambridge, where I was then based (as a townie, not a student—my Ph.D. is from Brown), I would have access to O Estado de S. Paulo at Widener Library; in Washington, where my wife’s family lived, there was the Library of Congress’ microfilm of the Folha da Manhã, forerunner of today’s Folha de S. Paulo. To complement those resources, I brought back a microfilm collection of my own that included a copy of the Arquivo do Estado de São Paulo’s nearly complete collection of O Combate, on 19 reels covering the years 1915-1930.
In my dissertation, O Combate figured as a source in chapters tracing the sequential development of São Paulo’s republican politics and political culture, with a particular emphasis on the period from 1909-1910 through 1930, and as the subject matter of part of another chapter. The latter was a textual grab-bag of sorts, bringing together notes on several varieties and instances of political mobilization of the 1910s and 1920s that I wanted to understand on their own but that couldn’t easily be fitted into chapters that dealt more or less chronologically with the era of the First World War, the military rebellion of July 1924 and its aftermath, the founding and early successes of the PD, and the crises and climacterics of 1929-1930, nor in a conclusion that traced the state’s further history through 1932. I felt I needed to work on the politics of the “yellow press” on their own (and the same went for the neighborhood newspapers and for political parties ranging from the Partido Municipal de São Paulo [1916-1919] to the Partido da Mocidade [1925-1927]) until I understood them to my own satisfaction, before I could reinsert them into what was on its way to becoming “a broader treatment of [São Paulo] politics” through the first third of the twentieth century.3 (Had a secondary literature on these subjects existed, I would not have been led to that time-consuming extreme, but such are the hazards of the profession.) As far as the “yellow press” was concerned, its most important contributions to the politics of the 1910s and 1920s were bringing tens of thousands of readers unaddressed by such newspapers as O Estado de S. Paulo into a public sphere that spanned both kinds of press outlet, providing public sanction for the interests and concerns of such readers (and of many non-readers), and assisting in the elaboration of some of São Paulo’s most important political traditions. Without the “yellow press,” it becomes more difficult, if not impossible, to understand the unprecedented mobilizations of the war era, the enthusiasm many paulistas showed for the military rebels of the 1920s, and the successful organization of a statewide opposition party in 1926-1928 (the PD) where earlier attempts had failed (the Partido Republicano Dissidente of the first decade of the twentieth century, for example). Without the PD, in turn, the political, economic, and social crises of 1929-1930 would have looked much different in São Paulo and the “Constitutionalist Revolution” of 1932, Brazil’s last great regionalist revolt, would be inexplicable. That, at least, is the case I made first in the dissertation, later in a book of the same title, in which my treatment of O Combate and the yellow press of which it was a part is woven through revised versions of the chronologically laid-out chapters rather than appearing in the awkward, atemporal fashion of the dissertation.4
The first draft of the article on O Combate was written before I took on the most substantial of the revisions that resulted in the book. It then spent years in and out of drawers and boxes and word-processor files. From an initial draft of under 7,000 words it ballooned to more than 12,000. A leading journal took six months to get back to me with two readers’ reports, which delivered split verdicts after a delay that would be nearly criminal were the victim’s tenure in question. By that point, the book was out and I needn’t have published the article at all, and it would take further work to get it down to the wordcount that the Journal of Latin American Studies requires of manuscript submissions, which is why I hadn’t sent it to JLAS rather than the above-unnamed journal.
That I didn’t put it back in a drawer, this time for good, has several explanations, not all of them easy to share or summarize. The interest that the manuscript obtained in Brazil, on its own and as a talk at the University of São Paulo, where I spent the first semester of 2010 on a Fulbright grant, was encouraging. Brazil-based historians, after all, know the issues at hand far better than anyone else, save for one or two scholars in this country. That aspects of O Combate’s radical republicanism, and of certain of its radically democratic lines of descent, were politically and ethically appealing may have mattered too, especially at an earlier point, despite the long odds such politics confronted and continue to face (not for nothing did Irving Howe compare the commitment to democratic radicalism to waiting for the Messiah). These and other dispositions, however, were greatly outweighed by my becoming convinced through my work on what began as an unrelated project (a book on the early history of Brazilian consumerism) that the experience of O Combate and especially its Rio analogues (A Noite, O Imparcial) were crucial antecedents to the growth of a commercially driven, publicity-minded, and advertising-dependent press in Brazil, itself soon to be enveloped in the ridiculous neologism mídia, developments that constituted significant steps in the history of that country’s consumer capitalism. That São Paulo’s yellow-press outlets were agents of larger changes in the style of the broader São Paulo press of the 1910s had been clear to me going back to the dissertation and their contributions along those lines were mentioned in the first draft of my piece on O Combate, but it would take a good deal more reading, thinking, and writing about the history of twentieth-century Brazil to see how the stubbornly radical, ink-stained tribunes of the 1910s might have helped create conditions propitious for Madison Avenue and media conglomeration in the 1920s and after.
The ironies adhering thereto figure in the final pages of “Pages from a Yellow Press.” Having since assembled the chapters of my work-in-progress on consumer culture in Brazil through the mid-1970s, I remain more convinced than ever of the correctness of that argument. With any luck, that book will be in readers’ hands before too long. At that point, I hope I’ll be invited back to address Panorama’s readers once again. Who knows? Maybe someone will even tweet about it.
1 “Pages from a Yellow Press: Print Culture, Public Life, and Political Genealogies in Modern Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies 46/2 (May 2014): 353-379.
2 Brás Ciro Gallotta, “O Parafuso: humor e crítica na imprensa paulistana, 1915-1921” (tese de mestrado, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, 1997). The archival holdings of the IHGSP are now in the possession of the Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo, formerly the Arquivo do Estado de São Paulo.
3 “A Place in Politics: São Paulo, Brazil, from Seigneurial Republicanism to Regionalist Revolt” (Ph.D. thesis, Brown University, 2004), 2.
4 A Place in Politics: São Paulo, Brazil, from Seigneurial Republicanism to Regionalist Revolt (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009).