Miguel de Cervantes: The Fascinating History of a Literary Genius
Miguel de Cervantes is the most important and celebrated figure in Spanish literature. His novel Don Quixote has been translated into over 60 languages with editions still printed regularly.
Miguel de Cervantes wrote much more than his famous masterpiece, however; he dabbled in a variety of major literary genres. He was a notable short-story writer, and a few gems in his 1613 collection of Novelas exemplares (Exemplary Stories) are thought to resemble the ingenuity of Don Quixote, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Read on to learn more about this author’s tumultuous life story.
Miguel de Cervantes was born in a small village outside of Madrid called Alcalá de Henares on (or around) September 29, 1547 and was the fourth of the seven children. His father Rodrigo worked as a surgeon, and his mother Leonor was literate, which was a rarity for women at the time. His family always struggled to make ends meet.
Little is known of Cervantes’s early education. Unlike most Spanish writers of his era, he apparently did not attend university. Nevertheless, he became an avid reader. In 1569, around age 21, he published his first poem. That same year he moved to Italy, and in 1570 he enlisted as a soldier in a Spanish infantry regiment.
From Soldier to Slave
In a battle at sea in September 1571, Miguel de Cervantes was reported to have fought courageously despite having a fever. He received two gunshot wounds to the chest, and a third bullet permanently damaged his left hand. Luckily for him (and the world of readers), he was right-handed.
Upon leaving the army, he set sail to return to his home in Spain in September 1575. Unfortunately, his ship was attacked and captured by Barbary pirates. Miguel de Cervantes and his brother Rodrigo were sold into slavery in Algiers, which was the center of the Christian slave traffic in the Muslim world. The formal letters and documents found in his possession led his captors to believe he was an important figure. They therefore raised his ransom price, which prolonged his captivity. Somehow this elevated status also protected Miguel de Cervantes from being tortured or killed despite his four unsuccessful escape attempts.
Finally, in September 1580, Miguel’s family was able to raise the ransom money and he was released. Although difficult, this adventurous period of Miguel de Cervantes’s life provided him with ample subject matter for his future literary works, namely the captive’s tale in Don Quixote, two Algiers plays, and episodes in various other writings.
Writer and Taxman
Back home in Spain at last, Miguel de Cervantes spent most of the rest of his life in a way that contrasted starkly with his decade of dangerous adventures. Despite attaining stable employment, he was constantly on the brink of poverty. He’d have to wait a quarter century until his literary success with Don Quixote.
Isabel de Saavedra, Cervantes’ only child, was born of an affair he had with a young married woman. His daughter was eventually raised in her father’s household. In 1584, he married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios.
Becoming a Published Author
Miguel de Cervantes’ first published fiction, La Galatea, appeared in 1585 in the then- fashionable pastoral romance genre. With the assistance of a small circle of literary friends, including poet Luis Gálvez de Montalvo, the book brought Cervantes’ name to the attention of the reading public.
At this time Cervantes also began writing plays, in what later deemed the early period of the Golden Age of Spanish drama. He wrote two plays in 1585, one of which, La confusa (Confusion), he later described as the best he ever wrote. Long after the fact, he claimed to have written 20 to 30 plays in this period. He noted the humble success; the plays were reportedly received by the audience without boos and no rotten vegetables were thrown.
Back to Office Work
By 1587, it had become clear that Miguel de Cervantes was not going to make his living from literature. Thus, he found a different direction for his career as a commissary of provisions for the Spanish Armada. Requisitioning corn and oil from rural villages was not a popular task, but it was a steady job that took him traveling all over Andalusia. Like his wartime battles and capture, he would eventually fictionalize these travel experiences in his stories.
After the Spanish Armada’s defeat in 1588, Miguel de Cervantes moved to Seville, which was one of Europe’s largest cities at the time. He evidently did maintain some contact with the literary world. Historical records show that he purchased certain books, and he clearly found time for reading, as any great writer must.
In 1594, Cervantes sought a new post in Madrid. His new position took him back to Andalusia to collect overdue taxes. Just like before, Miguel’s professional role involved constant arguments with municipal leaders and church authorities. The Catholic Church excommunicated him three times over the years!
Yet, Miguel de Cervantes did not have the temperament of a businessman; he was a writer at heart. In 1595, he won a poetry competition in Zaragoza. He is believed to have started seriously writing stories around this time,
Once again, misfortune struck. In the summer of 1597, discrepancies in his accounts landed him in jail, where he was kept for several months. Perhaps conceived there the idea of Don Quixote there, as suggested by this remark in the first prologue:
“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?”
In 1604, Miguel de Cervantes sold the rights of Don Quixote, Part I to the publisher-bookseller Francisco de Robles for an undisclosed sum, which meant that he would unfortunately earn no royalties from the eventual, and quite substantial, book sales. The novel came out in January 1605 and was an immediate success. At age 57, Cervantes was entering the most productive period of his career.
Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote both makes fun of the adventures of literary knights-errant and addresses the historical realities of Spain in the early 1600s. Cervantes’ strikingly modern narrative features a stunning array of characters with diverse beliefs and perspectives. Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term heteroglossia (“multiple voices”) for the inclusion of many differing opinions and deemed it essential to the development of the modern novel.
Thomas Shelton’s English translation of Part I appeared in 1612. Miguel de Cervantes’ name would soon be well known in England, France, and Italy. In 1613, his 12 Exemplary Stories were published. Cervantes’s claim in the short story collection’s prologue to be the first to write original novellas in Castilian is justified.
Miguel de Cervantes had begun the monumental task of writing Part II by 1614. In September of that year, a bogus Part II was published under the name of Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, an unidentified Aragonese man. The author insulted Cervantes in the prologue. Naturally, he took offense and responded, though with relative restraint. He cleverly peppered criticism of Fernández de Avellaneda and his fake Quixote and Sancho into his own work from Chapter 59 onward.
Don Quixote, Part II was published in late 1615. The sequel developed and diversified the original story without sacrificing familiarity. Most critics have found it to be richer and more profound. In the dedication, written three days before his death, Miguel de Cervantes said a heartfelt goodbye to the world. He died in April 1616. (Learn more about the mystery surrounding Cervantes’ lost remains, which were rediscovered within the past decade.)
The differences between Parts I and II prove Miguel de Cervantes’ awareness of the power of the printed word. Don Quixote’s history began with his obsessive reading of knightly romances, whereas in Part II, he realizes that his own adventures are being eagerly read and discussed by others. His unique reworkings of multiple literary forms illustrate how well Cervantes understood both the marketplace and literature’s social effect.
Cervantes’s influence is evident in the immediately recognizable forms of his two major protagonists, Don Quixote and Sancho, whose adventures reappear continually across the cultural landscape in theatre, film, opera, ballet, and even comic books.
Miguel de Cervantes is widely accepted as the founding father of Latin American literature. William Shakespeare was a contemporary of Cervantes, as well as a great admirer of his writing. In 1613, Shakespeare wrote a play called The History of Cadenio, based on a character named Cardenio taken from Don Quixote.
One of the main tenets of Don Quixote is that the lines between fiction and historical truth are frequently blurred, because both depend on the reader’s perception. This opposition between idealism and realism as a leading theme in Cervantes’ books, stories, and plays, remain influential to this day.
Swiftly translated into English, French, and Italian, Don Quixote was viewed primarily as a satire of Spanish customs. The German Romantics, who read Don Quixote as a tragic hero, are the ones who granted the author worldwide fame posthumously. In contrast, 19th century Spanish academics dismissed Cervantes’ accomplishments, despite the fact that his style and language actually set the standard for modern Castilian. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the acclaim of foreign critics returned Miguel de Cervantes’ name to glory in his own country.
Now that you know all about Cervantes, are you inspired to read Don Quixote? It’s a good idea to explore this great work (and other Spanish literature) with the help of a teacher so that you’ll get the most out of it. Homeschool Spanish Academy provides classes personalized to your level and tailored by our native Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala. Sign up now for a free trial to turn your love of literature into authentic fluency.
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