Karl May's Imaginary America

You get much the same answer throughout all of German-speaking Central Europe, from Holland to the Ukraine, wherever successive generations grew up reading German. The extraordinary thing is how many middle-aged men, and quite a few women, can still remember the exact details of the day they first picked up the Winnetou novels.

"We literally fought, my father and I...who was going to get his hands on the books," remembers Michal Rozbicki, who grew up in postwar Poland. "So we made a deal. I read one chapter and I gave the book to him. And he read one chapter and gave the book back. And he wasn't allowed to read the next chapter because I was waiting. So I couldn't wait for him to go to work. And he couldn't wait for me to go to school!"

Klaus Franz says he forgot the Winnetou books until he was in his forties. Then he started to read them again. Now he's an avid collector of the rare first editions which have marvelous homoerotic paintings by the Saxon painter Sasha Schneider. I suspects for many adults the renewed appeal lies less in the plot and much more in the message of Brotherhood between all men, whatever their race, creed or skin color. In that sense May was way ahead of his time.

Although May's basically a pessimist who knows instinctively that the Red Indian is destined to be lose out to the White Settler, he also remains a profound romantic. He also has a basic humanistic decency, a belief in the equality of all men whatever their race, skin or creed. His books show a natural respect for Indian customs. More than one German has told me that "Dances with Wolves" was successful in Germany, not because of its stars, but because Hollywood had finally caught up with Karl May. Just a hundred years late.

Karl May's Imaginary America

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The American West in the American Imagination

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