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Portrait © KM SelmarWerner, Öl auf Holz/WikiCommons
Portrait © KM SelmarWerner, Öl auf Holz/WikiCommons
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Karl May's Stories Of The American West

Picture of Brienne Pierce
Updated: 29 September 2016
It’s funny how people fantasize. In the suburbs of the US, some doe-eyed girls yearn for castles that ache with history and lavender fields that undulate in a distant France. Others pinpoint the beaches of Bali on Google maps in the midst of a fever dream. And Karl May in Northern Germany dreamed of the American West, harkening beyond the pining of Kerouac to the days of Indians and Cowboys, without ever setting foot in that territory.

With quite a colorful childhood indelibly on his résumé, it didn’t always seem that Karl May would make it into the literary hall of fame he has today. Even though not many Americans have heard of this western enthusiast, he has made it into the hearts and homes of many Germans. More Germans have probably read him than Bertolt Brecht. Despite the fact he hasn’t achieved international success, he has triumphantly left an impressive literary imprint on his motherland. Thanks to May, hundreds of thousands of Germans, regardless of age, know the names of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand.

Karl May was one of 14 children, but nine died in infancy. His mom was poor. His dad was poor. Naturally, he grew up poor; maybe that’s where his assiduous need to dream up the other side of the world was lit inside him like a Roman candle. (Incidentally enough, he would be accused of stealing six candles from a fellow teacher later in life, ending in his expulsion during his teacher training.) He studied music in his early years, later going to train to be a teacher, which didn’t end well due to some petty thefts. His jail time proved fruitful because he was positioned as the administrator to the prison library, opening him up to stacks on stacks of pressed ink. His affinity for the written word grew into lists of the imagined masterpieces he would one day pen.

Karl May Festspiele Weitensfeld | © Wolfgang / Flickr
Karl May Festspiele Weitensfeld | © Wolfgang / Flickr

From May’s birth (1842) until 1874, his life was interwoven with times of delinquency. The kind of almost innocuous temerity that soon would characterize his novels. When he returned home in 1874 after a few stints in the clink and adopting Catholicism as a new friend, May began to write. His most notable (and well-known) characters are Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, the latter an emigrate to the US who first saw life in 1893. Not always hitting the literary target on the mark, it took time for May to find his groove, and eventually he did; in 2000, it was stated that over 200 million copies of his books have been sold worldwide.

What does a boy from Ernstthal, now Hohenstein-Ernstthal, want to do with the great West and specifically Native Americans? May is quite possibly one of the greatest weavers of sophistry there ever was. Having only ever visited the East Coast in his later years, he stands by the fact he’s been to the bucolic landscapes that punctuate his works, even sporting a bear tooth necklace to solidify the story. His humble prevarications fueled a love for Native Americans in Germany – that may make a few US citizens scratch their heads, but it remains intact to this day.

Karl May Festspiele Weitensfeld | © Wolfgang / Flickr
Karl May Festspiele Weitensfeld | © Wolfgang / Flickr

There’s even a whole festival dedicated to this phenomenon in Bad Segeberg, more specifically, dedicated to Karl May. Actors roam the main stage of the brought-to-life town, reenacting the tall tales. This brings in the crowds, but how many to be exact? A good three hundred thousand people. They come for the log cabins, the promises of antiquated English slogans, fully feathered men and woman and all the other trappings of a Karl May novel. There’s even a Karl May express from the central square to the festival grounds. From teepees to make-believe saloons, the fabricated world of Karl May is vividly orchestrated.

Everyone loved May, from Einstein to Hitler, and almost no notable German has left a May book untouched. In the late 19th century, German literature largely explored solitude, the makings of a man through his own madness. Writers like Rilke were exploring using their words to delve deeper into themselves. Some argue May’s Old Shatterhand may have been his alter ego, whose efforts were often misinterpreted through others obfuscation, much like how May feels the world eventually saw him. Despite success, his marriage had fallen apart; he was broke; he had received backlash for writing for a Catholic mag as a Protestant and for using pseudonyms to send out the same piece to multiple publications to obtain money. In his early years, his ‘filching’ and other minor run-ins with the law seemed harmless, in his eyes. Was he just misunderstood? Misguided? Was the West far enough away from himself to work out his own mental ecosystem?

Whatever the reasons may be, it’s certain that May was a weaver, not like his father (an actual weaver), but in a metaphorical sense. In some way, May’s life came to emulate the very things he was trying to escape from birth. May wanted the world to see his words as fortified works of truth and he the transcriber of facts. As the Beat Generation hearkened after the West, and many others throughout history, as a land of promise, May did too. Only it was so far out of his reality that he could grow his stories there in a way that is so far from American writers. His fabrications make his voice unique and many of his fans know about his historical inaccuracies but keep May’s imagining of the West as their guide, their guilty pleasure, their ticket to a land far away.