In a certain village of vast early America, whose name I do not recall, a book fell open. Then another. And another. By 1860, many generations’ worth of American readers had imbibed the two-volume work of Spain’s early modern master, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote, or, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha (1605). Cervantes’ metafiction of a mad knight-errant, often hailed as the first Western novel, bustled and blistered with originality.
From New England to New Orleans, Americans savored the wild exploits of Don Quixote, his loyal squire Sancho Panza, and the fair damsel Dulcinea. Cervantes’ plot was spare, but his literary architecture was complex. Driven insane by reading books of chivalry, a country gentleman embarks on a series of brave and foolish deeds meant to save the world and/or his legacy. Don Quixote senses and seeks absolution for his madness only (spoiler) on his deathbed, at tale’s end. Miguel Cervantes’ satire of feudalism and the “questing” spirit that drove exploration, with a rare portrait of insanity in the age of colonial discovery, was a transatlantic bestseller for the next four centuries. Roughly 30,000 copies were printed in Cervantes’ lifetime (1547-1616), and new translations routinely traveled through libraries, homes, and schools as the United States grew. How did the “man of La Mancha” speak to early Americans?
Today, in celebration of Cervantes’ birthday, it’s worth wondering how echoes of and allusions to his colorful cast rippled through the transatlantic world. Idle readers and serious scholars alike grabbed onto the epic’s glittery threads. In fact, Don Quixote was one of the few fictional works that recurs on the founders’ private book lists. Benjamin Franklin kept several versions and translations on tap, beginning in his youth. As he wrapped up the federal constitutional convention and hurried back to Mount Vernon, soon-to-be-President George Washington paused to purchase an English translation of the work for 22 shillings. At the general’s death, Don Quixote stood guard with seventeen other prized books found “On the Table.” The epic’s military drama drew Washington’s eye, while other readers like John Adams prized Cervantes’ diagnoses of the human character. The interior journey, it turned out, was equally important for readers to uncover. As the eighteenth century world grew and travelers swelled, early Americans found out–as Don Quixote did–that what they read about the world often did not match up with the experience of surviving it.
John Adams, shipwrecked on Spain’s Camino de Santiago near the end of 1779, barely escaped his unscheduled pilgrimage through Miguel Cervantes’ homeland. By turns a fascinated and a terrified tourist, the elder Adams and son John Quincy crawled along on donkeyback to reach the Paris peace table. In his diary, the younger Adams snickered at the odd sight they must have made to the local muleteers: “We sot out like so many Don Quixote’s and Sancho Pancha’s.” The hunched profile of Cervantes’ steel-capped knight plodded again through John Quincy’s imagination a decade later. “I do not know by what association of Ideas, I never can think of a Wind-mill, but what Don Quixote, comes into my mind,” he wrote. “He used to fight Wind-mills, and if his Head, had not run so much upon fighting, perhaps he might have built them.” Around him, the colonies broadened into a new nation. And Miguel Cervantes’ mad, misbegotten nobleman kept steady pace on the bestseller list, offering Americans a path to explore self and society anew.
Spanish selfhood–as Cervantes constructed and then deconstructed it–now provided a unique model for American introspection. As the centuries changed hands, early Americans proved adroit in resurrecting Cervantes and his epic to describe their own quests. The term “quixotic” invaded the popular lexicon; between the 1770s and 1840s rural and urban American newspapers used it as shorthand to describe any number of idealistic but ill-conceived expeditions and ministries, utopias and schemes. Cervantes’ tide of heroes and villains seeped into private correspondence and spinoff plays, too. When Samuel Stanhope Smith took apart a definition of moral liberty in a 1778 letter to James Madison, he used Cervantes’ troubled knight to level his argument’s final blow. Citizens must recognize, Smith wrote, the“true knight-errants in philosophy” versus those, who “like Don Quixote when they cannot find real adventures have an admirable talent at inventing imaginary ones.” Madison got the reference. A steady education of Cervantes, Daniel Defoe, and Laurence Sterne salted the colonial generation’s letters with borrowed wit.
No other foreign novel seemed to claim the American mind with such fervor until the Civil War, when Northern and Southern readers swept up Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. There’s much more to say about why Miguel Cervantes’ foreign masterpiece knits together Americans now, and in the Age of Revolutions: the poignancy of an Old World free-falling into eclipse; the role of popular authors in making selves and unmaking nobility; the tales-within-tales that snarl any good story and lead us to query how mad a narrator/historian may be. For, framed between knightly ordeals, Cervantes trailed bits of wisdom–and, better, hope–for the New World generations whom he never met. Early Americans, battling through their political parties and diverse religions in new towns with new names, turned to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and read: “Until death, it’s all life.”