Karl May as Kara Ben Nemsi (photo:CC, DW )
The 100th Anniversary of Karl May's Death

Literary Genius or Man of Legendary Hubris?

Karl May is the most widely read of all German writers. This year, which marks the 100th anniversary of his death, a number of new biographies seek to reconsider Karl May's place in German literary history. Andreas Pflitsch read two of them

It is estimated that in total, a dizzying 100 million copies of Karl May's books have been printed in German alone. This combined with the film versions of his Winnetou stories – which starred Pierre Brice and Lex Barker, household names in Germany – make Karl May one of the central figures in the collective memory of the German people. As the man who invented the "Wild West" and wrote about his fictitious travels to the Orient, he quite literally shaped the way entire generations viewed the world.

Throughout his life, Karl May claimed that he and his magnificent heroes Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi were one and the same person and that he had personally experienced the adventures he related. Winnetou, Durchs wilde Kurdistan (Through Wild Kurdistan) and all his other classics were published as travel literature and feigned an authenticity that was long taken at face value. The truth of the matter is that it was only in later life that May actually travelled beyond the boundaries of Europe and visited some of the places he had previously described so vividly in his works.

Cover of a Karl May radio play produced in the GDR (image: Litera)
Karl May shaped the way entire generations viewed the 'Orient'. – Cover of a Karl May radio play produced in the German Democratic Republic

​​May, who grew up in straitened circumstances, had his first run-in with the law at an early age and did time in prison on a number of occasions. He later worked his way up to become a writer with massive commercial success. While he was still alive, a debate raged as to whether his "trash literature" was corrupting young people. For a long time, serious literary critics turned up their noses at his work. And indeed it is not very hard to expose his flimsy plots for what they are: straightforward exercises in wish-fulfilment fantasy, all of which were woven according to the same pattern.

Ingenious storyteller and brazen fraud

Right from the word go, criticism of May's black-and-white portrayal of his characters and the incredible ease with which he used clichés and racial stereotypes has always been a feature of the way his work has been received. The fact that Adolf Hitler is said to have been a huge fan of his books also meant that the author was later accused of having paved the way for the Nazi ideology.

Down through the years, his biographers have made all kinds of psychological speculations about the author, diagnosing him with a number of conditions including hysteria, paranoia and dissociative identity disorder.

It is true to say that the author became increasingly entangled in his own legend, claiming to have a doctorate he had never actually earned and making increasingly bold claims that he could speak "about 1,200 languages and dialects" and was considered "by the apaches to be Winnetou's successor and commander of 35,000 warriors". Ever since, May has – for better or for worse – been seen as a kind of Walter Mitty: to some he was an ingenious storyteller, to others an brazen fraud. His hubris is legendary.

Re-assessing the literary value of May's oeuvre

This year sees the 100th anniversary of May's death. To mark the occasion, a whole series of new books investigating his contemporary relevance has been published.

Cover of Helmut Schmiedt's new Karl May biography (image: Beck Verlag)
"Only those who haven't got a clue still consider Karl May to be literarily clumsy and a good-for-nothing inhabitant of the lower echelons of culture," writes Helmut Schmiedt in his Karl May biography

​​Two publications in particular show just how differently this subject matter can be tackled: Karl May. Untertan, Hochstapler, Übermensch (Karl May: Subject, Fraud, Superhuman) by Rüdiger Schaper and Karl May oder Die Macht der Phantasie (Karl May or the Power of Fantasy) by Helmut Schmiedt.

One thing that both authors have in common is that they sympathise with May, protect him against any overly vehement critics and seek to give him a place in German literary history that they consider long overdue. Neither biographer makes any bones of his fondness for the author who, as Schmiedt puts it, "has thrilled readers of so many different generations in a way that no other German author has ever succeeded in doing".

Both Schaper and Schmiedt use the little-known, allegorical Ardistan und Dschinnistan (Ardistan and Jinnistan, 1907–1909), one of May's later works, to back up their theory that Karl May was an original writer and not just a conveyor-belt author who churned out one trashy, sensationalist book after the other.

The two authors also re-assess the literary value of his best-known works. While he used to be accused of fraud because he drew heavily on encyclopaedias and travel literature for his Red Indian and Orient novels, Schmiedt now speaks of an "authorship in the almost postmodern sense of arranging pre-existing material". Schmiedt also sees May as a "player, but certainly not a cheat". If he lived now, asserts Schmiedt, May would be an "avid Internet user".

Schmiedt sees in May's adventure stories "a transformation of the myths and the stuff of sagas" that substitute the omnipotence of his heroes for anything supernatural or inexplicable: "the ring that can make its wearer invisible if necessary and the magic hood that has the same effect crop up – in a quasi secularised form – whenever the hero creeps unnoticed and with astonishing skill into the enemy camp."

May's stories reflect the Zeitgeist of the day, a time in which faith in technology and blind belief in reason were blended with a continuing desire for a removal of boundaries and the supernatural. Not least for this reason, Schmiedt considers May to be "a rich source that could be studied for information about many areas of the cultural history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries".

Comparisons with Goethe and Kafka

Schmiedt and Schaper ennoble May by comparing him with the undisputed greats of German literature. In his introduction, Schmiedt puts May on a par with Goethe; for his part, Schaper dishes up a rather bold comparison with Kafka. Schmiedt takes as the starting point for his biographical account the "striking difference between May's perceived image as a popular writer of literature for the young and for the masses on the one hand and as a sophisticated literary figure on the other".

Ralf Wolter as Hadschi Halef Omar and Lex Barker as Kara Ben Nemsi (image: picture-alliance/KPA)
"May has – for better or for worse – been seen as a kind of Walter Mitty: to some he was an ingenious storyteller, to others an brazen fraud. His hubris is legendary," writes Andreas Pflitsch

​​Moreover, Schmiedt also sees the wide variety of studies on May's work as an indication of "the high dignity of their subject". In other words, anyone who is derisive of May runs the risk of showing themselves to have the kind of unsophisticated mind they accuse May himself of having: "only those who haven't got a clue still consider Karl May to be literarily clumsy and a good-for-nothing inhabitant of the lower echelons of culture".

Although the approach and main concern of both books are indeed quite similar, their form and style differ hugely. Schmiedt rigidly sticks to the chronological, historical story, starting his biography in the most classic manner of all, namely with the date and time of May's birth. His portrayal is exact, crammed full of facts and a bit boring. He painstakingly reels off all kinds of numbers and dates and goes into the oftentimes confusing ramifications of May's publication history.

This is in stark contrast to Schaper, who approaches his subject by moving in concentric circles, sometimes taking extensive detours such as the one in which he describes the deceased German director and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief as May's spiritual grandson, or his digression into the cultural history of cinema. In this way, Schaper carves out some surprising vistas in the jungle of facts. If Schmiedt's excellently executed biography can be criticised for being too conventional, then Schaper's exciting cascades of associations sometimes come across as being somewhat abrupt and hectic.

Contribution to the history of German pop culture

On the basis of the multi-faceted character that was Karl May, Schaper makes a contribution to the history of German pop culture. In doing so, he makes connections between the German Heimatfilms of the post-war era, the Karl May films of the 1960s and even Der Schuh des Manitu (The Shoe of Manitu), Bully Herbig's recent parody of the Winnetou films.

Cover of Ardistan und Dschinnistan, 1909 (image: CC)
Alleged proof that May was "an original writer and not just a conveyor-belt author who churned out one trashy, sensationalist book after the other": cover of Ardistan und Dschinnistan, 1909

​​The drawing of parallels between May and his contemporary Franz Kafka is particularly original. Both authors wrote about America without ever having been there; one as the "surveyor of dreams"; the other as the "surveyor of nightmares" as Schaper puts it.

Schaper goes on to say that the problematic situations in which both authors' protagonists find themselves are strikingly similar: Kafka's hero Karl Roßmann "fights inch for inch for his life by fighting for a place in life. Perhaps he is the greater hero, the man for whom obstacles are not simply removed or blasted from his path, the man who is not always able to free himself at the very last minute because the stake to which he is tied is himself."

Schaper positions May somewhere on the scale between "Richard Wagner's twin" and "an obvious target". He also examines the context of the Orient fashions of the nineteenth century in the light of the background of the Wilhelmine era, which "thrived on the self-conceit of the idea of a nation that is young and at the same time old" and which May embodied so perfectly.

A late triumph that belies a tragic reality

When Schaper praises May's "idea of religious tolerance, openness for other cultures" and calls for May to at last be recognised as "an endangered genius" and seen "as an artist", we are evidently reading the words of a fervent fan. As far as he is concerned, the "greatest first-person narrator in German-language literature" deserves an appropriate place in literary history.

It could be that one hundred years after his death, Karl May is being taken more seriously as a writer than ever before. Nevertheless, this late triumph belies a tragic reality: the progressive canonisation of his works is akin to their interment in the cemetery of German literary historiography.

The number of May books being printed has been in decline for quite some time. Schmiedt and Schaper belong to the last generation of people that has read most of Karl May's books. In this respect, their biographical investigations have something of the swan song about them.

Andreas Pflitsch

© Qantara.de 2012

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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