Time for a pop quiz. Quick, who died (almost exactly) 100 years ago? No, don’t peek at Wikipedia. Yes, Karl May, and 2012 is Karl May Year. On 30 March 1912, just days before the Titanic set sail from Southampton on its maiden voyage, Karl May died in Radebeul near Dresden, Germany, at the age of 70.
At that time, he probably ranked as Germany’s most successful writer, with 1.6 million print copies sold. By the 1970s, sales of his collected works in German ran in the 80 million copies, not counting translations in multiple foreign languages, from Afrikaans to Volapük. Sales are reportedly around 200 million now. Although his most famous characters, Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, roamed the American West, Karl May is practically unknown in the U.S. I remember vividly my nagging disappointment on my first trip to the States in the 1980s when, visiting the Badlands and other areas West of the Mississippi I knew through his novels, I found lots and lots of native American and “Western” lore but nobody who had ever heard of Karl May–or of Winnetou, for that matter. Although his popularity may now be on the wane in continental Europe and his native Germany, previous generations had been practically raised on his stories. I read them in Dutch when I was in my early teens, in a cheap paperback series advertised “Voor zoon en vader” (“for father and son,” though girls certainly read them too). I still have several of the twenty-five volumes, starting with the Winnetou Trilogy,
followed by the moving The Son of the Bear Hunter and reaching a climax in his best work, The Treasure of Silver Lake. They all purported to narrate May’s own experience as Old Shatterhand, a “trapper” gaining fame for his marksmanship and his all-powerful “shattering” uppercut, but also for his friendship with Winnetou and other native Americans, to whom he brings “in all humility,” the greatest good of his civilization. i.e. his Christian faith. The dozen or so North American stories ended with the Death of Winnetou (boys were of course supposed to stoically endure this event) but May applied the formula with just as much gusto to other areas of the world: there followed stories of his exploits as Kara ben Nemsi, the hero of the Orient, famous there, too,
for his aim and his all-powerful fist, and for his friendship with Hadschi Halef Omar, his Muslim guide, and with all natives suffering under Ottoman rule; and, as a light encore, a few tales set in Latin America.
All of these written of course without having set foot in any of those lands. Like a modern-day Sir John Mandeville, May would embark on his voyages ensconced in his study and armed with a few popular
ethnologies, a set of the Brockhaus encyclopedia, an atlas or two, and his lively imagination. Story-telling, make-believe, faking it: it was not only his profession but may have stood at the very core of his being. Born in abject poverty as the son of a weaver in Saxony in 1842, May survived as a con-man and petty thief, spending almost ten years in jail, before he realized that the safest and most lucrative way to utilize his gifts was by turning his compulsive self-promotion into an art form and sell books. Along the way he adopted a doctoral degree (“Dr. Karl May”) whose authenticity he then attempted to demonstrate by adding a (fake) honorary degree from the Universitas Germana-Americana (in Chicago!). A local gun smith fabricated three guns that May alias Old Shatterhand was supposed to have brought back from the States (the Bärentöter or “Bear Killer”, the Silberbüchse or “Silver Gun” and the Henrystutzen or “Henry Rifle”); these he then exhibited as artifacts in the handsome home in Radebeul that he bought with his staggering sales and re-named Villa Shatterhand. Trips to the US and the
Orient late in life helped to shore up his knowledge of the regions after the fact, but scandal followed him throughout his writing career, up to his last days, which included a dreadful marital imbroglio. A learned and very readable recent biography (only in German, alas), Helmut Schmiedt, Karl May oder die Macht der Phantasie: Eine Biographie (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2011), reflects on the writer’s apparent megalomania and the final transformation of his self-image into that of a Christ-like savior preaching world peace in those tense days leading up to the Great War. It is hard to decide whether he had not come to believe his own legend.
I certainly believed it. The books not only “felt” authentic: they came with a brief editorial comment about “Dr. May”’s travels, a terse but straightforward timeline (“this story occurred between 1860 and 1870”), and a map. How I loved those maps, with all the thrilling, exotic names (New Orleans, San Francisco, Llano Estacado, Cairo, Rio de la Plata, Kurdistan), a sinuous route that by its very shape evoked an exciting venture, swirling mountain roads, perilous desert trails—and all more or less in the right places! True, by the end of the series, when I was perhaps eleven or so, it did occur to me that May had traveled an awful lot in a short time, and my budding sense of time and place was jarred a little when Winnetou—in what otherwise seemed a masterstroke of imaginative as well as economic plotting—joined Old Shatterhand Kara ben Nemsi in the Sahara for Winnetou and the Bedouins (Orig. title: Krüger Bei and Satan und Ischariot), but then there were these maps! How could this not be true?! Curiously, it was May’s ardent patriotism that did him in for me. Eventually I grew weary of the fact that virtually every hero of the West (and to some extent of the East), every famous scout whom Old Shatterhand encountered was, like him, German, or more accurately, from Saxony. Or alternatively from Pommern. (No slackers from Bavaria admitted here!) This, I thought, defied credibility, and I have been a skeptic of nationalist feelings ever since.
And yet, and yet: I credit May with instilling in me at a very young age an interest in the world, in other people’s experiences, in learning about their history. I learned about the Mahdi (In the Land of the Mahdi, set against the backdrop of Muhammad Ahmad‘s 1881 rebellion along the Nile) years before I read anything “serious” on Islam or African history; indeed, my knowledge of Ottoman history—such as it is—still owes a lot to From Bagdad to Istanbul and Through Wild Kurdistan, with a little help from Seven Pillars of Wisdom years after that.
Loss of interest in this writer among younger readers has been sort of compensated in recent years by academic enthusiasm—not surprisingly, since Karl May’s oeuvre combines elements of orientalism, the myth of the Noble Savage, colportage novels, eventually also Nazi censorship/propaganda, all rolled into one. Even before his death, the “Karl May Phenomenon” created its own commercial universe, with Karl-May-cards as candy supplements, Karl-May figurines, puzzles, even kitchen utensils. Now there are comic books in multiple languages, at least one play for the stage (Hadschi Halef Omar), several TV series, numerous radio plays, pop songs, and of course, inevitably, parodies and satirical takes. Truck Stop, a German country music band (they exist!) scored a smash hit in 1991 with their Winnetou, oh Winnetou, containing the memorable lines (best left untranslated):
Ich suche mir eine neue Squaw
Ich hoffe nur, ich find sie bald.
Die alte Silberbüchse
Hat schon so lange nicht mehr geknallt.
Perhaps the most spectacular product of the Karl May industry was the series of seventeen (17!) German westerns and easterns produced between 1962 and 1968, mostly featuring the striking Pierre Brice as Winnetou and the Hollywood actor Lex Barker, Johnny Weissmuller’s successor in the Tarzan role, whose 6’4” frame made him the ideal Old Shatterhand / Kara ben Nemsi. Yes, American readers: before Sergio Leone and his Spaghetti Westerns, there were Frankfurter Westerns. In fact, some of the latter even introduced actors who became stars in the former, like Terence Hill and Klaus Kinski. And they had Herbert Lom.
I just found out that Dartmouth’s media library owns a videotape of The Shoot (“Der Schut”), the 1964 film based on May’s story of the same title involving Kara ben Nemsi’s pursuit of a villain in the mountains of Montenegro/Albania, “somewhere between 1860 and 1870”. We probably owe that to Gerd Gemünden, my colleague in the German department, who is an expert on German film and has published on the East German, anti-capitalist Indianerfilme, and to the late Susanne Zantop. Dartmouth students, what treasures do you have right here at your fingertips!
Update: The German Karl May Jahr site announces an American exhibit on May opening in..uh, May. At the Apache Spirit Ranch in Tombstone, Arizona. That looks like the right place for it.