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Stanford historian explores social roots of Rio de Janeiro

Head shot of Zephyr Frank
Aug 2 2016

In his recent book, Stanford historian Zephyr Frank explores how 19th century literature tells the social history of Rio de Janeiro, revealing the foundations of today’s Olympic city.

By Tom Winterbottom
Rio de Janeiro, site of the upcoming Summer Olympics, is firmly in the public eye.

With controversy surrounding preparations for the games, impeachment proceedings looming against President Dilma Rousseff and threats from the Zika virus, it is a symbol of Brazil’s larger instability.

That has led one Stanford scholar to look back in history to uncover the complex social foundations of the contemporary city.

“Many of the challenges facing citizens today, such as access to housing, public health and education, have their foundations in the 19th century,” said Zephyr Frank, professor of history and former director of the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford.

In his latest book, Reading Rio de Janeiro, Frank combined his historical vision with literary analysis, finding that the story of Rio’s social history played out in much of the literature of the late 19th century.

“This was a cityscape defined by great inequalities in wealth and power,” Frank said. “It was a world that distrusted politicians and their motives, a place where financial capital had recently come into the ascendency and where people were trying to make it in the big city.”

According to Frank, well-known novels of the 1870s and 1880s remain unsurpassed as interpretations of what it means to grow up and confront the intensity and complexity of the metropolis. ...

For the complete article, visit the Stanford News website.