Karl May might be the best selling German novelist that most Americans never heard of. May’s stories of the American West have been making frontiersmen and Native Americans come alive in Germany since 1893. And for Germans of a certain age, the names Old Shatterhand and Winnetou are as familiar as Harry Potter, Ron, and Hermione are to my kids. The actual number of books sold runs between 100 and 200 MILLION in 40 languages! And then the movies…the museum…. the Karl May Festivals… (Not bad for a man who never actually saw the American West.) Still, using the narrative voice of the “greenhorn”, Old Shatterhand, May captured generations with his tales, and left a legacy of fascination with Native Americans and a romanticized view of the Wild West.
Who was Karl May?
When he was born in 1842, the fifth child of fourteen born to poor weavers in Saxony, Karl May (pronounced like the English word “my”) began life with a few strikes against him. Hunger and malnutrition led to childhood blindness, and nine of his brothers and sisters didn’t survive childhood. (May had a “miraculous” recovery at age 6) As a boy, Karl ended up in and out of jail for petty thievery, but Karl was bright, and an avid reader. He settled into a career path and entered teachers college, but got kicked out and arrested again for (allegedly) stealing a watch from a fellow student. When Karl left prison, he found the position of teacher closed to him. He floated through life for a few years, a con man pretending to be a police detective, even a doctor. Then he ended up back in jail for stealing furs. While carrying out his four year sentence, Karl took advantage of the prison library, reading everything he could get his hands on, especially the new “Baedeckers” (travel guides), travelogues, and adventure novels (James Fennimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” and “The Last of the Mohicans” were a huge hit in Europe).
After his release, he drew on his reading, and started writing travel stories and crime stories that were published in serial form. Ever the con man, May wrote stories under multiple pseudonyms, even giving the stories different names, so that he could sell the same story to different magazines. He even worked for a while as an editor for journals.
Karl May as Old Shatterhand by Alois Schiesser, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Old Shatterhand and Winnetou
In 1893, at age 51, Karl May published his first stories featuring his alter ego “Old Shatterhand” and Mescalero Apache Chief Winnetou. Because the stories are written in a personal narrative style, it’s hard to separate the author from his character. A young German man with a heart for adventure takes a job as surveyor for a railroad company expanding across the American West. Despite having no real experience, he excels at shooting, and tracking… and even manages to kill a grizzly bear with a knife! His incredible strength means he can knock people out with one punch (which is how he earned his nickname “Old Shatterhand”), but his strength is tempered by his honor and Christian duty. Old Shatterhand won’t kill unless he has no other choice, choosing to shoot people in the knee or knocking them out instead (I think he must have knocked Winnetou and his father, Inchu-Chuna out 4 or 5 times in one book!). But don’t think that it means the stories are bland or pious. People do die… mauled by bears, stabbed in the heart, shot… and things do get bloody.
In the book Winnetou, May comes close to revealing how entwined he is with Old Shatterhand during a conversation with Sam Hawkins. Hawkins asks how he knows things, and Shatterhand reveals that he read them in a book… and that his plan is to return to the East coast with new experiences to write a book himself. Why? “To instruct my readers and make a little money”.
Altogether Winnetou and Old Shatterhand show up in 15 of Karl May’s books, and they stayed best sellers through depression and two World Wars. Why? Maybe because the hero is a German. And he is a HERO. He’s the Lone Ranger and Indiana Jones all balled up in one powerful man. His broad appeal captured the imagination of so many people. Einstein loved the books, so did Arnold Schwarzenegger (so did my mom). I can imagine how, in a time before TV, movies, internet, and even radio, the books would draw people in to the adventure of it all. A young, strong, honorable German man, befriending an Apache chief. Old Shatterhand wears a necklace made of bear claws, and carries his gun “Bärentöter” (Bear Killer). Together they fight against unscrupulous white men and renegade Indians.
(If the story sounds a little familiar, some say that the Lone Ranger stories are based on Karl May’s books)
Despite their wild popularity in Germany, the books never really made the jump to the American audience. In fact, the American publisher points out that they primarily sell the books to German immigrants who want to share the stories with their English speaking children. (Maybe because American libraries and bookstores are already filled with Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour?).
(quick aside…compared to many German books, Karl May’s stories are an easy read. Straightforward without a lot of the complex verbal gymnastics you might find in German literature. These are fun adventure stories, not thought provoking insight into a man’s tortured psyche. They are the kind of stories I call a mental margarita… fun and satisfying without extra work. Perfect for anyone who wants to practice reading German without hitting the children’s department. Read an excerpt here).
In the 1960s movies based on the books lured in another audience. Old Shatterhand and Winnetou in technicolor! Filmed in Spandau studios Berlin and on location in Croatia, the film directed by Harald Reinl had an international cast starring Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand and French actor Pierre Brice is Winnetou. The film was successful in Europe (especially in Germany), and was re-released in the United States under the title Apache Gold.
Altogether, Karl May turned out 80 books, mostly travel adventure type stories. His other hero, Kara Ben Nemsi featuring in stories of the Near East, and there are German adventure tales as well. But Karl May will always be bound to those Westerns. Today his works are still celebrated in Karl May Festivals, the largest in Radebeul attracts 300,000 fans each year! (Native Americans even travel from the United States to share their culture). And you can visit the Karl May Museum with it’s hundreds of exhibits from the American West.
In his final years, May travelled to America, but never made it further West than Niagara Falls. His failing health meant his trip ended early, so he never saw the wide open country that was home to his characters. But I’d like to think that he was ok with that, the reality could never match up to the stories. When he passed away in 1912, his vision of the blood brothers Old Shatterhand and Winnetou was still clear to him. The myth, you could say, un-shattered.