Portuguese American Journal

George Monteiro: A distinguished career in excellence – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)

George Monteiro, a Rhode Island native with roots in mainland Portugal, is an esteemed professor emeritus at Brown University and a distinguished scholar in the fields of American and Portuguese Literatures. A twentieth-century American literature scholar, with an academic interest in Portuguese and Brazilian literature, Monteiro is the author of thirty-five books including poetry, scholarly studies, and English translations of Portuguese writers Fernando Pessoa, Jorge de Sena, Miguel Torga, Pedro da Silveira, and José Rodrigues Miguéis.

Active in a variety of professional associations throughout his career, Monteiro served as an Executive Editor of The Explicator, is on the Advisory Board of Brasil/Brazil, and was the first Director of The Center for Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown (1975-1980). He has been President of the Robert Frost Society and the Henry James Society.

A Fulbright Visiting Professor of American Literature at the University of São Paulo, Brazil (1969-71), Monteiro has also been a Fulbright Lecturer in Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina. He holds an honorary L.H.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and was awarded the Order of Prince Henry the Navigator, a distinction from the government of Portugal for achievement in scholarship in Portuguese letters and culture.

His books include The Presence of Camões (1996), The Presence of Pessoa (1998), Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature (2000), and Paixões de Pessoa (2013).

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, George Monteiro addresses a series of questions on issues relating to his Portuguese heritage, his writing and academic career. This interview was  edited for length and clarity.

Where were you born? Did you grow up speaking Portuguese?

I was born at home, at 38 School Street, in Valley Falls, the southernmost village in the town of Cumberland, Rhode Island, a son to Francisco José Monteiro and Maria Augusta Temudo. Both of them had emigrated from Portugal, he from Freixo-de-Espada-à-Cinta (Trás-os-Montes), she from Vila Ruiva da Serra (Beira Alta).

I cannot remember when I did not speak both Portuguese and English. A couple of hundred feet or so down School Street–surprise–was the Valley Falls School, a four-room, four-grade primary school one always referred to–I don’t know why—as the “Chicken Coop.” Pretty much all its students were either children of emigrants or came from families having a particularly hard time surviving during the Great Depression.

The better-off families pretty much lived elsewhere in the town. In the latter half of the nineteenth century Valley Falls prospered as a healthy center of the textile industry and was an important railway stop on the way to Providence and on to Newport.

My birth coincided with the blowing up of the buildings of what had been a most prosperous mill complex in its day.

Could you share a remarkable childhood memory about growing up Portuguese in America?

Shortly after my birth, my mother was turned into the authorities as an illegal alien–which was true. It was decided that my mother would leave the United States until it could be arranged for legal entry.

That’s how, a sort of before-the-fact anchor baby, a few months old, was sent into exile in Portugal, where I turned one before my mother was allowed to enter the U.S. legally.

Did you experience discrimination against immigrants in school?

The teachers were what the Portuguese referred to as “da nação,” that is, “not-Portuguese.” In fact, there wouldn’t be a teacher with Portuguese forbears in the entire town until the late 1940’s or early 1950’s. I do not recall that I encountered any racial or ethnic discomfort during my four years at the “Chicken Coup.”

My guess is that the Depression and the early war years had something to do with that. However, after the fourth grade, when we went on to the Clark Street School, something odd happened–although no one seemed to notice it at the time. All the kids with Portuguese names ended up in the same fifth grade (although there were two fifth grades in the building), along with a few “big boys” who were just marking time until, at age sixteen, they could leave school and schooling in the dust (decades later I learned that the decisions as to who would be placed where were made by the secretary in the office of the Superintendent of Schools).

The kicker in all this is not that placement was basically discriminatory–it was, of course–but that we all–Portuguese kids and “big boys”–were sentenced to a year of schooling at the hands of a wildly erratic and more often than not an incompetent teacher who, a couple of years later, was “retired” from teaching from teaching. I shall not go into details now, but I can say that the school year my compatriots and I spent in Miss Lightbrown’s fifth-grade class deserve a full-blown treatment that I cannot go into now.

What education did you receive later?

Skipping right along, I attended the public schools in Cumberland, right on up through high school, and then, improbably and due to a bevy of fortuitous events (including the life-changing counsel of Andy Tucker, a science teacher better known as a baseball coach), I attended Brown University, located just a few miles down the road.

Subsequently, I earned a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York, and some years later a doctorate from Brown. At no time, in all those years, was it my experience that the Portuguese language, and don’t even think of Portuguese Studies, was of any worth in my academic circles.

In school, did you study Portuguese?

Since proficiency in Portuguese was not acceptable to fulfill the foreign languages requirement for my bachelor’s degree at Brown, I suggested to my freshman advisor that I would like to try Spanish.

“Why would you do that?” he asked with disdain. “What do you want to be, a coffee salesman for the A&P in Brazil?” Well, that question and the class prophecy in my high school yearbook that I would someday be the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, were predictive (sort of), for after ten years of teaching and shortly after being promoted to associate professor of English with tenure, through a set of odd events I found myself in Brazil as Fulbright teacher of American literature assigned to the University of São Paulo.

Mind you, I was an English Ph.D. with no interest in Brazil or, for that matter, Portugal.

My teaching and my scholarship was in English and American literature. (Yet things Portuguese-American always interested me; one of my first professional publications, as a matter of fact, was a gathering of several hundred proverbs collected from family members and friends).

Yet when I set foot on the tarmac in Viracopas airport in Campinas and first heard Portuguese being spoken around me, I said out loud, unexpectedly and surprisingly, “I’ve been in culture shock my whole life.” Living in Brazil enabled me to practice my Portuguese, which, as it turned out, sparked an interest in translation, which soon led me to study Brazilian translations of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

Between class sessions, students and faculty went into the halls, and often looked over the books on sale from the bookman Sr. Jaime. From him I bought my first Brazilian books, including dictionaries and poetry collections. From him I bought a copy of the Maria Aliete Galhoz’s Aguilar edition of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry. (It was then, I think, that I noticed that Sr. Jaime, who operated out of his house, called his firm “Livraria de Fernando Pessoa”).

You attended Brown, taught there for many years and were instrumental in the beginnings of the Portuguese Studies program there. How did it begin?

When I had left for Brazil, there were at Brown still no courses in Portuguese, not language, literature or history. To be sure, things were no better in this regard at other colleges and universities throughout the United States.

However, when I returned eighteen months later, I found that for the first time, I believe, there were two or three Portuguese courses being taught for university credit as part of an arrangement with the Providence School Department in compliance with the provisions of some government grant or other. The teacher had a limited appointment and there obviously was no intention on the part of the university to continue the position beyond the term of the grant.

Last year at the “Kale Soup for the Soul” reading at Brown, you talked about the now famous Portuguese and Brazilian Studies Department sign. Can you share the mystery with our readers?

Sometimes a sign is just a “sign,” to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, that old sly fox. “And sometimes signs are not just signs,” as the more frolicsome Roland Barthes must have said.

The sign in question simply read “Center for Portuguese and Brazilian Studies.” It was a most noticeable sign. First of all, it was a large sign, too big to attach to the side of the modest, very modest, building—a small house, really—and therefore had to be supported, by two free standing posts placed in front of the building. Second of all, it announced to everyone walking Manning Way that the study of Portuguese and Brazilian studies was here, still alive and threatening to stay, and that in the midst of widespread knowledge that it was all but killed off by administrative decisions at several levels.

Third, it told everyone that Portuguese and Brazilian Studies had a home now—a building of its own. Well, the sign didn’t say  that, but, one must admit, that it was a logical inference, actually Portuguese was allotted three rooms in the house; the other rooms housed the overflow from the main Math Department. But they had no sign.

A couple of other things, there was no other sign like ours on the whole campus—not nearly as large. (And nothing comparable followed it I might add.) The sign announced the existence of a “Center.” For most of the campus community even the possibility that there could exist at Brown something called “Center” was news. This Center had been preceded by only one other Center (recently created but not yet approved by the faculty) and that Center had no sign. Confusion and ignorance reigned! I could stop here. But I won’t.

So, the sign was enough to form a new department?

The story of the sign really begins with the sad, hard truth that no entity in this university exists as an entity until it has a budget line. Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, as a rather fragile student major, with no staff of its own and no independent funds—how could it have any since it had no budget line?—did have a chair. Now the chair agreed to by the Dean of the Faculty never received an official appointment—and a good thing, too, since such an appointment made public—chair of a concentration—would have raised hackles.

There was no precedent for it. In short, such a title had no standing, legal or otherwise. But it did give the chair continuing access to the Dean of the Faculty. And the chair took advantage of that courtesy, pestering her at every opportunity, begging her for a budget line, “But you have no money,” she said, “and I won’t give you any.” Finally she slipped. Under direct questioning, she revealed that there was a donor… There and then the donor appeared—in the guise of the chair (not as a member of the faculty but as an alumnus). He offered her a gift of $5. At the moment she was speechless, exasperated, and surely annoyed. But she reached out for the form and—possibly because she was about to leave the university for another job, though I don’t know this to be true—signed the form authorizing a budget line, adding the instruction that the chair next go to see the Dean of the Graduate School, who, though it was not yet announced, would be succeeding her as Dean of the Faculty.

How, then, did the Portuguese and Brazilian Studies become official at Brown?

Of course, it couldn’t be a “department.” But it could be something else.

With the intent of fostering new intellectual and disciplinary lines, the Dean of the Graduate School had just recently come up with idea of allowing for the creation of free-standing “institutes” and “centers.”

How about an “institute?” he tried out, “or a center?” So, not seeing that it mattered much what that was, they agreed on “Center.” But the chair couldn’t be chair since that designation was reserved for departments. “Director,” that’s it, and the Dean signed the form.

Foolishly (or wisely), he did not bring up the matter of funding or—the next big problem—staffing.

By the way, I should point out that the original plan, which worked and paved the way for everything else that was subsequently accomplished, was “to create an undergraduate major in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies.” We identified faculty members who showed an interest in their courses or professional publications (interests that were usually quite limited) in matters Portuguese or Brazilian and formed a “governing” committee for the major, which with the help of the Dean of the Faculty we managed to get approved.

Can you describe the origins of Gávea-Brown Press?

My sole contribution at the outset [at Brown] was to suggest, when Onésimo Almeida asked for suggestions, that he add “Brown” to the “Gávea” he had already decided for a his title.

True to its founder and editor all these years, Gávea-Brown Publications has always aimed its books, stories, essays, and poems at the, broadly conceived, Portuguese-American audience. Of the many high-points among its many publications, let me just say a word or two about one that that Alice Clemente and I were involved with, The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese-American Poetry.

When it was first thought about, decades ago, there weren’t enough identifiable Portuguese-American poets to make up a chapbook, let alone a volume. But then there was a remarkable surge of such poetry, and it was finally time to put together a volume.

Now it’s time for someone or other to do a follow-up volume to bring together all the poets the editors missed and the many new ones that have surfaced in recent years. After all, poetry by Portuguese-Americans is thriving.

How did you start writing academic articles?

Interesting to me–who had never ever wanted to be a writer of any sort–is that not until I was in my first year as a Ph.D. student was I told, to my amazement, that I had written a couple of publishable classroom papers on William Faulkner’s novels and was advised as to the journals that might take them. My teacher, Hyatt H. Waggoner was right.

The papers were published and started me on my professional publication career.

And writing poetry came after?

Even more astonishing was my beginnings as a poet. In my late forties I was translating Jorge de Sena’s poetry and reading William Carlos Williams when I began to write poems.

I paid no attention to this turn and can’t even remember what the first lines were about or what I did with them. Suffice it to say that Sena and Williams (in combination) are to blame for all the unrhymed lines I’ve written in the three or so decades since then. I write poems as I please, with no great regard for rhyme and just a little more regard for rhythm.

I have followed two sirens: Emily Dickinson, of whom Robert Frost said that she paid attention to rhyme and rhythm in a poem until truth broke through and had its way with the poem (I paraphrase loosely, very loosely) and Emily Monteiro, who as child told me “rhyme sucks” (yet her own poetry is faithful to the dictates of rhythm and rhyme).

My poems are never “experimental,” just indulgent. And, of course, I’ve worked at writing up some memories of the life I have lived. Oh, I just remembered that ten years prior to my writing a first poem, I wrote five or six prose sketches of my childhood years.

You have researched and translated Fernando Pessoa. How did your interest begin?

A visiting professor in the English Department, asked to review my colleague Edwin Honig’s Pessoa translations and feeling unqualified to do it, passed it on to me. After that, I was hooked, and remain so unto this day.

Pessoa is a disease for which, fortunately, there is no cure. Some years ago some folks were railing, “tanto Pessoa já enjoa” {so much Pessoa it’s nauseating).It was not true then, it’s not true now.

How do you bring your knowledge of Portuguese to your writing?

The funny thing about the initial spurt of what is loosely called creative writing, is that the writing of those prose sketches took place in São Paulo at pretty much a single sitting and that the first one (and why to this day I don’t know) was written in Portuguese.

Except for a poem or two years later, I have not been tempted to write anything else in Portuguese.

My stay in Brazil, unplanned and, in a way, inadvertent, influenced my life a good deal, especially my professional life. Besides bringing me to a greater awareness of all things Portuguese, it set me on new paths that changed the course of my life.

You have met Elizabeth Bishop. Did your encounter inspire you to write two books about her?

No, I never met her, though I came close several times over the years. I was in Minas Gerais when she was living in Ouro Preto and the U.S.I.S. Cultural Affairs Officer in Belo Horizonte promised to drive me to Ouro Preto so that I could meet Miss Bishop (something that was of particular interest to me as a teacher of American poetry).

But, at the last moment he could not make the trip, so I missed my opportunity to meet the poet. As it turned out, in later years there were at least two occasions when she was at Brown University, once for a reading, and a second time to accept an honorary degree.

But, on both occasions, I was away from Providence.

Finally, a colleague and I invited her to visit some classes, but she politely declined. That invitation was extended in the last year of her life. So, with these several near misses on my record, there was nothing I could do but write a book about her. It took me years to get around to it, but that’s how Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After got written.

Given its recent renaissance, what do you think is the future of Portuguese-American literature in the 21st century?

Today there are writers of Portuguese-American extraction springing up and making themselves known all the time.

Long gone on the days when California’s Julian Silva and New Bedford’s Charles Reis Felix wrote their novels in a virtual cultural vacuum, that Thomas Braga published his marvelous Fall River poems mainly for his friends.

But now, there is wonderful, very skillful poetry by poets, in the United States and Canada who pride themselves on making known the details of their ethnic heritage. I won’t name names here for various reasons, not the least of which is that I would inevitably raise somebody’s hackles over names named or names omitted.

Ok…Besides, those who are interested in writing by Portuguese Americans will readily find them. I look forward to the next anthology of writing, not necessarily of Portuguese-American writing, but writing of quality by, this time, of Americans and Canadians of Portuguese extraction. After all, it is the quality of the writing that matters, and not, really, the subject matter.
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(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), and Only More So (forthcoming). She has received fellowships from CantoMundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD) and California Arts Council. Recently, she taught poetry at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk; University of Texas, Austin; The Gathering at Keystone College; Nimrod Conference in Tulsa, and the Mass.Poetry Festival. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie

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