Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Critical and Public Reception of the Book “Don Quixote”

Featuring Henry Edward Watts

Previously on Cervantes' "Don Quixote" Reforms Literature. And now Henry Edward Watts

Time: 1605
Place: Spain

The reception which Don Quixote met with on its first appearance was cordial beyond all precedent, and such as must have convinced the author, who was evidently doubtful of his new experiment, that here at last his genius had found its true field of exercise. The persons of culture, indeed, received the book coldly. The half-learned sneered at the title as absurd and at the style as vulgar. Who was this ingenio lego--this lay, unlearned wit--"a poor Latin-less author," which is what they said of Shakespeare--outside of the cultos proper, of no university education--who had dared to parody the tastes of the higher circles? The envy and malice of all his rivals--especially of those who found themselves included in the satire--even the great Lope himself, the phoenix of his age, then at the height of his glory--spoke out, with open mouth, against the author. The chorus of dispraise was swelled by all those, persons chiefly of high station, whose fashion of reading had been ridiculed. A book, professing to be of entertainment, in which knights and knightly exercises were made a jest of--in which peasants, innkeepers, muleteers, and other vulgar people spoke their own language and behaved after their own fashion--was a daring innovation, all the more offensive because the laugh was directed at what was felt to be a national infirmity. Who was the bold man who, being neither courtier nor ecclesiastic, made sport for the world out of the weaknesses of caballeros? An old soldier of Lepanto, indeed! Lepanto was a name outworn. Spain was now in a new world. Crusades against the unbeliever, even those more popular ones which combined the saving of souls with the getting of gold, were long out of fashion. Lastly, the entire ecclesiastical body--the formidable phalanx of the endowed, with their patrons dependents, and dupes--though they were too dull to perceive and too dense to feel the shafts aimed at obscurantism and superstition, had something more than a suspicion that this book called Don Quixote was a book to be discouraged.

In spite of the frowns and sneers of the quality, however, and the ill-concealed disgust of the learned, Don Quixote was received with unbounded applause by the common people.[11] Those best critics in every age and country, the honest readers, who were neither bourgeois nor genteel, neither learned nor ignorant, welcomed the book with a joyous enthusiasm, as a wholly new delight and source of entertainment. Nothing like it had ever appeared before. It was an epoch-marking book, if ever there was one.

The proud and happy author himself spoke of his success with a frank complacency which, in any other man, would savor of vanity. Some seven or eight editions of Don Quixote are supposed to have been printed in the first year, of which six are now extant--two of Madrid, two of Lisbon, and two of Valencia.[12] The number of copies issued from the press in one year was probably in excess of the number reached by any book since the invention of printing.[13] But though all Spain talked of Don Quixote and read Don Quixote, and though the book brought him much fame, some consolation, and a few good friends, it does not appear to have helped to mend the fortunes of Cervantes in any material degree. In accordance with the usual dispensation, the author derived the least benefit from his success. Francisco Robles and Juan de la Cuesta, doubtless, made a good thing of it; but to Miguel de Cervantes there must have come but a small share of the profit. The laws of copyright were, in that age, little regarded; and it may be questioned whether, in a book published in Madrid, they could be enforced outside of Castile. The pirates and the wreckers were busy upon Don Quixote from its very earliest appearance; and its quick and plentiful reproduction in all the chief cities, not only of Spain but of the outside Spanish dominions, though highly flattering to the author, could not have greatly helped to lighten his life of toil and penury.


[11] Con general aplauso de las gentes--he says in the Second Part of Don Quixote, speaking through the mouth of the Duchess. The legend, revived in the present age, that Don Quixote hung fire on the first publication, and that the author wrote anonymously a tract called El Buscapie (The Search-foot), in order to explain his story and its object, rests only upon the evidence of one Ruidiaz, and is contradicted by all the facts of the case. No such aid was necessary to push the sale of the book, whose purpose had been sufficiently explained by the author in his preface. The so-called Buscapie, published in 1848 by Adolfo de Castro, is an impudent forgery, which has imposed upon no one. It is the composition of Señor de Castro himself, who is a farceur, of some wit and more effrontery. Ticknor is even too serious in the attention which he bestows on Señor de Castro and his work, which an English publisher has thought worthy of a translation.

[12] Señor Gayangos is of opinion that there were other editions of 1605 which have wholly perished; one probably at Barcelona, the press of which city was very active in that year; one at Pamplona, and probably one at Saragossa, which were capitals of old kingdoms. See also Señor Asensio's letter to the Ateneo, No. 23, p. 296; and the Bibliography of Don Quixote at the end of this volume.

[13] The ordinary obrada, or impression, of a book at this period, I am told by Señor Gayangos--and there can be no better authority--was 250 copies. But in the case of a popular book like Don Quixote the impression would be larger--probably 500 copies. Supposing 8 editions to have been issued in 1605, there would thus have been printed 4,000 copies in the first year--a number unprecedently large in an age when readers were few and books a luxury.

Continued on Sunday, November 16th.

More information here.
Read the book here.

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