When Emília Viotti da Costa passed away on November 2, 2017, at the age of 89, the world lost a scientific poet of the past whose research, writing, and mentorship epitomized the best of the historical profession. She spent 13 years, from 1956 to 1969, at the University of São Paulo (USP), rising to tenured professor, followed by 25 years at Yale University (1973–98). In dozens of essays and three major books, Emília produced landmark research in the comparative history of New World slavery—as well as revolutionizing established understandings of the history of Brazil, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

History writing at its best, Emília believed, joined the strengths of literature—in its capacity to move the reader—with the social scientific search for causal explanation. Like her mother Zilda, Emília had been an early and avid reader of fiction; she forsook her first...

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