Thursday, August 1, 2013

Research Update: The Best Part

Reading in the Special Collections Library
I AM SO EXCITED RIGHT NOW! I just got home from spending several lovely hours in Boulder's Special Collections Library where I discovered 6 boxes full of the small Brazilian chapbooks I love. I am so glad I brought my camera because they allowed me to take photographs of the beautiful xilogravura artwork that adorn these chapbooks. (Apparently, their policy is changing soon, however, and in the future I will likely not be able to take my own photos of the books- so today I clicked away as much as I could!)

I am in the process of doing research for an article (and maybe a dissertation??) in which I will be writing about this literary art form. I think that working with the primary texts is the absolute best part of any research project; finding these books right in my own library was like finding fifty dollars in your pocket... no, it was like finding fifty dollars and a chocolate cake in your pocket.

Reading history and beginning to write your own thoughts is great, too, but there is something so completely satisfying about taking in the books you love-- smelling them, touching the cheap delicate paper they were printed on, beginning to read, for your first time, at the top of the very first page.
From A intriga do Cachorro com Gato ("The Thriller of Dog and Cat") by José Pacheco. Art by José Francisco Borges. 
Three hours just flew by in the library as I read from these little poetry pamphlets-- the one pictured above was about a man who made his living as a repentista, or improvisational singer, who began an improv singing battle with a strange man... who turned out to be the devil! Each pamphlet had a new, rhymed story to explore... I read so many of them that my very thoughts became rhymed and rhythmic!
From Peleja de Riachão com o Diabo ("The Musical Duel of Riachão and the Devil") by Leando Gomes de Barros
From Milton e Cléa ("Milton and Cléa") by Luis da Costa Pinheiro. Art by Erivaldo.
From Os amores de Chiquinha e as Bravuras de Apolinário ("Chiquinha's Love Life and Apolinário's Brave Life)
Many of these chapbooks are first edition, published by Academia Brasileira de Literatura de Cordel (ABLC) and the others are re-released versions of classic cordel literature, reprinted by this same organization. In fact, the 6 boxes of books that the Special Collecitons Library had are available through their website here. The boxes of books are grouped by topic (such as bandits, humor, science and politics, etc.) and they each contain a collection of 10-20 chapbooks. Their website says they are 30 reais per box, which comes to about $15 US. (By the way, I ACCEPT CHRISTMAS PRESENTS EARLY.)

From Chico Xavier, o Maior Médium do Mundo Morre nos Braços do Povo ("Chico Xavier, the World's Greatest Spiritual Medium, Dies in the Arms of the People") by Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva. Art by J. Victtor. 
From A Peleja de Boa Voz com o Cantador Misterioso ("The Musical Duel of Boa Voz and the Mysterious Singer") by Victor Alvim Itahim Garcia. Art by Erivaldo.
From A Pérola Sagrada ("The Sacred Pearl") by João Martins de Athayde
I am so happy that the ABLC exists. Not only do they publish new cordel literature, they also make these collections available, publish scholarly books on cordel, publish anthologies of hundreds of cordel poems, and they update their site regularly with videos of musical recitations of cordel that take place in their cordel bookstore. (I must, must, MUST go there.)

I am not aware of any other organizations who attempt to preserve and promote this art form to the same extent; they are ensuring that literatura de cordel will not slowly fade away into obscurity, a lost cultural bit of heritage. Rather, they are inviting young people to be a part of learning cordel's history and participating actively in its future...

From Zé Baiano, Ferredor de Gente ("Zé Baiano, the Stabber") by Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva. Art by Erivaldo.

From Lambada no Inferno ("Lambada in Hell") by Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva. Art by Erivaldo.
Definitely check out the ABLC website to peruse their projects and resources.

Oh, and by the way, the "Research Update" is going to become yet another new feature here on the blog. You can expect them to get more frequent the deeper I go into the library and my various projects.

<All the translations in this post are my own.>
<The two smaller pictures are, from right to left, as follows: 1) From Jararaca, o Cancaçeiro Militar ("Jararaca, the Military Bandit") by Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva; art by Erivaldo. 2) From A Mulher que deu Tabaco na Presença do Marido ("The Woman who Smoked Weed in Front of her Husband") by Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva.

Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!


  1. I am fascinated by the existence of the duel with the devil that pops up all over the place in folk literature. Obviously, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is the first that comes to mind, but many others appear across literary genres and geographical space. The two variations seem to be the one that you mention in the blog in which a musician duels the devil, and often defeats him. What's interesting is that the devil usually fights fair in these battles, and accepts defeat. Is that true of the cordel narrative that you read? There is a ghost story from coastal N.C in which the fastest horseman in town races a mysterious visitor (who is later conjectured to be the devil). As the local horseman is about to win the race, his horse suddenly veers off course and rams into a tree, killing both horse and rider. They say the hoof prints are there to this day….

    The second variation that comes to mind also deals with a musical rendezvous with the devil from which we have the colloquial phrase, "selling one's soul to the devil". Robert Johnson, the legend of the Mississippi Delta Blues, is said to have sold his soul to the devil, and interestingly his death at the age of 27 remains intriguingly shrouded in mystery. Also, Calderón's El mágico prodigioso tells of a young magician, Cyprian, who makes a deal with the devil in order to become a master of the dark arts. He, however, realizes his mistake and ends up overcoming it and later is martyred for his Christian faith. I suppose both he and Johnson endured early and scandalous deaths, now that I think about it.

    Anyway, what is the message? It is interesting that there is no determined ending to the devil narratives, in which protagonists sometimes overcome the temptations of ol' Satan, and sometimes do not. I think there is a powerful message in that. As we see folks across time and space dealing with this question, the greater narrative is that while evil is not to be taken lightly, we do in fact have the ability to quash its dominion over us.

    Thanks for the study break!

    1. Fascinating thoughts on the backlands devil narrative!

      In the cordel poem I read, the mortal man is able to overcome the devil, but not without significant internal distress-- there is a whole series of stanzas devoted to the man's internal thoughts about who he is battling with and how terrified he is of the devil... I think the importance given to his internal struggle points to the fact that, ultimately, the "real" battle is Man's internal struggle. A battle for a man's soul can only be won outwardly if that man loses his own internal battle with pride, fear, or greed. The devil has laid his trap, he has already surrounded his adversary with temptation, which is why he can "play fair" when dueling. The devil will be obligated to accept defeat if Man can win his internal battle.

      Moreover, I think the most important element about the trope of the crossroads devil is that he always appears initially as a "stranger." Inevitably, man realizes there is something uncannily familiar about this stranger, and that in fact he is no stranger at all... Man both recognizes the devil and sees himself in the devil (hence the devil appears as a human being). It is for this reason, that sometimes man himself switches roles with the devil and succeeds in tricking the devil in order to escape him...

      I was reading an article I think you would enjoy about this very type of devil-narrative, only in the Romanian tradition. ["The Devil in Roumanian Folklore" by Agnes Murgoci and Helen B. Murgoci] From that article:

      "For humans pure goodness is rather beyond reach, and so even the Devil is thought of with some sympathy. It is also considered wise to keep in with the Devil, not only in case of future necessity, but also because, besides being clever, he is a person of good faith in his dealings. In his good faith he is often let down and cheated by man, and more so by woman, who is said to "out devil the Devil," and can even turn the Devil's hair white."

  2. I think that's pretty neat. May we continue in our pursuit to turn the devil's hair white.