In 1883, the same year in which Marx and Wagner died and Keynes and Mussolini were born, Dolores Gasset y Artime, of Madrid, gave birth to her second child, a boy, and called him José.
The young José Ortega y Gasset lived in an immensely busy household, for his father, besides being editor of El Impartial's prestigious literary supplement El Lunes, was also a deputy in the Cortes for Padrón (Galicia). From a very early age he would have had contact with a wide range of literary and political characters through his father's daily tertulias. His childhood was materially comfortable. His oft-quoted remark of later years that he was ‘born on a rotary press’ is itself significant of the relative wealth into which he was born: most newspapers simply could not afford one.
By 1887, aged four, Ortega was beginning to read, and in 1890 he won a toy horse from his parents for memorising the first chapter of Don Quijote – this in a country whose illiteracy rate was 71.6 per cent. Spanish illiteracy rates were, in a Northern European context, very high, and they remained so for a long time. Even in 1930 44 per cent of the population could neither read nor write (Martĺnez Cuadrado, 1983: 124). This factor is, I think, of considerable political importance, especially in the context of would-be modernisers (like Ortega) of Spanish society. Literacy both helps to define a ‘modern society’ and is one of the basic requirements for survival in it.
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