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||Karl May (1842-1912)|
German author of travel and adventure stories, which portrayed desert Arabs or American Indians in the Old West. Karl May's best known characters include Winnetou, Old Shatterhand, with whom the author himself closely identified, Kara ben Nemsi, and Hadschi Alef Omar ibn Hadschi Abu Abbas ibn Hadschi Dawud al Gosarah. May only visited in his late years the Orient and Asia he so colorfully had depicted in his books. However, he used the first-person narrative, which gives the reader a believable impression of actual experience. May's works have been translated into over 30 languages.
"My father was a man of two souls: One soul of infinite tenderness and one of tyrannic proportions, knowing no limits in his rage, incapable to control himself. He possessed outstanding talents, all of which remained undeveloped on account of our immense poverty. He had never attended any school, but had learnt through his own efforts to read fluently and to write very well. He was naturally handy in all crafts necessary for daily life. Whatever his eyes saw, his hands could reproduce. Though being just a weaver, he was nevertheless capable to tailor his own coats and trousers, and to sole his own boots." (from My Life and My Efforts, translated by Gunther Olesch, 2000)
Karl May was born in Ernstthal, a small town near Chemnitz, Saxony. His father, Heinrich August May, a weaver, and Christiane Wilhelmine, a professional mid-wife. There were 14 children in the family but nine died at an early age. May was blind for the first five years of his life. In Mein Leben und Streben (1910) May tells, that the most important person in his childhood was his grandmother, Johanne Christiane May: "Grandmother was a poor, uneducated woman, but nevertheless a poet with a god-given talent, and therefore a stroy-teller, who created characters from the wealth of her stories, which not just existed in those stories, but truly came alive."
the age of 19 May graduated from Plauen. He had also
Waldenburg to become a teacher but he was fired from the school when he
stole six candle to take them home. Eventually May's career was ruined
when he was convicted of the theft of a watch, which, he claimed, was
lent to him. After losing his teacher's licence, May fell into crisis.
He was twice arrested for fraud – he masqueraded among others as a
medical doctor and a police lieutenamt – and spent several years in
prisons, in Oberstein Castle near Zwickau, a reform prison, and
in Waldheim, Saxony. During these years he found the joy of books and
good stories. While serving time in Zwickau May, who had been promoted
to prison librarian, began researching the American West. The library
contained 4,000 books. Later he claimed that he traveled in the United
States and Arabia, doing background research for his books.
After his release in 1874 May started to send his own writings to various magazines. He wrote sentimental village stories and a large number of novelettes anonymously. But this period also developed May's skills as a writer. He also worked in Dresden as a journalist. In 1880 he married Emma Pollmer, with whom he had lived for two years. They did not have children. The marriage dissolved in 1903. May then married Klara Ploehn, a widow, who was over 20 years his junior. He had met Klara and her husband already 1889 and they had become his close friends.
1883 May moved to Blasewitz. With the appearance of his
story collections and novels, May gained fame in the 1890s, becoming
one of the world's all-time best-selling
fiction writers. His breakthrough idea was to produce Indian novels
after the manner of Fenimore Cooper. It has been said that not oly
readers but even some of his critics considered May's imaginative tales
a trustworthy representaion of the American Frontier. ('Gold Fevers: Global L.A. and the Noir Imaginary' by Norman M. Klein, in Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000, edited by Stephanie Barron, Sheri Bernstein, Ilene Susan Fort, 2000, p. 408)
May was admired, among others, by Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein,
and Heinrich and Thomas Mann. Hermann Hesse said that May's work
represents "a type of literature that is indispensable and eternal." ('Pulpmaster' by Larry McMurtry, in The New York Review, November 2, 2000) And Klaus Mann labelled him in 1940 as the "Cowboy Mentor of the Führer." In the last quarter of the 19th
century, May was perhaps the most popular author of boys' books in
Germany. Although he did not travel in the United States
until the later period of his life, May claimed that his tales of the American West were based
on his own experiences.
"I suppose you know what a tenderfoot is. He is one who speaks good English, and wears gloves as if he were used to them. He also has a prejudice in favor of nice handkerchiefs and well-kept finger-nails; he may know a good deal about history, but he is liable to mistake turkey-tracks for bear-prints, and, though he has learned astronomy, he could never find his way by the stars. The tenderfoot sticks his bowie-knife into his belt in such a manner that it runs into his thigh when he bends; and when he builds a fire on the prairie he makes it so big that it flames as high as a tree, yet feels surprised that the Indians notice it." (from Winnetou, the Apache Knight)
May wrote from 1875 over 70 books. Among his best-known novels
published in three volumes between 1876 and 1893. The story depicts the
friendship of Old Shatterhand, an American pioneer of German descent,
and Winnetou, the noble Red Indian chief, "roten Gentleman" (the Red
Gentleman), obvious equivalents of James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo
and Chingachgook respectively. Winnetou carries with him a copy of Longfellow's Hiawatha. In Satan und Ischariot II: Krüger-Bei (1897)
the Apache chief drinks beer and is deeply impressed by a German song.
May's oriental cycle of novels (1892) resonated with
German colonial imagination. He used the explorer and physician Eduard
Schnitzer (1840-1892, a.k.a. Emin Pascha) as an example of a modern
colonialist, who wanted to raise the prosperity of his subjects. Emin
was portrayed in Die Sklavenkarawane
(The Slave Caravan), serialized in the magazine Der Gute Kamerad between 1889-1890.
his death in the third book, Winnetou
abandons Indian gods and becomes a Christian. In 1895 May bought a
house in Radebeul, which he named 'Villa Shatterhand'. It remained his
home for the rest of his life. There he treasured the famous weapons
from his books, Silverbüchse (Silver Gun), Bärentöter (Bear Killer) and
the Henrystutzen (Henry Rifle).
When the artist George Grosz visited May
he described the place disappointedly suburban. May himself did not
look like his alter ego, Old Shatterhand, he was a "delicate, reserved
old gentleman with a white moustache and imperial, and a rather long,
wavy hairstyle that had been popular in about 1870. His eyes were a
very light blue, pale and watery as if they had been exposed to the
wind or a draught. . . . He looked like a secretive schemer of a man,
one who always took care to tread more softly than the next person." (A Small Yes and a Big No by George Grosz, 1983, p. 62)
A public inquiry in 1899 revealed Dr. Karl
May had bought his doctorate from "The German University of
Chicago," a mail-order organization run by an ex-barber, and that he
had been in prison in the period of his supposed adventures. The Berlin Post
declared in headline, "Old Shatterhand Scalped". May had two
nervous breakdowns, but German readers remained faithful to him. May's
public embarrassment did not ruin him financially. His legal battles
ended with the pronouncement of the chief justice on the Berlin
District Court in 1911: "I consider Karl May to be a poet," which meant
that he was entitled to his own truth. ('The Fantastical World of Cult Novelist Karl May' by Jan Fleischhauer, Spiegel International, 30.03.2012)
In 1899-1900 May travelled in the Orient and Asia (1899-1900) and in 1908 in America. It was a standard tourist tour. May visited New York, Boston, Niagare Falls, and the Tuscarora Reservation, in Niagara County, bought souvenirs, and sent postcards to Germany. Having created a fortune with his pen, May wrote for his own pleasure the symbolical novel Ardistan und Dschinnistan (1909), a fairy tale of yearning for peace and redemption. In the age of imperialistic politics, May supported pacifist views, which he defended in his polemical writings. The imaginary city of Ardistan, featured in Ardistan and Der Mir von Dschinnistan, had been ruled by despots or Mirs, who had the peculiarity of dreaming the same dream. Peace was restored after Shedid el Ghalabi returned from the City of the Dead. Nowadays Christians, Muslims and Buddhists live side by side in relative harmony. Travellers are well received but they are warned that touching the sacred throne is an act punishable by death.
Mays's novels endured in Germany not only as entertainment and inspiration for the young, but also as symbolic expression of Germanic ideal: Old Shatterhad was in fact a Siegfried in search of the Holy Grail. In spite of his Indian novels and popularity in Europe, May did not gain much notice in the United States, where the reading public had begun to tire of the Rousseaun stories about "Noble Savages".
May died on March 30, 1912, in Radebeul. He had suffered from a severe case of pneumonia in 1911, and against his doctor's orders he had made a trip to Vienna, where he had spoken before the academy for literature and music. May's autobiography, Mein Leben und Streben, was reissued in an abridged version posthumously, entitled Ich (1917). In the original work May had presented a long series of accusations against Mr. Rudolf Lebius, and due an injunction the book was taken out from the shops.
In his Spandauer Tagebücher (1975) Albert Speer mentions, that Hitler would lean on Karl May as proof that "it was not necessary to know the desert in order to direct troops in the African theater of war . . . it wasn't necessary to travel in order to know the world." According to Speer, "Hitler was wont to say that he had always been deeply impressed by the tactical finesse and circumspection that Karl May conferred upon his character Winnetou." (Spandau: The Secret Diaries by Albert Speer, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, with a new foreword by Sam Sloan, 2010, p. 348) Such man was the very model of a company commander. Hitler added that during his reading hours at night, May's stories gave him courage like works of philosophy or the Bible for others. "But instead of such reading, those idiotic teachers hammered the works of Goethe and Schiller into their unfortunate pupils. (Ibid., p. 348) Hitler had allegedly attended May's fatal lecture in Vienna in 1912.
In the middle of World War II May's Winnetou was printed in 300,000 copies to be delivered for German soldiers. For Martin Bormann Hitler told: "I used to read him by candle-light, or by moonlight with the help if a huge magnifying glass." (Hitler's Table Talk, 1941-1944: His Private Conversations, translated by Norman Cameron, R.H. Stevens, preface by Hugh Trevor-Roper, 2008, p. 240) This admiration condemned May for some time to the fate of Richard Wagner, whose music wasn't publicly performed in Israel for years because Hitler had praised it. The ban on May's works in the GDR was not lifted until the 1980s. In 2003 the neurologist and psychoatrist Edgar Bayer argued that May suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder.
The first "Winnetou the Warrior" film, The Treasure of Silver Lake / Der Schatz im Silbersee (1962), was directed by Dr Harald Reinl. The film was in its time the most expensive West German production. All subsequent May adaptations were shot in Eastmancolor and CinemaScope. Lex Barker, who had been cast as Tarzan in five films between 1949 and 1953, played Shatterhand, and continued in the role in Apache Gold / Winnetou - I. Teil (1963), The Last of the Renegades / Winnetou - II (1964), and Old Shatterhand / Shatterhand (1964). "Barker's physiognomy (his blondness, blue eyes, and athletic body) still conformed to the kind of Teutonic racial stereotype that had informed the character's description in May's novels." (International Adventures: German Popular Cinema and European Co-Productions in the 1960s by Tim Bergfelder, 2005, p. 183) In 1964 Steward Granger joined the team, taking the role of Old Surehand in Flaming Frontier / Old Surehand I. Teil.
Other famous names connected with the Winnetou adventures have been Klaus Kinski, Charles Aznavour, and Terence Hill under his real name Mario Girotti. The American-frontier sagas inspired also East German and Italian producers to invest in Westerns, which led to such Spaghetti or Sauerkraut Westerns as Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, and The Sons of Great Bear (1966), directed by Josef Mach. Michael Bully Herbig's 2001 comedy Der Schuch des Manitu drew from May's Indian fantasies and Harald Reinl's Winnetou film adaptations.
Literature: Karl May und seine Schriften by M. Dittrich (1904); Karl May und das Geheimnis seines erfolges by V. Böhm (1955), Sitara und der Weg dorthin by A. Schmidt (1963); Zu Tode gehetzt by M. Jacta (1972); Das Phänomenon Karl May by H. Stolte (1972); Karl May: Leben und Werk by Th. Ostwald (1974); Karl May, ed. by G. Klussmeier and H. Plaul (1978); Karl May Handbuch by G. Ueding (1987); Karl May by M. Lowsky (1987); Karl Mays "Winnetou" by D. Sudhoff and H. Vollmer (1989); Karl May: Grundriss eines gebrochenen Lebens by Hans Wollschläger (1992); Ideology, Mimesis, Fantasy: Charles Sealsfield, Friedrich Gerstacker, Karl May and other German Novelists of America by Jeffrey L. Sammons (1998); Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone by Christopher Frayling (1998); Other Words: American Indian Literature, Law, and Culture by Jace Weaver (2001); Karl May, oder, Die Macht der Phantasie: eine Biographie by Helmut Schmiedt (2011); Karl May: der Winnetou-Autor und der christliche Glaube by Rainer Buck (2012); Seelenbrüder: eine Studie zu Karl May und Hermann Hesse by Hartmut Wörner (2015); Die Karl May Filme by Reinhard Weber; Vorwort Rudolf Worschech (2018); Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone by Christopher Frayling (2020); Re-living the American Frontier: Western Fandoms, Reenactment, and Historical Hobbyists in Germany and America Since 1900 by Nancy Reagin (2021) - See also other writers depicting the Wild West: James Fenimore Cooper, Owen Wister, Louis L'Amour. Other film adaptations: Der Schatz der Azteken / Atsteekkien aarre, dir. by Robert Siodmark, 1965; Karl May, dir. by Hans Jürgen Syberberg, 1974