The cultures of the indigenous Indians, Africans, and Portuguese have together formed the modern Brazilian way of life. The Portuguese culture is by far the dominant of these influences; from it Brazilians acquired their language, their main religion, and most of their customs. The Indian population is now statistically small, but Tupí-Guaraní, the language of many Brazilian Indians, continues to strongly influence the Brazilian Portuguese language; other Indian contributions to Brazilian culture are most apparent in the Amazon basin. African influences on the Brazilian way of life are strongest along the coast between the Northeast and Rio de Janeiro; they include traditional foods, religions, and popular music and dance, especially the samba. Commercial and cultural imports from Europe and North America have often competed with—and influenced—Brazilians’ own cultural output, and critics have argued that the nation’s cultural identity is suffering as a result. Despite numerous social and economic challenges, Brazilians continue to be exuberant and creative in their celebrations and art forms.
The Brazilian Academy of Letters, with its headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, is generally regarded as the most prestigious of the country’s numerous learned societies. The National Library, also in Rio, was founded in 1810 with 60,000 volumes from the Portuguese royal library; it now holds millions of books and documents. Most of Brazil’s other libraries have limited holdings. Among the major history museums are the Museum of the Republic (1960; housed in the former governmental palace) and the National Historical Museum (1922), both in Rio, the São Paulo University Museum (1895), and the Imperial Museum (1940) in Petropólis. The São Paulo Art Museum (1947) and Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art (1948) are internationally renowned. Both Rio and São Paulo have major museums of anthropology and numerous theatres. A notable institution for the performing arts is the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra (1953; revitalized 1972), housed since 1999 in the Sala São Paulo, a renovated early 20th-century railroad station. Few of the country’s major cultural institutions are based in Brasília.
Brazil has had many world-renowned literary figures whose cumulative writings are regarded by many to be richer than those of Portugal because of their variety of ethnic and regional themes. Joaquim Machado de Assis, the son of a freed slave, was a leading voice of the 19th century with his romantic novels. In the 20th century the Northeast produced a particularly wide range of superb writing, including that of Gilberto Freyre on the subject of life under slavery, Graciliano Ramos’s tragedies about the drought quadrilateral, João Guimaraês Rosa’s tales of survival and violence in the interior, and Jorge Amado’s lighthearted stories set in the cacao-growing zone of Bahia. Érico Veríssimo’s tales of southern Brazil have also been translated into many languages.