Graciliano Ramos (RAH-mohs) was a central figure in Brazil’s Northeast literary movement of 1930’s and 1940’s fiction. Through his writing, Ramos sought to depict accurately that region of Brazil collectively referred to as the Northeast. He and other “1930’s Generation” writers shared several characteristics: leftist political sympathies, expression of political beliefs in their novels, focus on social injustice, and sometimes simplistic composition and language, crafted to avoid interfering with the novel’s message. Ramos’s fiction has often been studied from a political or sociological perspective. Among Brazil’s Northeast writers, Ramos is said to have surpassed the others in technical skill.
Born in a small town in Brazil’s northeast corner, the eldest of numerous siblings, Ramos and his family knew at first hand the potential cruelty of the sertão. A less welcoming section of the Northeast than the more economically and culturally developed littoral (coastal) section, the sertão was a land of frequent disasters. Extended droughts frequently alternated with torrential rains to ravage the land, crops, and dreams of those living there. At age two, Ramos relocated to Pernambuco (Alagoas state) with his family in an ill-fated attempt at ranching, before severe drought drove them back to city life and general-store keeping only a few years later.
Ramos experienced early writing success in publishing sonnets in a Rio de Janeiro magazine at age thirteen. After working for several years in his father’s shop, he left for Rio de Janeiro, where he held several newspaper positions and began developing his fiction writing skills. The next year, 1915, Ramos returned home to Palmeira dos Índios after bubonic plague killed four family members. While there, he met and married Maria Augusta de Barros, with whom he later had four children. After five years of marriage, throughout which Ramos prospered as a shop owner, his wife died during childbirth. In 1925, eight years before its publication, Ramos began working on his first novel, painstakingly revising it for years. The next year, he was appointed president of the Palmeira dos Índios School Board and in 1927 was elected prefect (mayor) of the city. Marrying a second time in 1928, Ramos had four children with Heloísa Leite de Medeiros, though one son died in infancy.
The years 1929 and 1930 saw early signs of Ramos’s political difficulties. Following two reports he sent to the governor’s office, Ramos resigned as prefect and was appointed director of the state printing office, a position he held for only one year before resigning in 1931. In 1932, Ramos began work on his second novel and also opened his own school. After being appointed director of public instruction in Alagoas, he was fired three years later, upon his arrest and imprisonment on unspecified charges of being a communist. Released in 1936, Ramos settled his family in Rio de Janeiro and continued writing, completing two more novels and several nonfiction works, including his prison memoirs and childhood memoirs. During this time, he also held office as inspector of secondary education in Rio de Janeiro.
Ramos spent the next fifteen years attending literary conferences, writing, and translating. In 1945, he officially joined the Brazilian Communist Party, and in 1952 Ramos and Heloísa traveled to the Soviet Union and other European countries, though illness forced him to cut short their trip. Less than a year after his return to Rio de Janeiro, Ramos died of lung cancer in 1953. He spent his life encouraging a return to truly Brazilian literature, attentive to the plight of Brazil’s sertão region in all ways–socially, agriculturally, economically, and politically. His work often portrayed the destitute lives of his characters and their relation to the unforgiving settings in which they lived.