|From one manís desire to escape the world emerged a fantasy that captured the imagination of an entire nation.|
German author Karl May’s best-selling novels of the Wild West captured the imaginations of his countrymen and shaped the way they continue to view the American frontier. Yet, remarkably, Karl May never saw the American frontier. In fact, in a life filled with fantastic irony, May conceived his version of the Wild West while serving time in a German prison for fraud and petty theft.
Who was Karl May? Why does his life and work have such a hold on the psyche of the German people, as well as on millions of readers around the world?
Toward the end of the 19th century when he was writing, May created a cosmos of fantasy that tapped deeply into the souls of the German people.
To this day, thousands of Germans create “Cowboy and Indian” clubs, gather in tribes, and mount huge annual open-air festivals – all to celebrate May’s life and legacy. Reinhold Wolff, chairman of the Karl May Society in Germany says, “He did exactly what best-selling authors do: He reflected the dreams of his times.”
Karl May wrote to escape. While in prison, he created his ideal fantasy, a Wild West of freedom, brotherhood and loyalty. And one might say he created characters that embodied all the things he was not: physically strong and morally pure. May’s most famous creation – a noble Apache Chief named Winnetou – has immortalized the very essence of “the Indian” for generations of Germans. And to fulfill his own need to escape into fantasy, May cast himself as Winnetou’s virtuous German blood-brother, Old Shatterhand.
May’s version of the Wild West was more myth than reality, and this myth grew into infatuation, first for May, then for his millions of fans. Karl May’s books have sold over 100 million copies around the world. His 60 novels have been translated into over 30 languages and adapted into dozens of movies.
Karl May & the Wild West seeks to unravel Karl May and his legacy. The man – a complex and shadowy figure who, in keeping with the lore of the Native cultures he was obsessed with, bared an uncanny resemblance to a trickster (one who takes different forms and disobeys normal rules and norms of behavior). His legacy – a bizarre phenomenon that continues to inspire generations of Germans to emulate his fantastical version of the Wild West.