Cervantes: No One-Hit Wonder

By Alan H. Feiler

William Egginton says he isn’t tilting at windmills when contending that the conventional wisdom about Don Quixote doesn’t even scrape the surface of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece.

“People think it’s about idealism or windmills, or it’s a work of satire,” says Egginton, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and professor of German and Romance languages and literatures. “It’s so much more rich and complex. It’s really about understanding and interpreting reality, and sometimes getting it wrong, and asking the question of why are you getting it wrong and for whose interests. Cervantes is working on many different levels, with a gusto and fluidity that the most accomplished writer or filmmaker of the 20th century would have trouble matching.”

Egginton’s new book, The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World, arrives in bookstores just in time for the 400th anniversary of the Spanish writer’s death.

Unlike previous scholarship about Cervantes, Egginton’s book, published by Bloomsbury, is not exclusively a biography, a work of literary criticism, or intellectual history. It is a fusion of all three.

“It examines who was Cervantes the man, what were his intellectual achievements and contributions, and why was he at this particular time in history the one to do what he did,” Egginton says. “I don’t believe that story has been told before, and it’s an important one to tell.”

The premise for the book began to take shape in 2011 when Egginton wrote about Cervantes’ historical impact for “The Stone,” a forum for contemporary philosophers in The New York Times’ Opinionator section. Not long afterward, a literary agent contacted him about expanding the column into a book.

“This was an entirely new experience, to write for a general audience,” Egginton says. “I overhauled the book three times before going to press. My editor took his job very seriously and worked really hard with me.”

Egginton says the book is geared toward an educated readership with a liberal arts background. “I hope it reaches readers who want to expand their minds and enjoy thinking deep thoughts about the world,” he says.

With the Scientific Revolution and the explorations of the Americas underway, Cervantes came along at a pivotal moment in world history, Egginton says. Europeans in particular were expanding their intellectual as well as geographic boundaries, and Cervantes came to the fore with a wealth of life experiences.

As a former soldier who was enslaved for five years and returned home to a country largely indifferent to his sacrifices and contributions, Cervantes was committed to being a writer and creating a new vehicle for storytelling and expressing concern for the human condition.

The result was Don Quixote, widely considered to be the first modern novel, featuring characters—like the book’s namesake and Sancho Panza—whom readers continue to enjoy and identify with.

“Cervantes went from being a true believer to a deeply disappointed man, but with great humor and love for his fellow citizens,” Egginton says. “All of that melted together into the crucible of his writing and out of it came this extraordinary invention he used to filter all of those experiences. With just the right talents, he was perfectly positioned to write something with the right touch of humanity and wit that would go viral in the most global way possible at the time and continue to influence people hundreds of years later.”

While most Americans are largely unfamiliar with Cervantes’ extensive body of work, his impact on world literature is unparalleled, says Egginton. Even Shakespeare was influenced by Cervantes.

“We tend to be Anglocentric. But the great writers we recognize as the forefathers of our own great American novel—the English novelists of the late 18th century and 19th century—all knew Cervantes’ work,” Egginton says. “He was extremely highly regarded. The great writers from Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s did a lot to turn the tide, and there’s been a pushback. We’re seeing a correction to that these days with a lot of scholarship being done in the area of Spanish and Latin American literature.”

Egginton says what sealed the immortality of Don Quixote was its sense of empathy and exploration of how one perceives reality, with a twist of subversion.

“The message is, be highly aware of the media through which you learn about the world because they’re going to shape the message drastically. Cervantes always was pulling the curtain back and saying, ‘They gotcha again.’ The way he did that was to show a world in which people were constantly being disabused of the certainties of their notions. He could take characters and make you feel for them. That was revolutionary and deeply impactful.”

With The Man Who Invented Fiction, Egginton hopes to dispel the misconception that Cervantes wrote Don Quixote and little else of great consequence. “He was an extraordinarily productive and innovative writer of different areas and genres, and not a one-hit wonder. That’s far from the case.”