This Post is about Pirates

Sorta. It’s actually about Cervantes. But stay with me.


Cervantes led a rather unorthodox life before composing one of the greatest works in the Western canon, Don Quixote. When he was 22, scholars believe he got himself involved in a duel. The lawful punishment for this was the loss of his right hand and ten years exile. To avoid this punishment, Cervantes fled the country. He ended up being away twelve years and losing the use of his left hand.

The first complete edition in English of Don Quixote (actually "Don-Quichote"), 1620
The first complete edition in English of Don Quixote (actually “Don-Quichote”), 1620


Cervantes proudly worked as a soldier for a few years and participated in the Battle of Lepanto, a decisive battle between a coalition of European forces and the Ottoman Empire. Cervantes was shot three times in the course of the fighting: twice in the chest and once in the arm, which rendered his left hand permanently useless.


Four years later, still a soldier, Cervantes was on board the Sol when it was attacked and overtaken by Algerian pirates. They took him captive and he worked as a slave in Algiers for five years. Cervantes made four failed escape attempts before being ransomed by his parents. (His father, incidentally, was what we call today a “barber-surgeon.” He must have been exceptionally good with a knife.) Before leaving, however, Cervantes had to compile a number of written affidavits concerning unknown charges that he had behaved in “an ugly and vicious manner” while in captivity.


A plate from the legendary Ibarra Quixote, widely considered the finest edition of the work
A plate from the legendary Ibarra Quixote, widely considered the finest edition of the work


When Cervantes returned home, he finally fell into the rhythm of most important writers: moving from job to job desperately trying to make a living. He worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, and even as a tax collector. However it seems that he wasn’t suited to accounting. In 1597 and 1602 he was imprisoned for “irregularities in his accounts.”


It is thought that Cervantes first started writing Don Quixote, the “Bible of Humanity” (Sainte-Beuve), while in prison.


To review: Cervantes evades the law because he illegally becomes involved in a dual; he is shot three times in battle, losing the use of his left hand; he is captured by pirates, attempts to escape, and is accused of acting “viciously” while captive; finally, he is thrown in prison for “irregularities” in accounting for his tax collection. I think I like him.


Ocho Comedias, by Cervantes. This book, published in Cervantes's lifetime, is currently on display by Bauman at the Winter Antiques Show in New York.
Ocho Comedias, by Cervantes. This book, published in Cervantes’s lifetime, is currently on display by Bauman at the Winter Antiques Show in New York.


Readers, I have a vague premonition that this may be the start of a mini-series: authors with bizarre life stories. I’ve already told you about Melville and Dostoevsky, and now we have Cervantes. What other authors would you like to add?


33 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting .. no wonder … he “took off” … he didn’t want to lose the use of BOTH hands! again .. interesting story-quite the guy!!!! .. author!! Thanks much !! Gary

  2. Joel Torres says:

    J.D. Salinger would be a good choice

    1. Yes! I’ll keep him in mind. He might be a little more difficult, though…

  3. Jeffrey Yoders says:

    Got to add the most interesting man in the world: Ernest Miller Hemingway!

    Even with everything that’s become popular legend there’s still a marlin carcass full of amazing stories: use the Pilar to hunt for German U-Boats during World War II, walked away from a small plane crash when he was 60, refused to abandon his home in Cuba when the the state department demanded it and the US government blinked, not Papa!

    1. Oh, I promise, this blog will have a Hemingway post. Likely many Hemingway posts.

  4. Perhaps writing about the author Rudyard Kipling would be interesting. I liked your detailed article about Cervantes. If only I could make it to NY to see his book,Ocho Comedias, that’s on display: (I love old books). PS: Coincidently I featured Cervantes on my blog recently:

    1. Kipling certainly interests me. Thanks. Which translation of Don Quixote did you read?

      1. The Penquin classics translation by J. M. Cohen, The adventures of Don Quixote, that I found in the library.

  5. Michael says:

    I am a collector U.S. histoery at the time of our founding fathers. But I am going to deviate from my normal interest. How about Tolstoy? I just came across some signed documents of his daughter’s. How about his relationship with her–were they close?

    1. As I recall, Tolstoy had a lot of children. Like…over ten. (This from a man who advocated abstinence.) Which daughter?

    2. Michael Scarola says:

      It was from Alexandra Tolstoy.

      1. Ah, yes, she did have quite a bit of involvement in Tolstoy’s work. There’s a whole book about her that could help you much more than me:

  6. vanbraman says:

    This was very interesting to read after just finishing The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern Story by Cervantes. I now see it as a bit autobiographical :-).

    1. Cervantes did write a number of works that clearly draw inspiration from his captivity, etc. Note the hyperlink for “ugly and vicious manner” to learn more.

  7. Jeffrey Yoders says:

    Hey Mary, P.J. O’Rourke recently wrote a good essay on modern foreign affairs as they would likely be seen by Kipling. Worth a read if you’re a Kipling fan. I proudly am.

    1. Thanks, Jeffrey for the link to the essay, an interesting read.

  8. Jason Hu says:

    As I was reading this The Three Musketeers was on my TV (the one w/ Luke Evans, Mr. Darcy and Titus Pullo/the Punisher), once you get past the complete bastardization of the book, it’s not too bad…actually, yeah it is. BUT, that does get back to a point I had not considered till reading this article, I really don’t much about Alexandre Dumas, despite, having read both The Count of Monte Cristo (There was this one chapter on pharmacology and toxicology of poison, helped me pass a pharmacology exam) and The Three Musketeers. I would be obliged if you could lend me some insight into this man whom to me is a mystery.

  9. Jason Hu says:

    (Did I use whom correctly?)

    1. Jason, you actually did not! If your relative pronoun (who/whom) is the subject of the subordinate clause (as in your sentence), it should be “who.” If it is the object, you use “whom.” “I hit the man who wore gloves” –> “The man whom I hit wore gloves”

      1. Jason Hu says:

        Good call.

    1. Yes, good choice…though it may be a bit difficult.

  10. Matt says:

    Oscar Wilde’s interesting, yet tragic, life is certainly worth recognizing.

    On a lighter side, I rather enjoy Lord Byron’s college antics. It’s a concept I can’t get enough of: man and bear co-habitating on a college campus to the chagrin of school officials.

    1. I’m having really mixed feelings about Wilde right now so I do need to get ahold of myself, read more, and make a decision about him. Maybe this will spur me to do it. Certainly Byron would be easy to post about–you could do entire posts on a wide range of events in his life.

  11. Karen says:

    I propose Mary Wollstonecraft. Her story has sex, financial failures, scandal, suicide, revolution. And somewhere along the lines she wrote a few books and pioneered women’s rights.

    1. Wollstonecraft is perfect! Will definitely post about her. But then there would have to be posts on Godwin, and Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley…it’s like an Ancient Greek royal family with tragedies abounding.

  12. William says:

    How many great writers have been in prison? There must be something to this pattern.

    One of my favorites is O. Henry (also jailed for “irregular accounting.”

    1. I’ve actually been thinking of doing a post on the Top 5 Works Written in Prison…

  13. Joe Di Bari says:

    Don’t know if this is a repost but I think Poe would be apropoe and I would not be oppoesed to a bio to clear up all the fact from fiction.

  14. Harry Breen says:

    How about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Wasn’t he friends with Hodini until they had a falling out over Spiritualism?

    1. Hm…I am attracted to the central irony of Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, as a spiritualist. I’d like to look into that further so maybe the idea of a post will spur that. Thanks!

  15. Have you heard of Gustav Meyrink? He had a pretty interesting life. It’s very sad what happened to his son, though..I truly enjoyed The Golem. Maybe I will read some other works of his.

    1. Ah–I have known about the Golem but never read it. Sounds like I need to put it higher on my list, thanks!

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