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15 Things You Might Not Know About Don Quixote

Even if you have never picked up a copy of Miguel de Cervantes’s novel The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha, you’re doubtlessly familiar with the story: one of delusional noblemen, portly squires, and windmill monsters. Nevertheless, there could be a few little-known facts you haven’t heard about the two-volume 17th-century masterpiece. 

1. DON QUIXOTE IS CONSIDERED THE FIRST MODERN NOVEL.

Such esteemed thinkers as award-winning literary critic Harold Bloom and decorated novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes have declared that Don Quixote is the very first true example of the modern novel. Bloom identifies the arcs of change bracing the story’s titular character and his companion Sancho Panza as the primary marker that distinguishes it as the first of its breed, and Fuentes suggested that the nuance in the dialogue and characterization is chief in separating Don Quixote from all preceding texts. 

2. CERVANTES CAME UP WITH THE STORY WHILE HE WAS IN JAIL. 

Though he’d eventually go on to pen one of the most famous novels in world history, a young Miguel de Cervantes suffered from a plight familiar to any aspiring writer: working a day job to pay the bills. Among the varied gigs Cervantes kept in the years before his literary breakout was a job as a tax collector for the Spanish government. However, frequent “mathematic irregularities” landed Cervantes in the Crown Jail of Seville twice between 1597 and 1602. It was during this time in the slammer that Cervantes is believed to have first thought up the story that would become Don Quixote

3. CERVANTES NAMED THE MAIN CHARACTER AFTER HIS WIFE’S UNCLE. 

Near the conclusion of the second volume of Don Quixote, Cervantes reveals the real name of his hero to be Alonso Quixano (alternatively spelled “Quijano”). He borrowed this name from Alonso de Quesada y Salazar, the great uncle of Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, whom Cervantes married in 1584. Alonso is believed to have inspired not only the name but also the general characterization of the novel’s hero. And, the name Quixote came from the word for "thigh armor." 

4. CERVANTES PLUGGED DON QUIXOTE: PART II IN THE FOREWORD OF ANOTHER STORY. 

Cervantes released the 12-part novella collection Novelas ejemplares in 1613 after having penned the series incrementally over the eight-year span that followed the publication of the original volume of Don Quixote. A foreword to the collection not only introduced the new work, but also promised readers that Cervantes was planning a continuation of the incomplete Gentleman of La Mancha fable. (His advertisement for an upcoming book ahead of an entirely independent work could be seen as an ancestor to the modern day movie trailer.) This second volume was published two years later, in 1615.

5. A PHONY PART II WAS PUBLISHED AS A HOAX. 

Just one year after Cervantes’ Novelas ejemplares foreword plug, however, a volume of mysterious origin wormed its way into the Don Quixote canon. Written by an author who used the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, the unofficial sequel was infamous for the feeble quality of writing and the numerous potshots it took at Cervantes and the source material.

6. THIS FAKE SEQUEL IS THOUGHT TO HAVE CONVINCED CERVANTES TO FINISH HIS OWN. 

Although Cervantes had already gone on record about intending to wrap up the story of Don Quixote in a second text, it is generally believed that the Avellaneda debacle was the straw that broke the camel’s back and motivated the author to transfer his intentions to the page. Cervantes was so enraged by the hoax that he wrote the existence of Avellaneda’s novel into his own Part II, maligning it for poor quality and misunderstanding of his original characters and story. 

7. DON QUIXOTE HELPED ESTABLISH THE MODERN SPANISH LANGUAGE. 

The variant of the Spanish language in which Cervantes penned his novel was actually a rather new development at the turn of the 17th century and would be much more familiar to contemporary Spanish speakers than the colloquial tongue of the era. The popularity of Don Quixote cemented the modern Spanish that is now the second most commonly spoken language in the world, behind Mandarin. 

8. CERVANTES DREW FROM HIS EXPERIENCES AS A SLAVE TO WRITE THE NOVEL. 

A particularly empathetic sequence in the novel sees the hero and Sancho Panza freeing a group of galley slaves from captivity. Cervantes’ special sensitivity to these recipients of Don Quixote’s chivalry likely stems from his own experiences in servitude in the 1570s. Cervantes spent five years as a slave in Algiers, attempting escape on more than one occasion. 

9. THE NOVEL IS CREDITED FOR THE SPREAD OF A POPULAR IDIOM. 

Today, the proverb “the proof is in the pudding” is a regular fixture in the vernacular. The phrase is in fact a corruption of the somewhat more readily coherent—albeit admittedly less euphonic—variant, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” While the latter traces roots to a 14th century-born Middle English predecessor (“Jt is ywrite that euery thing Hymself sheweth in the tastyng”) and would appear in various similar forms for the next few hundred years, the modern phrasing is in fact believed to have debuted in an 18th century English-language translation of Don Quixote. The phrase was introduced by translator Pierre Antoine Motteux in lieu of Cervantes’ original maxim: “al freír de los huevos lo verá,” or “you will see when the eggs are fried.” 

10. THE FIRST TRANSLATION OF DON QUIXOTE WAS TOO LITERAL. 

The very first translation of Don Quixote was Dublin-born author Thomas Shelton’s English take on the text, published in 1608. Shelton didn’t exemplify quite the same degree of linguistic creativity as his successor Motteux. The former’s rigid adherence to Cervantes’ diction, in fact, was his publication’s greatest downfall. For instance, where an English speaker would substitute the word “inches” at Cervantes’ idiomatic mention of “dedos,” Shelton applied the literal translation: “fingers.” 

11. A FAMOUS AUTHOR CITED DON QUIXOTE AS HIS FAVORITE LITERARY CHARACTER. 

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky committed his admiration for Don Quixote to print on numerous occasions. In a letter to his niece Sophia Ivanova, Dostoevsky heralded Cervantes’ protagonist as the superlative literary hero: “Of all the beautiful individuals in Christian literature, one stands out as the most perfect, Don Quixote,” adding, “but he is beautiful only because he is ridiculous.” 

12. ONE ORGANIZATION DEEMED THE BOOK THE GREATEST PIECE OF LITERATURE EVER WRITTEN.

In 2002, the Norwegian Book Club polled esteemed writers across 54 countries to construct a list of the 100 greatest books ever published, naming the project the Bokklubben World Library. The official stance of the list, which covers literature as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh and as recent as José Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness, is that all represented titles enjoy equal footing. That is, with the one exception: Don Quixote, which the Bokklubben World Library distinguishes as “the best literary work ever written.”

13. THE BOOK HAS BEEN TRANSLATED INTO AT LEAST 50 LANGUAGES. 

Today, Don Quixote boasts prints in Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Basque, Latin, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Romanian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Hindi, Irish, Gaelic, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Greek, Turkish, Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Slovenian, Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Georgian, Esperanto, Yiddish, and Braille. 

14. CERVANTES DID NOT PROFIT OFF OF THE SUCCESS OF DON QUIXOTE. 

Despite the near-immediate popularity of the original 1605 novel, Cervantes barely made a dime off its publication, since it was common in the 17th century for a writer to be denied royalties on his or her published works. The ramifications of this setup could be seen as especially harsh in the case of Don Quixote, considering the fact that… 

15. DON QUIXOTE MIGHT BE THE BEST-SELLING NOVEL OF ALL TIME. 

While the age of the novel makes it hard to fully estimate the scope of its distribution, many scholars estimate that it has reached a readership of 500 million. This figure would make it the best selling novel in world history by far, topping Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities’ 200 million count and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s 150 million count.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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