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Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1839 into a poor mulatto family. Orphaned young, an epileptic, and largely self-educated, he made a living first as a printer, then a journalist, and finally, from 1873 to his death, as a conscientious civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture. Determined to be a writer from the age of fifteen, he published poetry, short stories and novels, winning recognition in the 1860s and '70s with works in the prevailing romantic vein. A severe illness in 1879 marked a starling break in his style and his later works are brilliantly original, ironic novels which include Epitaph of a Small Winner (1880) Quincas Borba (1891) and Dom Casmurro (1899).

He was elected the first President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1897 and on his death, in Rio in 1908, he was given a state funeral with full civil and military honours.