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A Brief History of Literatura de Cordel Doe Library Exhibition, University of California, Berkeley

The Exhibit Narrative

Case I. Introduction to the world of literature on a string: Literatura de Cordel

Só a antropofagia nos une. Socialmente. Economicamente. Philosophicamente. Unica lei do mundo. Expressão mascarada de todas as individualismos, de todos os collectivismo. De todas as religiões. De todos os tratados de paz. Tupy or not tupy that is the question.[1] -- Oswald de Andrade, Manifesto antrpofago in Revista de Antropofagia (São Paulo, Brasil). No.1 (May. 1928) 

Since the 1928 publication of Manifesto Antropófago by Brazilian poet Oswaldo de Andrade, the concept of antropófagia or “literary cannibalism” pejoratively describes the local reinterpretation of primarily European literary traditions transplanted in Brazil during the Portuguese colonial period. As such, it represents a distinctly Brazilian, modern reaction to colonialism. It is this drive of Brazilian Modernism to assert an intellectually independent postcolonial Brazilian identity through literature that I would like to showcase in this exhibit. In particular, I will highlight the connections between the modernist Brazilian movement with the late 19th-century Brazilian print tradition called Literatura de Cordel. While the Manifesto Antropófago has since become a foundational text of Brazilian Modernism, Literatura de Cordel has emerged as one of the well-recognized Brazilian folk traditions. 

The name Literatura de Cordel, or “literature on a string,” comes from the practice of street vendors to hang chapbooks and pamphlets on strings so customizers can browse them easily. Usually, these are displayed during regional fairs. These Brazilian chapbooks and pamphlets were brought to the New World by the first Portuguese colonists and derive their origins from the Portuguese print tradition of Papel volante or “flying paper,” a form of popular stories printed as chapbooks from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries in an eight-page quarto format. In Brazil, Literatura de Cordel echoes a unique blend of folk poetry traditionally conveyed orally until its appearance in print in the late 19th century. In this specific sense, Literatura de Cordel is the Brazilian answer to the predicament that Oswald de Andrade poses in his Manifesto Antropófago-- “Tupy or not Tupy!” The Tupi (Tupy) people were a dominant indigenous people in Brazil. They were divided into several tribes which would constantly engage in war with each other. In these wars, the Tupi would normally try to capture their enemies to later kill them in cannibalistic rituals. The warriors captured from other Tupi tribes were eaten as it was believed that such acts would lead to their strength being absorbed and digested, thus in fear of absorbing weakness, they chose only to sacrifice warriors perceived to be strong and brave. 

Literatura de Cordel never claimed to be a hallmark or product of Brazilian Modernism, but rather a continuation of the tradition that came from the Continent but with a unique Brazilian twist. In reality, seemingly European themes were transformed into Brazilian popular culture and folk literature themes.

According to Professor Mark Curran's introduction to Cordel on his website, "Brazil’s Literatura de Cordel is folk-popular poetry (meaning from both the oral and written traditions) which thrived in Northeastern Brazil for most of the twentieth century. It is written by humble, backlands poets or urban poets, most with very limited formal schooling, but with the “gift” of verse. The pioneers of cordel were from the Northeastern states of Paraíba and Pernambuco, and many were steeped in the oral tradition of the cantador or improviser of oral verse in the Northeastern poetic duel. The poets created their stories in verse, generally in six or seven-line strophes with xaxaxa rhyme and took them to the local printing shops. The shops printed the poems in chapbooks of 8, 16, or 32 pages, illustrated the covers with decorative type until the 1920s, postcard scenes and pictures of Hollywood movie stars from the 1930s to the 1950s, and most recently and most commonly, folk woodcuts. The poet received a share of the copies printed and sold the story-poems called Livro de Feira or Folheto de Feira in the local country fair and town and city markets throughout the Northeast. He would set up a stand displaying the booklets of verse and then sing or recite the poem to the public. The center of cordel became Recife, Pernambuco, with poets and their “agents” traveling to most of the towns in the Northeast interior to sell the verse. But because the Northeast was plagued by drought and economic hardship, the poets migrated along with millions of others to the Amazon Basin, the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and finally to the new capital of Brasília. Thus cordel became known throughout a large part of Brazil and represents the best of the Brazilian folk-popular tradition." 

The pamphlets of "Literatura de Cordel," can be broadly classified in several different subject areas. These are as follows, Religious Stories, Love Stories, Profane Tales and Pelejas (Poetic Contests).

Case II. A Brief History of Literatura de Cordel

According to the finding aid that was created by the UCLA's Young Research  Library and mounted on the Online Archives of California, "scholars such as Candace Slater, Mark J. Curran, and Umberto Peregrino argue that, while the content and material form of these pamphlets resemble chapbook-like materials that were imported from Portugal in the mid-19th century, the practice of storytelling in the Northeast has its origins in songs that date back to the 1750’s. Singing poets, like the notorious family of Antonio Ugolino Nunes da Costa in Teixeira, Paraíba, participated in lively on-the-spot poetic duels called cantoria de repentista or cantoria de viola, where competitors worked to outwit one another both musically and verbally.

According to Curran, "the first printed Brazilian pamphlets appeared in the late 1800’s and were not widely spread until a period of accelerated production halfway through the 20th century. Small publishers like Francisco Rodrigues Lopes, who started Editora Guajarina in Belém, Pará in 1914, bought equipment and created businesses out of the production and distribution of poems and woodblock illustrations. José Bernardo da Silva, another successful editor, started Tipografia São Francisco as a small operation in Juazeiro do Norte in 1932, but as he purchased the rights to other small printers’ archives the company grew into a thriving business in the 1950’s. During the next several decades Literatura de Cordel began to appear in new contexts as well. Other kinds of institutions like the Casa das Crianças de Olinda in Olinda, Pernambuco commissioned poets and illustrators to make pamphlets, and state-funded initiatives, like the Programa Nacional de Melhoramento da Cana-de-Açucar (National Program for Improving Sugar Cane) in Maceió, Alagoas, hired poets to write cordel with the purpose of educating people about new agricultural and industrial practices. Towards the 1980’s similar initiatives for public safety generated versions of cordel that teach people about AIDS, sexual health, and substance abuse. During this time both international and local historians began to consider the tradition as a valuable part of popular Brazilian culture."[1]

[1] Curran, Mark J. "Brazil's Literatura de Cordel: Its Distribution and Adaptation to the Brazilian Mass Market." Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Janet Witalec, vol. 134, Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 4 Nov. 2016. Originally published in Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, vol. 1, 1982, pp. 164-178.

Case III. A Selected Bibliography


Arantes, Antonio Augusto. 1982. O Trabalho E a Fala : Estudo Antropológico Sobre Os Folhetos De Cordel. São Paulo, SP: Editora Kairós : FUNCAMP.

Campos, Alda Maria Siqueira. 1998. Literatura De Cordel E Difusão De Inovações. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Editora Massangana.

———. 1998. Literatura De Cordel E Difusão De Inovações. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Editora Massangana.

Crispiniano Neto,,. 2009. Lula Na Literatura De Cordel. Fortaleza, Ceará, Brasil: Editora IMEPH.

Duarte, Manuel Florentino. 1976. Literatura De Cordel.. São Paulo: Global.

Franklin, Jeová. 2007. Xilogravura Popular Na Literatura De Cordel. Brasília: LGE Editora.

Koshiyama, Alice Mitika. 1972. Análise De Conteúdo Da Literatura De Cordel: Presença Dos Valores Religiosos.. São Paulo: Universidade de São Paulo, Escola de Comunicações e Artes [Departamento de Jornalismo e Editoração].

Lima, Egídio de Oliveira. 1978. Os Folhetos De Cordel. João Pessoa: Editora Universitária/UFPb.

Luyten, Joseph Maria. 2005. O Que É Literatura De Cordel. São Paulo, SP: Editora Brasiliense.

Machado, Franklin de C. 1984. O Cordel Televivo : Futuro, Presente E Passado Da Literatura De Cordel. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Codecri.

Peregrino, Umberto. 1984. Literatura De Cordel Em Discussão. Rio de Janeiro-RJ: Presença.

———. 1984. Literatura De Cordel Em Discussão. Rio de Janeiro-RJ: Presença.

Slater, Candace. 1982. Stories on a String: The Brazilian Literatura De Cordel. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 1984. A Vida no Barbante : A Literatura De Cordel no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira.

Sousa, Manoel Matusalém. 1982. Cordel, Fé E Viola. Petrópolis, RJ: Editora Vozes.

Tavares Júnior, Luiz. 1980. O Mito Na Literatura De Cordel. Rio de Janeiro, RJ: Tempo Brasileiro.

Viana, Arievaldo,, Klévisson,,. 2006. Acorda Cordel Na Sala De Aula : A Literatura Popular Como Ferramenta Auxiliar Na Educação. Fortaleza, CE; Mossoró, RN: Tupynanquim Editora ; Editora Queima-Bucha.

Young, Augustus. 1994. Lampion and His Bandits: The Literature of Cordel in Brazil. London: Menard Press.


Calvet da Silveira, Joo,Luiz Gurgel, et al. "Literatura De Cordel Como Estratgia Em Educao Popular Em Sade." Revista de Atencao Primaria a Saude 18.4 (2015): 532-8. Print.

Curran, Mark J. "Brazil's Literatura De Cordel (`string Literature'): Poetic Chronicle and Popular History." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 15 (1996): 219. Print.

---. "Brazil's Literatura De Cordel (`string Literature'): Poetic Chronicle and Popular History." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 15 (1996): 219. Print.

da Silva, Elen Alcntara, et al. "Literatura De Cordel Na Educao Em Sade De Famlias Para Preveno De Lceras Por Presso." Revista Baiana de Enfermagem 27.3 (2013): 203-11. Print.

Lorita, Marlena Freitag, et al. "Literatura De Cordel: Veculo De Comunicao E Educao Em Sade / "Twine" Literature: A Vehicle for Communication and Education in Health / La Literatura De Cordel: Vehculo De Comunicacin Y Educacin En Sald." Texto & Contexto - Enfermagem.4 (2007): 662. Print.

Quintela, Vilma Mota. "A Edio Popular no Brasil: O Caso Da Literatura De Cordel." Estudos de Literatura Brasileira Contempornea 35 (2010): 41-50. Print.

Silva, Vera Lcia de Luna e. "Primrdios Da Literatura De Cordel no Brasil: Um Folheto De 1865." Graphos: Revista da Ps-Graduao em Letras 12.2 (2010): 74-80. Print.

Slater, Candace. "'Literatura De Cordel' Folk-Popular Poetry and the Mass Media in Today's Brazil." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 7 (1988): 97-106. Print.

---. "Terror in the Twin Towers: The Events of September 11 in the Brazilian Literatura De Cordel." Latin American Research Review.3 (2003): 37.  Print.

Selected Web-sites

In Portuguese:

In English:

Curran’s Cordel Connection provides a more extensive introduction to Cordel Literature with explanations of its role, status, and value in Brazilian culture today. 

Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa

Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa offers an online catalog of its Cordel collection of over 9000 titles, with over 2300 accessible in full-text online, and a glossary of Cordel literature vocabulary. 

University of Wisconsin-Madison’s library guide:

Several chapbooks are on display (virtually)

Cordelteca: A virtual exhibition of Brazilian chapbooks.

Oficina: Literatura de Cordel e Xilogravura (Woodcutter'workshop-used for producing Literatura de Cordel.