URI English professor uses delayed Fulbright award to research Ben Franklin and soccer in Brazil

KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 10, 2022 – On summer break in Brazil, David Faflik has mixed work and play – depending on how you might define each.

Faflik, an English professor at the University of Rhode Island, was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in spring 2020 to conduct research and teach in Brazil. But COVID-19 was just taking hold around the world, so travel to Brazil was out.

“They postponed it multiple times – at least two, maybe three,” says Faflik. “It didn’t really look like it was going to happen at one point. They kept reopening the window and finally they said if you received the award in this timeframe, your deadline is March 2023 to use it … or lose it.”

So, in May, Faflik, a specialist in 19th century American literature and culture and author of five books, traveled to Belo Horizonte, a city of about 2.7 million in the province of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil, to teach at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and conduct research on two very different book projects.

When Faflik received the Fulbright Distinguished Chair award – one of the most prestigious appointments in the Fulbright Scholar Program – he planned to use it to research the connection between Benjamin Franklin and Brazil. The story is a chapter in his upcoming book, “Reception Histories,” a historical study of the role gift giving and cultural exchange has at times played in the circulation of American literature.

In the two years since winning the award, Faflik was able to do most of the research online through the national archives in Rio de Janeiro, and write much of the book. And he became focused on a new project – a scholarly look at Brazilian soccer – or futebol – and the idea of play in a time of a pandemic.

“I’m a lifelong soccer fan,” says Faflik. “I’ve followed the Brazilian game as best I could over the years. Down here it’s o jogo bonito, the beautiful game. If you’re a football fan, it’s hard not to know and care about Brazilian football.”

Minas Gerais is home to Faflik’s favorite team and the center of the book – Clube Atlético Mineiro, which he describes as a scrappy, passionate and perennial runner-up that plays in the country’s elite league. The book, “Plus Minas: Profiles in Brazil’s Beautiful Game,” mixes history, memoir and reporting as it explores ideas of play for play’s sake, the joys of soccer, and issues of race and ethnicity.

“I’ve long been interested in the idea of writing this book as someone who teaches literature for a living,” says Faflik, who hopes to finish the manuscript before returning to URI for the fall semester. “A lot of people assume that my work is really a form of play. So, I was thinking of the meaning of play during the pandemic. I’m applying that idea to football and thinking about the emotional sides of the sport through the lens of this particular team, and with Brazil being known as the most passionate footballing nation.”

Faflik has researched Brazilian soccer and Atlético Mineiro from afar the last two years. But the Fulbright trip to Belo Horizonte has allowed him to do his primary research on the team’s home soil, while also interviewing club executives, players and fans and witnessing the daily passion for the sport.

“The only way I could make the contacts I needed was to be here. It’s a strange place. It’s the sixth largest city in Brazil. But there’s still a small-town feel. The joke here is that everybody knows somebody who knows somebody,” he says. “I’ve used a lot of connections that I’ve made just being here. I’ve had access to the club and I’ve found lots of fans who are enthusiastic about my enthusiasm. I’ve gotten much closer to things than I ever thought possible.”

For “Reception Histories,” Faflik was able to do about three-quarters of the research for the Franklin chapter before coming to Brazil. But what he’s found in public archives in Belo Horizonte has been invaluable. The chapter traces the path of Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” to Brazil, where it became a school primer for elementary students in the nation’s government-run schools in the 19th century.

“I’m a literary scholar, but I think through things historically,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in the way literature moves through the world, quite literally – the way it circulates, how it came to be, who the different parties are.”

In the 1800s, Minas Gerais had one of the largest populations of free Blacks of any province in Brazil. After the country’s independence from Portugal in 1822, the “Poor Richard’s Almanack” texts – donated by upper-class patrons – was used in the mandatory free public schools to instill a “bourgeois ideology” in the mostly impoverished students, who were largely Black and many former enslaved people.

At the time, “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” published between 1732 and 1758 in the U.S., was still popular around the world. It was translated into dozens of languages, because of Franklin’s worldwide fame. In the years after the American Revolution, Faflik says, Franklin was one of the most recognizable Americans in the world.

“Franklin is sort of the consummate entrepreneur and he perfects and then corners the market on almanacs. ‘Poor Richards Almanack’ goes through hundreds of editions in about a 27-year span,” he says. “At one point, if Americans own books, they own a Bible and ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack.’”

In local archives in Brazil, Faflik was able to examine original copies of “Poor Richard’s” and other Franklin reprints, along with administrative records of the public school system in Minas Gerais in the 19th century. He even found a letter written by a student to a man who had donated some of the texts.

“It was records that only exist here,” he says. “It gave me a very granular sense of what was happening in Minas Gerais classrooms. That’s what I needed to trace the flow of Franklin’s books, what texts were being taught, but more importantly how those texts reached the classrooms.

“Students who were attending public schools at that time were impoverished and couldn’t afford their own school materials. They couldn’t afford shoes, let alone books,” he adds. “Most of these books were being donated by wealthy, and not by coincidence white well-wishers within the state who were drawn to Franklin’s texts because of the kind of moral and sort of proto-capitalist worldview that was inscribed into them.”

“Reception Histories,” which also explores the circulation of works by Roger Williams, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, is one of Faflik’s most ambitious projects, he says. It looks at literature over a longer historical time period than the mid-1800s, and it goes beyond understanding American culture to ideas of the practice of literary study and the reception of literature.

“When you talk about gifting and literature, it’s kind of a very material way of reminding oneself that, at least for me, literature is about love,” he says. “If you devote your life to this, you love to read and you want to share that love.”