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Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”: A Celebration of the Spanish Language

(The following is a post by Juan Manuel Pérez, Reference Specialist, Hispanic Division.)

Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra by E. Dorda. A gift to the Hispanic Reading Room, Library of Congress.

This year Spain and the world are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), author of “Don Quixote,” the first novel written in the modern world, published in 1605. Written as a criticism of the chivalric novels and poetry so common in the Middle Ages, this book is as popular today as it was when it was first published and has influenced many writers since then. That’s why the old Spanish saying, “with this book Spain learned how to read and the world learned how to think” continues to hold true today. The novel has been translated into practically every known language and has had thousands of editions. In fact, only the Bible has had more editions and versions than “Don Quixote.” Cervantes is part of a period in Spanish history known as “El Siglo de Oro” (the Golden Age), which produced many highly influential thinkers and writers, such as Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Luis de Góngora, Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio, Tirso de Molina, Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, and Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, among others.

Title page, showing hawk on arm, in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, El ingenioso hidalgo don Qvuixote de la Mancha…, Madrid, I. de la Cuesta, 1605.

Cervantes has had such an impact on Spain and on the Spanish language that often Spanish is referred to as “la lengua de Cervantes” (“the language of Cervantes”). Every year the Spanish Ministry of Culture awards the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the Spanish language, in honor of the lifetime achievements of an outstanding writer in Spanish. The 2015 winner was Mexican writer Fernando del Paso. “Don Quixote” also influenced many modern U.S. writers, among them Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald. So deeply do the images, themes and words of Cervantes resonate that centuries later we still caution against “tilting at windmills” and look wonderingly at the quixotic schemes of our more creative friends. Cervantes’ master work has also inspired a ballet, an opera, a Broadway play, and scores of cartoons casting politicians and celebrities in the roles of Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza.

When it comes to collections of editions of “Don Quixote” and other Cervantes miscellany, few libraries in the world can compete with the Library of Congress. From the two definitive “Don Quixote” editions of 1605 — one a pirated edition that appeared in Lisbon, Portugal and the other published by the author in Spain — to the luminously illustrated recent translation into the Quechua language, to Cervantes’ other novels and poetry, the Library of Congress’ collection of cervantina is unparalleled. A wonderful exposition on the Library’s Cervantes collection is presented in “Works by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in the Library of Congress,” compiled by Reynaldo Aguirre, former Senior Bibliographic Specialist in the Hispanic Division, and edited by Georgette M. Dorn, Chief of the Hispanic Division. A free digital version is available via the Library of Congress catalog. We encourage you to visit the Library of Congress and enjoy this magnificent collection!