Reflecting on texts: Cervantes's advice for historians

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Gustave Doré – Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote – Part 1 – Chapter 1 – Plate 1 “A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination” Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of my life goals has long been to read Don Quixote in the original Spanish, and I recently embarked on this monumental, even quixotic, task. 

Although my great-grandfather was born and raised in northern Spain, I am decidedly not a native speaker of Spanish, and I’ve always struggled with languages that weren’t English.  Years of study in middle school, high school, and college did nothing to correct my stubborn lack of fluency.  My academic struggles did not, however, dampen my love for the language or my desire to read and speak it, and, in college, I even succeeded in muddling my way through two Spanish literature courses, looking up every other word in my trusty Cassell’s dictionary.  This, I suppose, is what has given me the notion that I might be able to make it through Cervantes’s masterwork.  Even at a steady pace, though, I estimate it’s going to take at least two years.  (After about a week, I’m only twelve pages in.)

Why would an overworked public historian with a huge backlog of books to read decide to embark on such a quest?

Lots of reasons, but an important one came through clearly as I was reading the Prologue:

Pues esta vuestra escritura no mira a más que a deshacer la autoridad y cabida que en el mundo y en el vulgo tienen los libros de caballerías, no hay para qué andéis mendigando sentencias de filósofos, consejos de la Divina Escritura, fábulas de poetas, oraciones de retóricos, milagros de santos, sino procurer que a la llana, con palabras significantes, honestas y bien colocados, salga vuestra oración y período sonoro y festive; pintando, en todo lo que alcanzaredes y fuere possible, vuestra intención, dando a entender vuestros conceptos sin intricarlos y escurecerlos.  Procurad también que, leyendo vuestra historia, el melancólico se mueva a risa, el risueño la acreciente, el simple no se enfade, el discrete se admire de la invención, el grave no la desprecie, ni el prudente deje de alabarla.

Since this work . . . intends only to undermine the authority and wide acceptance that books of chivalry have in the world and among the public, there is no reason for you to go begging for maxims from philosophers, counsel from Holy Scripture, fictions from poets, orations from rhetoricians, or miracles from saints; instead you should strive, in plain speech, with words that are straightforward, honest, and well-placed, to make your sentences and phrases sonorous and entertaining, and have them portray, as much as you can and as far as it is possible, your intention, making your ideas clear without complicating and obscuring them.  Another thing to strive for: reading your history should move the melancholy to laughter, increase the joy of the cheerful, not irritate the simple, fill the clever with admiration for its invention, not give the serious reason to scorn it, and allow the prudent to praise it. (Edith Grossman’s translation)

What a great passage for historians to read, even four centuries later.  Although Cervantes is often playful and mocking, there is an earnestness to this passage that goes beyond an author’s apology and suggests a deeply felt attitude toward the writing of history, even if Cervantes’s history was fiction.  For me, it conveys the message that we (public historians) should focus on the goal of undermining the authority and wide acceptance of pompous, pedantic, even dangerous stories with plain speech that is entertaining and clever.  We don’t need the “maxims of philosophers” to make our case—although their writing might inform our thinking—only our ideas, which are clearly stated, honest, and straightforward, and not complicated or obscured.

I didn’t set out to discover lessons for historians in Don Quixote.  My desire to read the book had more to do with my own personal search for identity and the hope that I’d be entertained, even edified, by Cervantes’s work.  I’ve always tried to balance the large amounts of nonfiction reading I’m required to do for my job with some fiction.  I’m no speed reader, though, so I need to choose carefully.  Often, a novel will end up being my companion for a few months.  For this kind of long-term commitment, there’s nothing like a classic piece of literature.  From a psychological perspective, it can provide a needed escape from workaday pressures, and I admit that I find a degree of comfort in getting lost in past (fictional) worlds.

There is something more than escapism, however, in reading classic literature.  As a public historian, I wish I had the skill of Cervantes in creating fascinating characters and all-encompassing worlds.  Think of how much more entertaining my public programs and field trips would be!  Seriously, though, public historians who strive to emulate great writers’ deep awareness of human nature and ability to construct powerful narratives are bound to reach their audiences more effectively.  Even though we can’t all be Cervantes, we can be a little more observant and skeptical in our daily lives, and, more importantly, we can tell stories that both entertain and challenge authority.

I don’t know if I’ll make it all the way to the end of Don Quixote, but the journey is off to a good start so far.

~ Will Walker is an assistant professor of history at the Cooperstown Graduate Program.  His book, A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum, was recently released by the University of Massachusetts Press.

1 comment
  1. T.H. Gray says:

    Only historians worry about cheating on their non-fiction with fiction. Still, if you’re looking for something fun to read, yet you don’t want to stray too far, check out our online bibliography of comic and satirical histories. You can find it at

    T.H. Gray, Director-Curator
    American Hysterical Society

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