CERVANTES --DON QUIJOTE.
Miguel de Cervantes, c. 1590. Archive Photos/Getty Images
IN SPANISH: Cervantes y la leyenda de Don Quijote
IN ENGLISH: Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote; 55:12. by Eric Masters
The Impossible Dream-Man of La Mancha. Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren; 08:51.
Miguel de Cervantes
Miguel de Cervantes, in full Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, (born September 29?, 1547, Alcalá de Henares, Spain-died April 22, 1616, Madrid), Spanish novelist, playwright, and poet, the creator of Don Quixote (1605, 1615) and the most important and celebrated figure in Spanish literature. His novel Don Quixote has been translated, in full or in part, into more than 60 languages. Editions continue regularly to be printed, and critical discussion of the work has proceeded unabated since the 18th century. At the same time, owing to their widespread representation in art, drama, and film, the figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are probably familiar visually to more people than any other imaginary characters in world literature. Cervantes was a great experimenter. He tried his hand in all the major literary genres save the epic. He was a notable short-story writer, and a few of those in his collection of Novelas exemplares (1613; Exemplary Stories) attain a level close to that of Don Quixote, on a miniature scale.
Cervantes was born some 20 miles (32 km) from Madrid, probably on September 29 (the day of San Miguel). He was certainly baptized on October 9. He was the fourth of seven children in a family whose origins were of the minor gentry but which had come down in the world. His father was a barber-surgeon who set bones, performed bloodlettings, and attended lesser medical needs. The family moved from town to town, and little is known of Cervantes's early education. The supposition, based on a passage in one of the Exemplary Stories, that he studied for a time under the Jesuits, though not unlikely, remains conjectural. Unlike most Spanish writers of his time, including some of humble origin, he apparently did not go to a university. What is certain is that at some stage he became an avid reader of books. The head of a municipal school in Madrid, a man with Erasmist intellectual leanings named Juan López de Hoyos, refers to a Miguel de Cervantes as his "beloved pupil." This was in 1569, when the future author was 21, so-if this was the same Cervantes-he must either have been a pupil-teacher at the school or have studied earlier under López de Hoyos. His first published poem, on the death of Philip II's young queen, Elizabeth of Valois, appeared at this time.
Soldier And Slave
That same year he left Spain for Italy. Whether this was because he was the "student" of the same name wanted by the law for involvement in a wounding incident is another mystery; the evidence is contradictory. In any event, in going to Italy Cervantes was doing what many young Spaniards of the time did to further their careers in one way or another. It seems that for a time he served as chamberlain in the household of Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva in Rome. However, by 1570 he had enlisted as a soldier in a Spanish infantry regiment stationed in Naples, then a possession of the Spanish crown. He was there for about a year before he saw active service.
Relations with the Ottoman Empire under Selim II were reaching a crisis, and the Turks occupied Cyprus in 1570. A confrontation between the Turkish fleet and the naval forces of Venice, the papacy, and Spain was inevitable. In mid-September 1571 Cervantes sailed on board the Marquesa, part of the large fleet under the command of Don Juan de Austria that engaged the enemy on October 7 in the Gulf of Lepanto near Corinth. The fierce battle ended in a crushing defeat for the Turks that was ultimately to break their control of the Mediterranean. There are independent accounts of Cervantes's conduct in the action, and they concur in testifying to his personal courage. Though stricken with a fever, he refused to stay below and joined the thick of the fighting. He received two gunshot wounds in the chest, and a third rendered his left hand useless for the rest of his life. He always looked back on his conduct in the battle with pride. From 1572 to 1575, based mainly in Naples, he continued his soldier's life; he was at Navarino and saw action in Tunis and La Goleta. He must also, when opportunity offered, have been familiarizing himself with Italian literature. Perhaps with a recommendation for promotion to the rank of captain, more likely just leaving the army, he set sail for Spain in September 1575 with letters of commendation to the king from the duque de Sessa and Don Juan himself.
On this voyage his ship was attacked and captured by Barbary pirates, and Cervantes, together with his brother Rodrigo, was sold into slavery in Algiers, the centre of the Christian slave traffic in the Muslim world. The letters he carried magnified his importance in the eyes of his captors. This had the effect of raising his ransom price, and thus prolonging his captivity, while also, it appears, protecting his person from punishment by death, mutilation, or torture when his four daring bids to escape were frustrated. His masters, the renegade Dali Mami and later Hasan Paşa, treated him with considerable leniency in the circumstances, whatever the reason. At least two contemporary records of the life led by Christian captives in Algiers at this time mention Cervantes. He clearly made a name for himself for courage and leadership among the captive community. At long last, in September 1580, three years after Rodrigo had earned his freedom, Miguel's family, with the aid and intervention of the Trinitarian friars, raised the 500 gold escudos demanded for his release. It was only just in time, right before Hasan Paşa sailed for Constantinople (now Istanbul), taking his unsold slaves with him. Not surprisingly, this, the most adventurous period of Cervantes's life, supplied subject matter for several of his literary works, notably the Captive's tale in Don Quixote and the two Algiers plays, El trato de Argel ("The Traffic of Algiers") and Los baños de Argel ("The Bagnios [an obsolete word for "prisons"] of Algiers"), as well as episodes in a number of other writings, although never in straight autobiographical form.
Civil Servant And Writer
Back in Spain, Cervantes spent most of the rest of his life in a manner that contrasted entirely with his decade of action and danger. He would be constantly short of money and in tedious and exacting employment; it would be 25 years before he scored a major literary success with Don Quixote. On his return home he found that prices had risen and the standard of living for many, particularly those of the middle class, including his family, had fallen. The euphoria of Lepanto was a thing of the past. Cervantes's war record did not now bring the recompense he expected. He applied unsuccessfully for several administrative posts in Spain's American empire. The most he succeeded in acquiring was a brief appointment as royal messenger to Oran, Algeria, in 1581. In vain he followed Philip II and the court to Lisbon in newly annexed Portugal.
Late in 1584 he married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, 18 years his junior. She had a small property in the village of Esquivias in La Mancha. Little is known about their emotional relationship. There is no reason to suppose that the marriage did not settle down into an adequate companionableness, despite Cervantes's enforced long absences from home.
Cervantes also turned his hand to the writing of drama at this time, the early dawn of the Golden Age of the Spanish theatre. By 1587 it was clear that he was not going to make a living from literature, and he was obliged to turn in a very different direction. Cervantes became a commissary of provisions for the great Armada. Requisitioning corn and oil from grudging rural communities was a thankless task, but it was at least a steady job, with a certain status.
After the disastrous defeat of the Armada in 1588, Cervantes gravitated to Sevilla (Seville), the commercial capital of Spain and one of the largest cities in Europe. In 1590 he applied to the Council of the Indies for any one of four major crown posts vacant in Central and South America. His petition was curtly rejected.
In 1594 Cervantes was in Madrid seeking a new post. He received an appointment that took him back to Andalusia to collect overdue taxes. In the summer of 1597 discrepancies in his accounts of three years previous landed him in the Crown Jail of Sevilla. He was confined until the end of April 1598 and perhaps conceived there the idea of Don Quixote, as a remark in the first prologue suggests:
And so, what was to be expected of a sterile and uncultivated wit such as that which I possess if not an offspring that was dried up, shriveled, and eccentric: a story filled with thoughts that never occurred to anyone else, of a sort that might be engendered in a prison where every annoyance has its home and every mournful sound its habitation?
Information about Cervantes's life over the next four or five years is sparse.
Publication Of Don Quixote
In July or August 1604 Cervantes sold the rights of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha ("The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha," known as Don Quixote, Part I) to the publisher-bookseller Francisco de Robles for an unknown sum. License to publish was granted in September and the book came out in January 1605. There is some evidence of its content's being known or known about before publication-to, among others, Lope de Vega, the vicissitudes of whose relations with Cervantes were then at a low point. The compositors at Juan de la Cuesta's press in Madrid are now known to have been responsible for a great many errors in the text, many of which were long attributed to the author.
The novel was an immediate success, though not as sensationally so as Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache, Part I, of 1599. By August 1605 there were two Madrid editions, two published in Lisbon, and one in Valencia. There followed those of Brussels, 1607; Madrid, 1608; Milan, 1610; and Brussels, 1611. Part II, Segunda parte del ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha ("Second Part of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha"), came out in 1615. Thomas Shelton's English translation of the first part appeared in 1612. The name of Cervantes was soon to be as well known in England, France, and Italy as in Spain.
The sale of the publishing rights, however, meant that Cervantes made no more financial profit on Part I of his novel. He had to do the best he could with patronage. The dedication to the young duque de Béjar had been a mistake. He had better fortune with two much more influential persons: the conde de Lemos, to whom he would dedicate Part II and no less than three other works, and Don Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas, archbishop of Toledo. This eased his financial circumstances somewhat. However, it is apparent that he would have liked a securer place in the pantheon of the nation's writers than he ever achieved during his lifetime-he wanted a reputation comparable to that enjoyed by Lope de Vega or the poet Luis de Góngora, for example. His sense of his own marginal position may be deduced from his Viage del Parnaso (1614; Voyage to Parnassus), two or three of the later prefaces, and a few external sources. Nevertheless, relative success, still-unsatisfied ambition, and a tireless urge to experiment with the forms of fiction ensured that, at age 57, with less than a dozen years left to him, Cervantes was just entering the most productive period of his career.
Importance And Influence
Cervantes's influence resonates in the popular term "quixotic" and the immediately recognizable forms of his two major protagonists, whose adventures reappear continually across the cultural landscape in theatre, film, opera, ballet, and even comic books. No study of the novel can ignore the author or his most famous work: the Hungarian theorist Gyorgy Lukács considers Don Quixote "the first great novel of world literature," while the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes calls Cervantes the "founding father" of Latin American literature. The novel form, according to some late 20th-century critics, has no one origin but began to exist in different countries at different times and for different reasons. Nonetheless, Cervantes's novel, with its innovations to Spanish literature, is outstanding in its creation of a new worldview. It is not coincidental that the writers most influenced by Cervantes-Daniel Defoe, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, to name only British novelists-initiated radical changes in their own literary traditions.
Anne J. Cruz, Professor of Spanish, University of Miami, Florida. Author of Discourses of Poverty: Social Reform and the Picaresque Novel in Early Modern Spain.