Germany's Best-Loved Cowboy: The Fantastical World of Cult Novelist Karl May

By Jan Fleischhauer

Karl May, who died 100 years ago, was an impostor, a liar and a thief -- and one of Germany's most widely read authors. He embellished his own biography with as much fantasy as the scenarios in his adventure novels, and when the deceit was finally exposed, he never recovered. But his legend lives on.

Photo Gallery: The Life of Armchair Adventurer Karl May Photos
Karl May Jahr 2012

Only once did he actually visit those wild, faraway countries where he had so fearlessly traveled from the safety of his desk. In April 1899, Karl May took a ship from Genoa to Port Said in Egypt, aiming to finally see the Orient. He had 50,000 marks, a tremendous amount of money at the time, to spend on lodgings for himself and his valet. He was 57, one of Germany's most famous authors and a rich man.

The trip was a disaster. May couldn't tolerate the foreign food, and he was distressed by the stench, the noise and ubiquitous filth. Everything went straight to his stomach and his head. And then there were the tourists combing the sights of Cairo with their Baedeker travel books, "tightly clutching the red guide," as the author grumbled.

But he stuck it out, traveling from Egypt to Ceylon and Sumatra, as if to retroactively walk in the steps of someone he had only pretended to be in the past: an adventurer and globetrotter. When May returned to his native Saxony, after 16 months and two nervous breakdowns, he vowed not to embark on another adventure anytime soon. America, the other land of adventure he portrayed in his books, would have to wait.

Inventing a world is the essence of being a writer. Hardly any other author pursued this discipline as consistently, even in writing about his own alleged experiences. This week marks the 100th anniversary of Karl May's death. To this day, in Germany at least, the man from the town of Radebeul in Saxony stands alone in the art of creating a make-believe world.

More than 200 million copies of his books have been printed, a dimension otherwise associated with dictators or the founders of religions -- or J. K. Rowling with her Harry Potter series. Half of the Karl May books printed were sold in German-speaking countries. He is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, and only in Eastern Europe did he achieve a comparable degree of fame. The number of fans who remained loyal to him beyond their adolescent years is large, ranging from Albert Einstein to political activist Karl Liebknecht, Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch and writer Martin Walser.

Enduring Heros

One could call also May the forefather of today's environmentalist Green Party. With his critical view of civilization and naïve enthusiasm for nature, he was a romantic revivalist preacher determined to give pacifism a voice or, like some of his Christian contemporaries, a dangerous corrupter of young minds. The East German government felt uneasy about him, banning his works until the 1980s, when May, a native of the eastern German state of Saxony, was rehabilitated, together with Martin Luther and Frederick the Great. German writer Klaus Mann felt that May was an early Nazi, even describing him as "Hitler's literary mentor," but he is relatively isolated in this assessment.

There is no question that May created heroes that entered the collective mythology. There was the Native American Chief Winnetou, of course, or "The Red Gentleman," as he was once referred to in a subtitle in his famous series of novels. Then there was Winnetou's German friend and blood brother Old Shatterhand. But it was the indestructible German traveler of the Orient, Kara Ben Nemsi, who enjoyed a popularity that surpassed that of all of May's other characters while the author was still alive. Only after May's death did Chief Winnetou become his most beloved fictional character, partly as a result of the popular films with Pierre Brice and Lex Barker that were shown in theaters starting in 1962.

But his works remain adventure literature, driven by the author's desire to dream his way out of the narrow confines of his real life, a unique mixture of genius and triviality. May introduced his readers to people and landscapes they had known only by name, capitalizing on a yearning for distant places that was just as prevalent in the late 19th century as it is today.

Still, May didn't stop at dreaming. Through his literature, he transformed his own life. For him, writing was initially a way of finding himself, and later a way of rescuing himself. In this sense, he could be seen as an early advocate of the modern age.

From Con Man to Best-Selling Author

His ascent was as spectacular as the material that fueled it. A con man with a criminal record, he wrote his way to success and became a best-selling author. May himself couldn't have come up with a more improbable life story than his climb from the penitentiary to the stars. But that would be a novel for others to write. In reality, May, once he had become respectable, was determined to wipe away all traces of his earlier life. But when it did catch up to him, at the height of his success, it was a scandal that would cost him the tranquility of his twilight years and much of his health.

So many aspects of his life had been bent into shape, obtained by fraudulent means and invented. He was a relatively slight man, only 1.66 meters (5 feet 5 inches) tall, whose fists were about as dangerous as a flyswatter. But when he sat on his black horse, his Bärentöter (Old Shatterhand's rifle, the "bear killer,") in hand, he could take anyone on, even the worst villains. May was a pioneer in the art of playing with identities, a talent reflected in the life story of every major artist today.

The German author and literary critic Hans Wollschläger titled his well-known study about Karl May "Grundriss eines gebrochenen Lebens," or "Sketch of a Broken Life." And indeed, May's early years could hardly have been less auspicious for someone who would later become a major international author. Everything about the squalor into which he was born in 1842 is evocative of a brief, oppressed existence. Nine of his 13 siblings died in infancy.

Weaving was a traditional livelihood in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) town of Ernstthal, where May was born, but the craft was in decline, so that local residents were forced to turn to smuggling and other secondary occupations to make ends meet. If that wasn't enough, people had to eat soup made with weeds and potato peels, the sort of food on which only a "deprived child," as Arno Schmidt, another May enthusiast, described him, could thrive. When his mother received an unexpected inheritance, she used some of the money to pay for midwife training. But her husband had soon spent the rest of the money on his various schemes. Like his son, Heinrich August May was a dreamer.

A Criminal Record

It was clear early on that Karl was talented, and the family pinned its hopes on him. After school, he was forced to spend hours copying text from the encyclopedias, prayer books and stories about nature that his father had gathered from the neighborhood. If young Karl failed to complete his allotted work in time, he could expect a whipping with a birch switch.

The boy was stuffed with facts in a completely unsystematic way, in keeping with his father's confused ideas about education. Looking back on his childhood, May likened it to being "fed and stuffed beyond compare." Nevertheless, a layer of knowledge developed over time that would later prove useful to him.

Prison was his second significant source of education. May was 20 when he stood before a judge for the first time. He had earned a diploma as a teacher's assistant, which promised a meager but steady income. And he did try to earn a living as a teacher, but there was a part of him that refused to accept the limitations of his circumstances.

He seemed to have inherited a certain swagger. When he was a young student, his file described him as "extremely deceitful." May would later describe the dark aspects of his personality that controlled him: "There were all kinds of characters inside me, and they all wanted to be part of my worries, my work, my creativity, my writing and my composing."

What began harmlessly enough soon became more serious. May posed as an eye doctor, "Dr. Heilig," and even wrote prescriptions. According to a police profile, he wore glasses and had a "friendly, suave and mellifluous demeanor." Then he rented a room in the city of Chemnitz as the "seminary teacher Lohse," ordered two muskrat coats from a furrier and disappeared out the back door with his loot.

He was arrested near Leipzig in March 1865, and the verdict was quickly passed down: four years and one month in the workhouse. It was harsh, but not excessive for the time. May had already attracted the attention of the authorities before: a few stolen candles at boarding school and a watch he had neglected to return. They were trifles, but now they were contributing to a picture of a crook and petty criminal who would be better off behind bars.

Serial Novel Success

May was lucky. He ended up in Oberstein Castle near Zwickau, a reform prison that was committed to the idea of rehabilitation, and he was sent to work in the prison library. It was his second stroke of luck. The library contained 4,000 books, including works of fiction with ethical aspirations, as well as historic, scientific and geographic works -- plenty of material for the next few years. May began to fashion a future for himself as a writer. A so-called "C. May Repertoire," now part of his estate, lists 137 titles and sketches for future books. There was something grandiose about all of May's ambitions, a characteristic he shared with Richard Wagner.

He had hardly been released before resuming his lifestyle of deceit and petty crime. In March 1869, he posed as a "police lieutenant" and confiscated alleged counterfeit money from a grocer. In May, he stole billiard balls from a tavern, and in June he stole a horse. When the police arrested him again, he told them his name was Albin Wadenbach, the son of a plantation owner from Martinique.

Some May scholars speculate that the author may have been mentally ill. In a retroactive psychological appraisal performed in 2003, the neurologist and psychiatrist Edgar Bayer concludes that May suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder. The typical symptoms, Bayer wrote, were a "grandiose sense of one's own importance," an excessive "craving of admiration" and "fantasies of limitless success."

May was 32 when he was released from the Waldheim Prison, where the authorities described him as "somewhat exhausted but otherwise fit for work." He was a dropout who had already spent half of his life under supervision, a dependent and "very old child," as May biographer Rüdiger Schaper writes. May insisted that he wanted to emigrate to America, but instead he published the first episode of "Aus der Mappe eines Vielgereisten" ("From the Portfolio of a Well-Traveled Man") in a magazine published by Heinrich Gotthold Münchmeyer, the Deutsches Familienblatt, or German Family Magazine.

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