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Life Arts    H4'ed 3/31/16

William Egginton Celebrates Cervantes' Achievement (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 31, 2016: The young literary scholar William Egginton of Johns Hopkins University contributes to our understanding of print culture 1.0 in his accessible new book The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World (Bloomsbury, 2016).

But why should progressives and liberals be interested in Egginton's new book -- or in Cervantes' 1609 Spanish novel Don Quixote? That's a fair question. However, if progressives and liberals today were to agree with Egginton's basic argument that Cervantes' big breakthrough novel helped usher in the modern world in Western culture, then they would understand modern American culture in which political liberty and economic liberty emerged historically alongside one another in our American experiment in representative democratic government. Today economic libertarians such as the Koch brothers cling to our American tradition of economic liberty. But how did Cervantes' invention of modern fiction in Don Quixote contribute to our American tradition of thought? Let me explain.

During the lifetime of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), Spain had a far-flung empire, including territories in the Americas. In the English-speaking world, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was one of Cervantes' contemporaries, and in 1611, the King James Bible appeared in English. The unprecedented expansion of formal education (in Latin) in print culture 1.0 contributed to the rise of publications in the vernacular languages, alongside many books in Latin.

The inward turn of consciousness in print culture 1.0 toward inner-directedness was also manifested in the spirituality of the Spanish mystics St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591). According to the Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello's account of the mystic sense of life in his posthumously published book The Way to Love (Doubleday, 1992; also published in India in 1991 as Call to Love), Cervantes also may have manifested the mystic sense of life.

As a Jesuit himself, de Mello understood that Jesuits cultivate the mystic sense of life. Historically in print culture 1.0, Jesuits founded colleges as their way of contributing to the spread of print culture 1.0 in European places where a residual form of oral culture 1.0 tended to flourish still in popular culture, and served as missionaries in India, China, and the Americas, places where oral culture 1.0, or a residual form of oral culture 1.0, flourished in popular culture.

The heroic work of eighteenth-century Jesuit missionaries in South America was resplendently commemorated in the 1986 movie The Mission. Concerning the famous Jesuit martyrs in North America, see Emma Anderson's book The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs (Harvard University Press, 2013).

As Egginton indicates, Cervantes may have been educated by the Jesuits in Seville (pages 40-42). Early Jesuit education was part of the larger educational movement of Renaissance humanism, which was a break from the earlier emphasis on logic in the arts course of studies in medieval universities. Concerning Jesuit education, see bilingual edition of the 1599 Jesuit plan of studies published as The Ratio Studiorum : The Official Plan for Jesuit Education (Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2005).


The American Jesuit cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003) formulated a sweeping technological thesis about human consciousness and cultural evolution. For Ong, the master technology in Western cultural history involves vowelized phonetic alphabetic writing. This form of writing contributed immeasurably to the historical emergence of the Greek philosophic tradition of thought as exemplified in Plato and Aristotle.

In connection with the historical emergence of Greek philosophic thought, Ong never tired of referring to Eric A. Havelock's book Preface to Plato (Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press, 1963). But also see Andrea Wilson Nightingale's book Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in its Cultural Context (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

However, for Ong, the Gutenberg printing press that emerged in the 1450s contributed immeasurably to the historical emergence of the modern world in Western culture. Ong details the infrastructures of print culture 1.0 in his massively researched book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958).

Concerning Ong's philosophical thought, see my online essay "Understanding Ong's Philosophical Thought":

Other classic studies of print culture 1.0 include Ian Watt's 1957 book The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (University of California Press), Richard D. Altick's 1957 book The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (University of Chicago Press), Lucian Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin's 1958 book translated as The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800 (Verso, 1976), Marshall McLuhan's 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press), and Jurgen Habermas' 1962 book translated as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (MIT Press, 1989). Later studies of print culture are far too numerous to mention here.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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