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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 Hohenstein-Ernstthal/Sachsen, the son of Heinrich August May, a weaver, and Christiane Wilhelmine. 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."
At the age of 19 May graduated from Plauen. He had also studied in 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 spent several years in prison at Waldheim, where he found the joy of books and good stories.
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.
In 1883 May moved to Blasewitz. With the appearance of his short 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. In the last quarter of the 19th century, May was perhaps the most popular author of boys' books in Germany.
"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 is Winnetou, 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.
Before 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. 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."
In 1899-1900 May travelled in the Orient and Asia (1899-1900) and in 1908 in America. 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.
Mays's novels endured in Germany not only as entertainment and inspireation 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 diary, Spandau: The Secret Diaries (1976) 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." 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. He had 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." (from Hitler's Table Talks, 1953). 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 first "Winnetou the Warrior" film, The Treasure of Silver Lake / Der Schatz im Silbersee (1962), was directed by Dr Harald Reinl. 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). 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.
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); 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) - 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