Today in Literary History – January 16, 1605 – Part One of Don Quixote is published

Part One of Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece Don Quixote was published in Spain on January 16, 1605 as El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (“The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha”).

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Don Quixote in his library by Dore

Don Quixote is generally referred to as the first modern novel. Its plot arc and its scenes of dialogue distinguish it from earlier, less complex narratives.

More is known about Cervantes’s life than about his near contemporary William Shakespeare but there are still gaps and questions. It is known that Cervantes was a soldier and that he was captured and his ransom bought by his family.

Later he worked as a purchaser for the Spanish Armada and as a tax collector. The later job got him into trouble and he was twice imprisoned for “discrepancies in his accounting,” which most biographers assume is a euphemism for embezzlement.

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Don Quixote by Daumier

In the Preface to Don Quixote Cervantes says that the idea for the book came to him while he was in prison. His intention was to tell a story about real life in rural Spain and to use the authentic voice of everyday Spanish, instead of the usual mannered literary diction, as a way of satirizing high-blown chivalric romances.

The publication was immediately popular and it spawned a number of imitators who wrote other books using Cervantes’s story and characters. To counter this, Cervantes himself published a Part Two in 1615.

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Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Picasso

The book has of course given us the word Quixotic, meaning a well-intentioned but harebrained quest or adventure doomed to almost certain failure(“tilting at windmills”). Don Quixote’s illusionary and delusional battles (alongside his faithful companion Sancho Panza) and the cruel defeats he suffers have made him an extremely popular character to this day.

His story has been kept alive throughout the years in ballets, operas, plays, and of course the Broadway musical The Man of La Mancha.

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