I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before: you become aware of a subject and suddenly you are stumbling across it with some regularity. It happened to me with Erasmus Darwin. It happened to me with the Sand Creek Massacre. It happened to me with Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus school. Eventually I give in and do a little research. Often it leads to a blog post. Sometimes it leads to a new project. Sometimes it fills a gap that I didn’t realize existed in a current project. At a minimum, I learn something new. (There is no downside to learning something new, right?)
Popular nineteenth century German novelist Karl May (1842-1912)* has been tracking me down for a while now. I first came across him in an author’s note at the back of a modern fantasy novel in which the popularity of May’s novels played a critical element in the plot. Then he popped up while I was doing research for an article on satirical German artist George Grosz, who was an enormous fan of pulp fiction in general. He’s been crossing my path ever since.
This may have something to do with the fact that for the last several years I’ve been hanging out in early and mid-twentieth century Germany, when May was still a popular author. George Grosz wasn’t the only young German who found the window to a larger world in May’s adventure stories in the years between the world wars. Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, and possibly Adolf Hitler were all fans.**
May wrote adventure stories set mostly in highly fictionalized versions of the American West and the Middle East: non-stop action stories set in vividly imagined landscapes (As someone who wrote my dissertation on Romantic Orientalism, I am fascinated to see the same ideas applied to the American West) His most popular novels deal with the adventures of the Mescalero Apache Chief, Winnetou, and his German friend/sidekick, Old Shatterhand—an interesting inversion of the pairings with which Americans are familiar, from the novels of James Fennimore Cooper to the cinematic adventures of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. May allowed his readers to think that Old Shatterhand was his thinly veiled alter-ego, but in fact, he did not visit either the Middle East or the United States until late in his life. And he never made it to the West where his most popular books were set. The America which caught the imagination of generations of young Germans was in itself a creation of May’s imagination, aided by extensive research of the nerdiest variety.
May was Germany’s first best-selling novelist. His adventure novels are still in print and are estimated to have sold more than 200 million copies in 40 languages. Today, or at least pre-pandemic, thousands of people make the pilgrimage to the annual Karl May Festival.
It’s not clear to me who would be the English-language equivalent of Karl May. I have seen his work compared to both Indiana Jones, in terms of the content, and the Harry Potter books, as a cultural phenomenon. The Indiana Jones comparison seems fair, with the caveat that I haven’t actually gone so far as to read one of May’s novels. (It would be an interesting test of my very academic German reading skills.) We won’t know whether Harry Potter can hold his own with Winnetou for another 80 years or so.
*First thing I learned: the name is pronounced “my”, which is not the way I’d been saying it in the privacy of my own head. Luckily I haven’t had many chances to say it out loud in front of anyone who would know better.
**So was Arnold Schwarzenegger, later in the century. Schwartzenegger claimed that May’s books “opened up my world and gave me a window to see America.”