May is the best-selling author you've probably never heard of, even
though his books have reportedly sold about 200 million copies over
the years. May was a German writer of the late 19th century who set
about twenty of his seventy or so books in Texas and the American
West, including four set on the Llano Estacado, a land he described
as "one of the most dangerous corners of the distant West," a place
where the "vulture of death" circles endlessly overhead.
Together with Apache chief Winnetou, the German's blood-brother, Old
Shatterhand embarked on a series of adventures across the broad expanses
of the Llano Estacado, battling the elements, evil, injustice and
the most dastardly of villains. He always won.
Old Shatterhand was, in the words of writer Ralph S. Walker "an illustrious
German superman who could speak, read, and write forty languages,
who roamed the world as a writer and archeologist, never made a mistake
he couldn't rectify, smoked cigars, and worshipped the Protestant
God. He was always keener-witted than the people around him, was a
better shot than anyone had even seen before, was generous to a fault,
and never killed man nor beast unless he needed to, but if forced
did so without compunction or regret."
real Karl May's resume was much more pedestrian, but so is everybody
else's. He was born poor in the German town of Ernstthal. Though he
found honest work as a teacher's assistant, young Karl wanted more
than what his meager salary allowed so he started stealing some of
the stuff he couldn't buy. He pilfered candles from a boarding school,
neglected to return a watch he'd borrowed, and carried his impersonation
of an eye doctor to the point of writing prescriptions for unwitting
Later he passed himself off as a seminary student and ripped off a
local furrier for two muskrat coats. The law caught up with him in
Leipzig in 1865. A jury didn't take long to sentence him to four years
and one month in the work house. He was sent to the reform prison
Oberstein Castle near Zwickau and assigned to work in the library.
As a prisoner with access to thousands of books he learned to use
atlases, encyclopedias, and geographical and ethnological studies
to describe the countries he wrote about, though sometimes his imagination
got the best of him, as in his description of a "cactus forest." He
may have also "borrowed" passages and descriptions from other German
writers like Mayne Reid, who once described the "snow-capped mountains"
Not long after his release from Oberstein Castle he impersonated a
police officer in order to confiscate "counterfeit money" from a grocer,
swiped billiard balls from a tavern, and stole a horse. Old Shatterhand
would been hanged, or at least banished to a cactus forest, for such
May was thirty-two when he walked out of Waldheim Prison in Germany
a free man. He went to work as an editor at a publishing house, then
began to write pulp fiction, humor, travel essays, and anything else
he could dispense for dollars. He became rich and famous. Albert Einstein,
Herman Hesse and Adolph Hitler were avid readers of Mays' books when
they were boys.
But being a best-selling writer wasn't enough for Karl May. He wanted
to transform his stories from fiction to memoir and reinvent Karl
May as the real life Old Shatterhand. He hired a studio photographer
in Linz to make portraits of him dressed as Old Shatterhand, cradling
rifles custom made by a Dresden gunsmith. He displayed the guns in
his house, which he called the "Villa Shatterhand." He liked to show
off additional treasures from Asia that he claimed to have picked
up while living the adventures he described in a series of books featuring
world traveler Kara Ben Nemsi.
But as famous world travelers go, May didn't get out of the house
very much. He visited Egypt and surrounding countries twice, complaining
of the stench, the food, and the realization that the country harbored
mass quantities of sand that sometimes blew in his face. May blamed
his travels for two nervous breakdowns. There was probably more to
it than that.
May later made it to the United States, land of his dreams, and visited
New York, Boston and Niagara Falls from September to December of 1908.
He bought souvenirs, sent postcards to Germany, and posed for pictures
with an old Tuscarora chief wearing suspenders. By then, the unmasking
of May's masquerade was well under way.
It began in May of 1899 with what's been described as "a strange alliance
of the gutter press and Christian zealots." The press exposed May's
verifiable past as a thief and jailbird. The zealots criticized his
works as "deeply amoral." One critic even claimed he found "pornographic
works of the worst kind" in May's writing.
May tried to destroy the Austrian studio photographer's plates of
his sessions with May as Old Shatterhand, but the negatives had already
spread all across the country. Even as he spent the last ten years
fighting the charges, banished to his own metaphorical cactus forest,
his books continued to sell in the many thousands.
The vulture of death descended on Karl May on March 30, 1912, but
readers continued to suspend their disbelief and his books kept on
selling. A series of 1960s films based on May's western novels inspired
a Karl May Society along with "Wild West Clubs" and "Cowboy Clubs,"
including one called "Lubbock Town" outside of Cologne. Lubbock
was even the site of a Karl May Conference in 2000, nearly eighty
years after his death. His legacy survives today not as a writer of
great novels, but as a writer whose greatest fiction was his own life.