This Day In Writing History
On September 29th, 1547, the legendary Spanish novelist, playwright, and poet Miguel de Cervantes was born in Madrid, Spain. His father, Rodrigo de Cervantes, was a surgeon. Not much is known about his mother, Leonor de Cortinas.
Born into a noble family, Miguel de Cervantes was well-educated. In 1569, at the age of 22, he moved to Rome, where he immersed himself in the city's literature, art, and architecture. He found work as valet to a wealthy Catholic priest, Father Giulio Acquaviva, who would be ordained Cardinal the following year.
By then, Cervantes had enlisted in the Spanish naval elite corps, the Infanteria de Marina, stationed in Naples, which at the time was Spanish territory. In October of 1571, while serving on a ship in the Holy League fleet, (the Holy League was a coalition of allies that included the Vatican, Spain, the Republics of Venice and Genoa, and others under the command of John of Austria, King Philip II's illegitimate half brother) he saw action in the Battle of Lepanto.
The Battle of Lepanto was a brutal five-hour battle between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire. When his ship came under fire, Cervantes was below deck, stricken with fever. He couldn't bear to stay hidden with other sick men while his comrades were fighting and dying, so he begged his commanding officer for permission to fight. Permission granted, he fought bravely against the Ottomans and was shot three times. One of the bullets rendered his left arm useless. The other two struck him in the chest. Ultimately, the Holy League won the battle.
After the battle was over, Cervantes would spend six months in hospital recovering from his injuries. He left before his wounds completely healed and returned to active duty as a solider. He would serve for a few more years. In September of 1575, he set sail from Naples to Barcelona, carrying letters of commendation to the King from the Duke de Sessa. As his ship approached the Catalan coast, it was attacked by Algerian pirates.
Although the captain and crew mounted a fierce resistance, most of the men were killed. The rest, including Cervantes, were taken prisoner and brought to Algiers. Cervantes spent five years as a slave before his parents and the Trinitarians (a Catholic religious order) were able to buy his freedom. During his captivity, he began to write, and he already had a lifetime of experiences to inspire him.
In December of 1584, Cervantes married his much younger girlfriend Catalina de Salazar y Palacios. Her uncle, Alonso de Quesada y Salazar would serve as the inspiration for Cervantes' most famous literary character, Don Quixote. The following year, Miguel de Cervantes' first major work was published. It was a novel called La Galatea.
On the surface, La Galatea seems like a typical pastoral romance, as it tells the story of two shepherds, best friends, who are in love with the same woman. However, Cervantes' dazzling debut novel is much more than that. Combining prose with poetry in a variety forms and styles, La Galatea is a deep and poetic examination of the nature of love. Although literary critics of the time and even Cervantes himself would claim that he couldn't write poetry, he proved his poetic talent in his first novel.
Although it's now recognized as a major work, La Galatea was only modestly successful when it was first published. His early plays also enjoyed just modest success. So, Cervantes spent the next twenty years living a nomadic existence, traveling and working at various jobs, including that of a tax collector and a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada. Financial and legal troubles would plague him, as he went bankrupt and was imprisoned twice on suspicion of embezzlement.
By 1606, Cervantes returned to Madrid, where he would live for the rest of his life. A year earlier, he published the first part of his greatest work, which established him as a brilliant, modern novelist far, far ahead of his time. It's also rightfully considered to be one of the greatest novels in the history of Western literature. El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha, (The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha), later shortened to just Don Quixote, was a masterpiece of satirical comic adventure.
Alonso Quixano is a recently retired gentleman nearing his 50th birthday. He now lives a quiet life in the Spanish countryside, in the town of La Mancha, along with his niece and their housekeeper. Quixano spends practically all of his time reading books about knights and chivalry. He becomes so obsessed with these stories - which he believes are real and not works of fiction - that he rarely sleeps or eats. All he does is read, and people begin to believe that he's lost his mind.
One day, Quixano decides to become a knight himself. He dons a suit of armor, renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha, and sets off in search of adventure - and to defend the honor of his mistress, the beautiful noblewoman Lady Dulcinea del Toboso, who is really Aldonza Lorenzo, a neighboring farm girl. Quixote performs his first act of chivalry when he saves a boy who'd been tied to a tree by his master for daring to ask for the wages he'd earned but was never paid. Unfortunately, after Quixote leaves, the boy is beaten by his master.
Later, Quixote has a run-in with some traders whom he believes have insulted his imaginary mistress, Lady Dulcinea. Quixote demands satisfaction and is severely beaten by one of the traders and left on the side of the road. He is later found by one of his neighbors, Pablo Crespo, who brings him home. Quixote plans another quest. His niece, the housekeeper, the parish curate, and the local barber try to dissuade him by burning his books about knights and chivalry, then sealing up the rest of his library and pretending that it was taken by a traveling magician.
Undeterred, Quixote turns to another neighbor, Sancho Panza, and persuades him to become his squire. Panza is a short, fat, vulgar man who is proud of his illiteracy. Though he seems dimwitted at first, Sancho proves to be far wiser and far more sensible than his master, Don Quixote. Together, they set off for adventure and during their travels, they meet prostitutes, priests, soldiers, goatherds, escaped convicts, scorned lovers, and other characters.
Don Quixote's overactive imagination leads him to embark on chivalrous quests. His tendency to violently intervene in matters that are none of his business - and his habit of never paying his debts - often results in humiliation and injury, with poor Sancho Panza getting the worst of it. In his most famous adventure, Quixote attacks a group of ferocious giants, which Sancho knows are just windmills. Eventually, Don Quixote is at last persuaded to go home, but the first part hints at yet another quest, stating that the records of it were lost.
Don Quixote didn't make a rich man of Miguel de Cervantes, but it did rescue him from poverty and bring him international fame. He continued to write. Mostly he wrote plays, but he also published a classic short story collection, Novelas Ejemplares (1613) and a dazzling epic poem, Viaje del Parnaso (1614). In 1614, an unknown writer using the pseudonym Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda published his own unauthorized sequel to Don Quixote. Avellaneda's work was held in low regard by critics and readers - then and now - because of its poor quality and numerous errors, including misnamed characters. Cervantes would pepper his own sequel with in-jokes and other potshots at Avellaneda's work.
Angered by Avellaneda's phony sequel to his novel, Cervantes was prodded to deliver what he had promised but never completed - a sequel to Don Quixote. He immediately began work on Don Quixote, Part Two which would be published in late 1615. Both novels would later be published in one epic volume, which first appeared in 1617. From then on, Don Quixote would be published as one long volume.
Where the first part of Don Quixote was pure farce, the second part is more serious - a philosophical treatise on deception. Quixote's imaginary quests are the result of incredibly cruel practical jokes played on him by wealthy patrons. These jokes take a great emotional toll on Quixote, who eventually regains his sanity and renounces chivalry. He dies a sane but sad and broken man. Don Quixote would be adapted numerous times for the stage, screen, radio, and television. Its most famous stage adaptation, a play called Man of La Mancha, would itself be adapted as an award winning Broadway musical. The musical's original lyrics, written by British poet W.H. Auden, were replaced due to their scathingly anti-establishment themes.
Miguel de Cervantes died in April of 1616 at the age of 68. His last great novel, Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda would be published posthumously in 1617.
Quote Of The Day
"The pen is the tongue of the mind." - Miguel de Cervantes
Today's video features a dramatic reading from Miguel de Cervantes' classic novel, Don Quixote. Enjoy!