The Wonderful World of Karl May, Germany′s Best-Loved Author | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.09.2007
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The Wonderful World of Karl May, Germany's Best-Loved Author

Nineteenth-century writer Karl May is Germany's best-selling author of all time as well as one of its most prolific ones. A new exhibition in Berlin throws light on this colorful and complex character.

A poster from a 1938 Karl May Festival showing an image of an Indian in front of mountains.

Annual Karl May festivals continue to be popular in German-speaking countries

With sales of over 200 million books, Karl May remains a household name in today's Germany. As well as his literary legacy of some 33 novels, many films have been based on his work.

Every year thousands of ardent fans attend open air theater festivals where his fiction is acted out. Young or old, popular or high-brow, he seems to have something for everyone.

The writer has become most famous for his Wild West series featuring the adventures of the increasingly ennobled Native American chief Winnetou and his blood brother, the white trapper Old Shatterhand.

Shaped the image of the Wild West

Karl May

Karl May didn't visit the US until after writing his Wild West novels

For generations, as Professor Alex Kuo of Washington's State University has written, "May has been a significant author in shaping the average German youth's view of the American West and the American Indian as well."

Yet ironically, although translated into 37 languages, the author is barely known in the United States or the rest of the English-speaking world. Nor, despite his claims to the contrary, did the author actually set foot in America until 1908. And Buffalo was the furthest West he ever got.

The German Historical Museum (DHM) exhibition, which showcases for the first time items from his personal estate, highlights both the biographical and the cultural dimensions of May's work.

"This was not intended to be any kind of homage to a Great Master," said Sabine Beneke, co-curator of the exhibition. "We wanted to put his life and his age into a cultural historical context. To make him and his work, and his success, comprehensible in terms of the era in which they were written."

Growing interest in far-away lands and their peoples

A book cover showing the character Winnetou

Winnetou was portrayed as a "noble savage" in May's stories

As the array of paintings, photos and objects on display make clear, the writer was living in an age where there was a thirst for knowledge about the "exotic." People flocked to see "native" peoples touring Europe in ethnological peepshows organized by the likes of Buffalo Bill.

It was a time of scientific expedition, colonial expansion, tourism and immigration. Four million Germans had also left Germany for the States during Karl May's lifetime and those left at home were filled with curiosity about the New World.

For a while May actively pretended that he had experienced his first-person narratives set in America, the Orient and Africa at first-hand. Photographs in the exhibition in the German Historical Museum show May posing for photographs in his study near the eastern city of Dresden, surrounded by bear skins, a stuffed lion and other game that he claimed to have killed himself.

He certainly wasn't afraid to lay it on thick. "I really am Old Shatterhand," wrote May, citing as proof a number of rifles that you can see on display in the show in Berlin. The writer actually had gotten the guns manufactured by a Dresden rifle maker, who had been sworn to secrecy.

"We wanted to dissect this interplay between fiction and reality," said museum head Hans Ottomeyer.

Fans taking things in good spirit

Two fans dressed up as May characters

Two fans dressed up as May characters around 1900

A weighty album containing photos sent in by his fans shows the breadth of his appeal and the appetite for masquerade at the time. Many of his readers are themselves dressed up as Western heroes or Native Americans.

But did they really take May's protestations seriously? Just like Karl May, aka. Old Shatterhand, some appear to have a twinkle in their eyes.

Another image shows three women dressed up in hijabs and signed "your harem" also reveals another playful blend of fact and fiction. At least two of the women were involved with him at the time -- one his wife, the other his wife-to-be.

But May's appetite for role play, as the exhibition charts, had already got him into trouble in his earlier life. Various fraudulent activities, including impersonating a police officer and a doctor for financial gain, led to the impoverished weaver's son spending eight years in prison and the workhouse. Writing was one of the few options open left to May, who was barred from teaching and from emigrating because of his criminal record.

His penchant for make-believe was to land him in deep water once more towards the end of his life when a press campaign was launched against him, designed to unveil him as a charlatan.

Public pressure and changing mores led him to distance himself from his earlier fictional characters and set out his stall as a more serious writer concerned with religion, social utopias and philosophy. But his later books were never to enjoy the same popularity as his earlier ones.

The exhibition runs until Jan. 6.

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