Cervantes’s Unparalleled Influence: The Man Who Invented Fiction

Editor's Note:

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and a professor of German and Romance languages and literatures at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Man Who Invented Fiction, and joins Signature today to discuss Cervantes’ influence on the history of literature.

In January of 1605, Cervantes published Don Quixote, and its rapid success brought him fame throughout Spain. By February, shipments of the book were leaving for the New World, and when international dignitaries, including England’s Lord Howard of Effingham, descended on the new capital Valladolid to celebrate the birth of the future king Philip IV on Good Friday, Sancho and Quixote were featured among the costumed characters who thronged around his retinue. Included in the many gifts presented to Lord Howard on this festive occasion was a copy of Don Quixote, already in its second edition. By three years before the second part was published, Don Quixote had been translated into French, English, Italian, and German, and its author was renowned throughout Europe.

Brussels saw two editions released by 1611; figures dressed as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza appeared at a procession in Heidelberg in 1613; and in England, John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont adopted one of the novel’s interpolated stories into their play The Coxcomb, written between 1608 and 1610. In 1612, Thomas Shelton published his enormously successful English translation, The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha and, although it has been lost, William Shakespeare joined forces with John Fletcher to write a play called Cardenio, since lost, which was inspired by another episode from the novel.

With the publication of Don Quixote, Cervantes created one of the world’s first runaway, international bestsellers. From its publication in the early days of 1605 to the present, Don Quixote has arguably become the most published work of literature in history. More than that, its influence on writers who have followed has been unparalleled. A litany of the greatest writers of modern times have singled him out as having beaten the trail for all writing to follow: Fielding, Flaubert, Schiller, Goethe, and Kundera, to name only a few, have all sung his praises; William Faulkner claimed he reread Don Quixote at least once a year.

In the words of the critic Harold Bloom, Don Quixote is a novel that “contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake.” When the Norwegian Nobel Institute polled one hundred leading fiction writers to name the single most important work of literature in history, more than half of them named Don Quixote; no other author’s work came close. In 1997, Life magazine declared the book’s publication one of the hundred most important events of the millennium.

To be sure, Cervantes’s direct influence on the history of literature is unparalleled, but his indirect influence on intellectual history in general is simply immeasurable. His books were to be found on the shelves of every intellectual in early modern Europe, and it became a keystone of Western intellectual culture, read and appreciated by thinkers from David Hume and Baruch Spinoza to Hegel and the German Romantics, who went so far as to call it the first sign of a truly modern consciousness. While this co-optation has irked some literary scholars who believe it to stem from a misreading of Cervantes’s intention, there can be no doubt that these thinkers saw something essential and new at work in Cervantes’s prose, regardless of what he intended.

Cervantes’s work incorporated, reacted to, and was shaped by the myriad changes taking place around him and that led to the modern world. The style he invented was the expression of a world in flux, and he helped give that flux a literary shape. And since he went on to become one of the most widely read authors of all time, his way of writing had enormous influence on how subsequent generations wrote stories, made arguments, and in general perceived themselves and others. In addition to the more obvious impact he had in literature and the arts, his work influenced thinkers whose writings would later lay the foundations for developments in politics, economics, and science. Adrift in a time of tumultuous change, Cervantes invented a new kind of fiction to help him digest and understand his world; and that fiction in turn helped give birth to ours.