Expert on Brazilian Cultural History Dies

Romance Languages and Literatures professor Nicolau Sevcenko, a prominent specialist in Brazilian cultural history, died on Aug. 13 in São Paulo, Brazil. He was 61.

A public intellectual figure in Brazil, Sevcenko wrote for Brazilian newspapers and magazines and appeared on talk shows. Brazilian public figures often sought his expertise and he offered advice on a wide array of issues.

“He studied not only literary texts, but he studied film. He studied media. He studied the way Brazilians constructed their own modern cultural identity,” said Josiah Blackmore, a Romance Languages and Literatures professor.

Sevcenko was born in 1952 on the coastal city of São Vicente. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants fleeing the chaos following World War II. The family ultimately settled in São Paulo.

Trained in both history and anthropology, he received both his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from the University of São Paulo.


Sevcenko’s love of Brazilian culture stemmed from the vitality he found in Brazil, according to Mary M. Gaylord, a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures.

Sevcenko looked at music and art as “an organic part of cultural history,” Gaylord said.

Sevcenko came to Harvard as a visiting professor in 2003 and secured a permanent position in 2009. He considered Harvard and Cambridge the intellectual crossroads of the world, according to Blackmore.

His colleagues remembered his talent of connecting with an audience, no matter the size or age group.

“From the very first time I heard Nicolau lecture during his initial interview here, I was struck by his unique combination of brilliance and humanity,” Gaylord wrote in a letter to Sevcenko’s wife, Cristina Carletti, Tuesday. “His imagination was matched only by his ability to connect with his audience.”

Gaylord provided a portion of the letter to The Crimson.

Blackmore and Gaylord recalled that Sevcenko could find something unique in everyone he met.

“For him, everyone had a very special talent or ability,” Blackmore said.

Sevcenko strived to live in the moment, said Virginie Greene, chair of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, who is on leave for the fall term.

“He very much liked living in the present, both in his work and in his way of being, his way of looking at Harvard.” Greene said. “He was looking at how fast we were doing everything and thought we should take more time to do things here at Harvard. I think he was right.”

Sevcenko’s colleagues said he will be greatly missed.

“Thoughtful words from Nicolau always felt like a breath of fresh air,” Gaylord wrote. “He had a gentle but powerful way of cutting through jargon and stuffiness, a way of being real.”

—Staff writer Jill E. Steinman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jillsteinman.