Introducing João Do Rio

A brief study of the author and his book ‘The enchanting soul of the streets’ by Mark Carlyon

“If Brazil is the land of poetry, its capital is the warehouse, the junk shop, the great department store of its poetic forms.”
João do Rio ‘The Muse of the Streets’

No other writer has become more identified with the city whose name he took as his pseudonym than João do Rio. A prolific journalist, he was actively engaged in its cultural and political issues. He was the first to describe a favela; the first to describe the rituals of candomblé . As a result of his articles, the first carnival contests were organized, at which he was one of the judges. He was the first to be sworn in as a member of the Academy of Letters wearing the uniform that has come to symbolize the Academy itself. It would be hard to be more carioca than João do Rio.

He was born João Paulo Coelho Barreto on August 5th, 1881, the son of Alfredo Coelho Barreto, a maths teacher and committed positivist – the philosophy then in vogue among liberals and republicans – and a sprightly, fun-loving mulatta, Florência dos Santos Barreto, to whom he became especially close after the premature death of his younger brother in 1898.

On June 23rd, 1921, a few days before his fortieth birthday, he died in a taxi, in the streets of the city he so vividly depicted. During his short lifetime, despite the relentless prejudice against him due to his colour and sexual orientation, João do Rio, the dandy of Brazil’s Belle Époque, changed the face of his country’s literature by irreversibly establishing journalism and the newspaper column as respected vehicles for serious writing; confounded his detractors by being elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1910, and conquered the hearts of the working class by espousing the causes of exploited immigrants, above all the Portuguese. An unprecedented fifty thousand people poured into the streets to pay tribute to the funeral cortège.

After studying at the best colleges in Rio (Mosteiro de São Bento and Colégio Pedro II) João do Rio contributed his first articles to A Cidade do Rio (‘The City of Rio’), a periodical founded by the distinguished mulatto abolitionist José do Patrocínio to provide a vehicle for the discussion of important national issues and a space for literature. It was this publication that provided the model for many of the later periodicals, including the Gazeta de Notícias (‘The News Gazette’) and Kosmos, in which the essays in ‘The Enchanting Soul of the Street’ originally appeared. The same year (1899) the young scholar committed an unfortunate indiscretion. Under the influence of Huysmans’ ‘À Rebours’ , he wrote his first short story, ‘Impotence’, about an ageing man’s repression of his homoerotic instincts. He realized too late that the quips and snide remarks that the story provoked could harm his prospects. These fears were to be confirmed three years later when his application to join the diplomatic corps was ‘diplomatically’ refused by the Baron of Rio Branco. The grounds, he later learned, were that he was “fat, coloured and homosexual.” These early setbacks reinforced his determination to make his mark on the literary scene of Rio, at that time presided over by the inaccessible, enigmatic figure of Machado de Assis.

It was on November 26th, 1903, that the twenty-two year old author first adopted the pseudonym João do Rio, when he signed an article in praise of reading on the first page of the Gazeta de Notícias. Between February and March 1904 he contributed a series of articles to the Gazeta under the title ‘The Religions of Rio’, published as an anthology later that year. The book caused a sensation. It not only touched on the taboo subject of the practice of magic among the Afro-Brazilian sects, but one of the rituals he related was so bizarre that it was openly challenged as pure invention. Shortly afterwards, however, the location was raided by the police, and everything that the author had written was shown to be true. ‘The Religions of Rio’ became a best-seller. For many years it was an indispensable source for any study of the Afro-Brazilian sects, receiving criticism from some for what they perceived as its ironic, prejudiced tone. It remains the author’s most famous work.

The articles published in ‘The Enchanting Soul of the Streets’ appeared in the Gazeta de Notícias and Kosmos between 1905 and 1907, and were published as an anthology in 1908. The writer organised the book in five sections. The first section is composed of ‘The Street’, the first and by far the longest essay in the collection, which was initially presented as a lecture in October, 1905. It is non-typical of the anthology due to its academic tone, bordering at times on an anthropological thesis; the last paragraph, however, ‘The Street of Bitterness’, finds the writer at his most inspired; a breathtaking piece of writing that must rank as one of the most powerful passages the author ever wrote. Sections two, three and four contain twenty-five articles, the majority of which investigate the lives of the underclass of the city at the turn of the 20th century. He observes the activities of petty criminals, visits opium dens at night, goes into prisons, talks to women and children who beg on the streets, travels to the islands in the bay where stevedores and coal diggers labour in the merciless sun. His long sentences and colourful prose, his concern with the masses of people who were simply ignored by ‘society’, and above all his delight at their views and their talent for expressing their aspirations (and anger) in verse, combine to give the reader an extraordinarily vivid picture of life on the streets of Rio de Janeiro at the time, unequalled by any other writer. The style, breathless and at times histrionic, is interspersed with poetic outbursts, in praise of the beauty of Rio’s landscapes or of its starlit sky. As he sets out on his harrowing visit to the opium dens, he describes the scene:

It was six in the evening, on the seafront. The sun was fading, the pallid air was filled with pastel blues; the outline of the city softened in the opal shades of the lovely afternoon. In the distance the mist wrapped itself around the forts, wound its way towards the heavens, gliding along the horizon in streaks of pink and mauve; and emerging from this paroxysm of colours, mottled in darker and paler shades, the Sugar Loaf, the Rock of São Bento, the Hill of Castelo shone in tranquil splendour.

Or, as he says farewell to the police chief who has guided him through the nightmarish hostels where the poor and homeless spend the night:

He mechanically offered his hand, and as our eyes followed that elegant gesture of worldly scepticism, we caught sight of the sky, embroidered with gold. All the stars were pulsating; above the rows of houses hung a cloud of dusty gold. And into the city, into that grievous, incurable wound, drops of light fell from the heavens like healing balm.

The fifth section, like the first, is composed of a single chronicle, also intended to be presented in the form of a lecture: ‘The Muse of the Streets’. In this fascinating essay João do Rio affirms that verse, or rather song, is the natural language of Brazilians in general, and of cariocas in particular. He traces the distancing of ‘erudite’ and ‘popular’ art by relating how the Muse got tired of the constraints of the aristocratic salons, and sought out the bars frequented by the masses. The bourgeoisie turned against her; she kept bad company and was a danger to their values. Here João do Rio, alongside his contemporaries Sílvio Romero and Melo Morais, is seen actively promoting the acceptance and appreciation of popular art forms by Brazilian society.

The ‘chronicles’ published in ‘The Enchanting Soul of the Streets’ were written in the aftermath of a period of great social upheaval. The apparent stability offered by the long reign and personal integrity of Dom Pedro II had been undermined by Brazil’s involvement in the Paraguayan War (1864-1870), during which the emperor’s disastrous alliance with the conservative faction had led to the liberals breaking with the monarchy and founding the Republican Party in 1871. These events culminated in the final victory of the abolitionists in a law signed by the emperor’s daughter on May 13th, 1888, that made no provision either for the compensation of slave owners or for the education or housing of the freed slaves. In an unholy alliance between the military, liberal republicans and the coffee-plantation elite, the monarchy was overthrown in a bloodless coup led by Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, and on November 15th, 1889, the Republic was founded. The monarchy was associated with slavery and a backward agrarian economy; those who aspired to industrialisation, modernisation and ‘civilisation’ were all fervent republicans, including liberals such as João do Rio’s father and João do Rio himself; but, as he observes in several of the essays in ‘The Enchanting Soul of the Streets’ (‘Tattoos’, ‘Old Coachmen’, ‘Prisoners’, Verses’) the sympathies of the people were overwhelmingly monarchist. Positivism, the philosophy developed by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) that discarded metaphysics, holding that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically proven, had been adopted by republicans and liberals alike; it even had its own temple, where solidarity between men and a belief in progress were preached. The Comtean slogan “Love as the principle, order as the means and progress as the end” was stamped across the new national flag with the words “Order and Progress”.

But the early years of the Republic were troubled times. In 1891 Deodoro da Fonseca argued with the coffee-plantation elite and closed the Congress. This led to an uprising in the navy that forced him to resign. His successor, Floriano Peixoto, ruthlessly crushed the rebellion; but the dissatisfaction within the navy at the political power of the army continued unabated. Marshal Floriano was succeeded by Prudente de Morais, a civilian who represented the coffee-plantation elite. His presidency was marked by the tragic episode of the War of Canudos (1896-97), during which federal forces ruthlessly crushed an uprising of 20,000 followers of a local holy man in the scrublands of the interior of Bahia. The massacre was justified by the supposed links of the backlanders to European monarchists, who were allegedly planning to invade Brazil and restore the Empire.

This anti-monarchist hysteria was still present during the presidency of Rodrigues Alves (1902-06), during which most of the essays included ‘The Enchanting Soul of the Streets’ were written. Rodrigues Alves implemented an ambitious plan to rebuild Rio de Janeiro in Parisian style, appropriate for the capital of a modern republic. Reforms were undertaken by the mayor Pereira Passos and the engineer Lauro Müller, who were given sweeping powers to demolish the old houses in the insalubrious centre of the town, to make way for a modern port and the grandiose central avenue called Avenida Central. No provisions were made either for compensation or for the relocation of the families that were removed. The spark that ignited the explosion of popular discontent came when the President, under pressure from his Health Minister Osvaldo Cruz, passed a law making vaccination against smallpox and yellow fever compulsory. The law allowed the sanitary brigades to enter homes accompanied by the police, and vaccinate people by force. The resulting ‘Revolt of the Vaccine’, during which the city was converted into a virtual battlefield with its streets barricaded, allied with an uprising of officers from the Military Academy, all but overthrew the government. The popular fury was exacerbated by the determination of the positivist republicans to outlaw the popular practices of candomblé and capoeira.

At the same time the city was undergoing the transformations that the technology of the new century had brought: advertisements hung from the rooftops; gas lighting replaced the traditional burning of whale-oil; horse-drawn trams were being replaced by electric ones; motor-cars began to appear alongside the old berlins and landaus, and the roar of gramophones(“that prodigy of the 19th century that has become a calamity of the 20th” as the author says in ‘Street Musicians’) blared out from bars and dancehalls across the town.

This is the context within which the Belle Époque dandy, scholar, journalist, poet and republican walks the streets of the city in the guise of a flâneur – an intelligent stroller – following in the footsteps of Balzac. In ‘The Street’ João do Rio describes it thus:

“Flâner! Here is a verb that is universal, that has no place in dictionaries, that belongs to no language! What does it mean? It means to be a vagabond; to gape, to reflect, to comment; to have the virus of observation combined with the virus of loitering.

Flâner is to wander around, morning, noon and night; mix with the throngs of people… converse with the singers of popular songs in the alleyways of Saúde after hearing the greatest tenor of the Lyric… admire the chalk figures painted on walls in front of the houses after accompanying a famous painter to see his great canvas, funded by the State; it is to be doing nothing and find it entirely necessary to go to some dismal place; to then decide not to go, on a simple whim, because you hear something that makes you smile, see an interesting face, or a young couple in love whose laughter causes envy.

Is it loitering? Perhaps. Flâner is the art of intelligent strolling. There is nothing like futility to make one artistic. So the idle flâneur always has ten thousand things on his mind; necessary, indispensible things that can be put off for ever.”

But beneath this dandy posturing lies the inquisitive mind of the investigative journalist, the self-promoter, who exposes the underbelly of society and unmasks its social injustice; and in the writing, the poet of the city is revealed.
In 1905, the year of the first articles in ‘The Enchanting Soul of the Streets’, João do Rio conducted interviews with the city’s leading writers for the Gazeta de Notícias which were later published in book form as ‘The State of Literature’ (O Momento Literário). The same year he translated a number of Wilde’s aphorisms, which he published as a ‘Breviary of Artificiality’. His first play, ‘Clotilde’ followed in 1907. In 1908 he made his first visit to Europe, visiting Portugal, London and Paris. A book of children’s stories (‘Once Upon a Time’ – 1909) and more anthologies (‘The Cinematographer’ – 1909; ‘Pall-Mall Rio – 1915) were to follow. In 1910, after two failed attempts, he finally succeeded in being elected to a seat in the Brazilian Academy of Letters. The following year, with Irineu Marinho , he founded the short-lived newspaper A Noite (‘The Night’). João do Rio went on to found the periodical Atlântida in 1915, to promote literary and social interchange between Portugal and Brazil; and in 1920 A Pátria (‘The Fatherland’) to defend the interests of the Portuguese community in Brazil.

In was in1916 that João do Rio played host to Isadora Duncan during her visit to Brazil. The two became so close that it was even rumoured that the dancer had ’straightened the author out.’ As they walked around the centre of the town they were followed by groups of young men who shouted out: “Long live Isadora Duncan!” and “Long live João do Rio!” In all likelihood, however, the affair was platonic. During her visit, apart from dancing naked at a waterfall in Tijuca, she took a tram to Copacabana at night and got off at the end of the line. From there she walked to the then deserted Ipanema, and from the rocks at Arpoador saw the breathtaking sight of the beach and the dunes, bathed in the moonlight. It was due to her enthusiasm that João do Rio bought a plot of land facing the rocks, where he later moved with his mother after his father’s death, becoming the first distinguished resident of Ipanema. It was there that the taxi was taking him when he suffered his fatal heart attack in June 1921.

João do Rio is sometimes referred to as ‘the Brazilian Oscar Wilde’. There is no doubt that he admired Wilde (who had died in 1900) and was prepared to risk the approbation of society by divulging the author’s work in Brazil. In 1908 (the year ‘The Enchanting Soul of the Streets’ was published) he translated ‘Salome’, and in 1911 ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. He also translated ‘Intentions’ (in 1912), a collection of essays that includes ‘The Decay of Lying’, ‘Pen, Pencil, and Poison’, ‘The Critic as Artist’ and ‘The Truth of Masks’. Like Wilde, João wrote a collection of children’s stories (‘Once Upon a Time’ – 1909), ‘decadent’ stories (‘Into the Night’ – 1910) and a series of plays (including ‘The Beautiful Madame Vargas’ -1912; ‘Eva’ – 1915; ‘What a Pity to Be Just a Thief’ -1915) in which he mimics the anaesthetised life of the bourgeoisie. Like Wilde, João do Rio was vilified and attacked by his detractors; chief among these was his contemporary, the journalist and poet Humberto de Campos (1886-1934), who launched a defamatory campaign with his parody of “Pall-Mall Rio”. When Campos was elected to the Academy of Letters in 1920, João do Rio boycotted the meetings there.

And also like Wilde, the persecution of João do Rio continued after his death. In 1925, Antônio Torres, in the introduction to his book ‘The Causes of the Minas Disloyalty’ , written in the wake of the celebrations of the centenary of the Declaration of Independence in 1822 and impregnated with anti-Portuguese sentiment, took the opportunity to recall the dead author in the following words:

Paulo Barreto was one of the vilest creatures, one of the basest characters, one of the most repugnant larvae I have ever known. He had no sense of morals. He had no gentlemanly feelings. He had not the slightest sense of pride… For money he was capable of committing the most contemptuous acts.

He continues to pour out his venom for almost three pages of print.

What Wilde and João do Rio most evidently had in common was their dandyism, their ready wit and their sexual orientation. But whereas Wilde was only parodied as walking down Piccadilly with a lily in his hand (“Anyone could do that,” he used to say; “the difficult thing to achieve was to make people think I had done it”), João do Rio actually walked along the Rua do Ouvidor wearing a white morning suit (as worn by Des Esseintes, the decadent hero of Huysman’s ‘À Rebours’) and made his appearance at the opera house dressed in a green jacket (imitating the central character of Jean Lorrain’s decadent novel ‘Monsieur de Phocas’).

João do Rio was a journalist, a poet and an entrepreneur, who explored the entrails of the city he loved and lived in. He is witty; but his wit is no rival for the aphorisms of Wilde. Wilde is only mentioned once in ‘The Enchanting Soul of the Streets’ (in ‘A Good Night’s Sleep’, as ‘having visited houses of ill repute’) and the anthology has just three examples of Wildean influence:

“…the great sorcerers of Central Africa who from the scorching deserts brought sacks of gold dust and great, magnificent monkeys to the British towns along the coast…” (‘The Street’);

“I felt transported back four hundred years, to the time when Dom Manuel brought offerings to the Pope of white elephants bedecked with gold…” (‘Nativity Plays’); and

“There is nothing like futility to make one artistic.” (‘The Street’).

The first two are the Wilde of ‘Salome’ and ‘A Florentine Tragedy’; the last is the Wilde of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

Rather than comparisons, it is perhaps the paradoxes that are most revealing: whereas Wilde’s instinct for self-preservation abandoned him completely, João do Rio’s was strengthened by adversity. Wilde, the darling of society, seemed to be set on being execrated and expelled; whereas João do Rio, the mulatto and outsider, was determined to be accepted and acclaimed. Against all the odds, both men succeeded.


1 Candomblé – one of the principal Afro-Brazilian cults.

2 Carioca – an inhabitant of the city of Rio; the adjective form of the proper noun Rio de Janeiro, as in ‘carioca life’, ‘carioca customs’ etc; from the Tupi-Guarani kari oca – house of the white man.

3 ‘À Rebours’ (Against Nature) – the ‘decadent’ novel that had influenced Oscar Wilde when writing ‘Dorian Grey’ and had been exhibited during his trial in 1895 as an example of a ‘sodomitical’ book.

4 “Gordo, amulatado e homosexual”

5 The Hill of Castelo, where the first settlers built the city, which was home to its first fortress and first cathedral, was demolished to make way for the centenary celebrations of Brazilian independence in 1922, thus removing the inconvenience of having a working class residential area in the shadow of the broad Haussmann-style avenues of the reconstructed city. Together with the demolishing of the Palácio Monroe in 1976, its removal is one of the greatest crimes against the natural and architectural heritage of Rio de Janeiro committed by the authorities who governed it.

6 The adoption of Positivism was an attempt by intellectuals to counter the widespread superstition in a traditionally Roman Catholic country where the line between the cult of the saints and the cult of the African Orishas was far from clear. In 1908, the year ‘The Enchanting Soul of the Streets’ was published, the religion known as umbanda, which is based on syncretism between the two, was founded by the medium Zélio Fernandino de Moraes. Foreign visitors to the country, who know nothing about these events in Brazilian history, are often intrigued that the national flag should display the words ‘Order and Progress’.

7 Irineu Marinho (1876-1925) – who in 1924 founded the most successful newspaper in the history of Rio: the ‘Globo’. His son Roberto Marinho (1904-2003) was to become Brazil’s most powerful media mogul.

8 Ironically, towards the end of his life Campos became very sick, and after a series of operations, went blind. He radically altered his sardonic style and dedicated his time to helping the poor. In 1937 the Brazilian medium Chico Xavier (1910-2002) published a best-selling book, ‘Chronicles from Beyond the Tomb’, which he claimed had been dictated from the astral plane by Humberto de Campos. This led to his being sued by Campos’ wife for the payment of royalties; the court however rejected her claim on grounds of insufficient evidence.

9 Antônio Torres (1885-1934) – jurist, politician, journalist and ferocious republican, was famous for his diatribes. He is, however, highly considered as a writer, and was one of the few intellectuals of the period who rejected the prevalent ‘scientific’ theories of racial inferiority.

10 A Inconfidência Mineira of 1789 – the first pro-independence conspiracy