Karl May's Imaginary America

The Buffalo Bill bit was real enough. Cody came here so many times, went everywhere that you can find some museum or memorial to him in just about every town in Europe. I even found a museum in a mining town up in the Moravian mountains near Poland that had preserved hand-embroidered programs for the Wild West Show's one visit to the town in 1904!

But the museum had also contained a framed quotation from Karl May. Surely there was a connection with the Indian clubs?

Edgar Aich, a tall courtly Hamburg corporate lawyer, who'd been assigned to be my 'minder' for the weekend, sensed my bewilderment. Edgar was 'between identities'. Under a thick Hudson's Bay coat he was still wearing a button-down Oxford shirt and lawyer's bow tie.

"Of course, May had some influence," Edgar interjected in an effort to soothe my confusion. "In one way he is very important because he awakened the love in Germany for Indians, though he made a wrong picture of Indians, because he never went there. But today I can't be happy reading his stories. They are not reality. I have been many times to South Dakota, to the Reservations. I think most of us in the hobby try to live like real Indians, not like Winnetou. But he was the one to awaken my interest."

I thought about what Franz and Edgar had said a lot that weekend as I watched four thousand Germans living, playing, sleeping as Indians and cowboys and trappers (and doing a lot of eating and drinking of good German beer and sausage). There were Indian dances, rope tricks, everyone was dressed in hand sewn reproductions of costumes found in obscure magazines that cater to this peculiar fascination.

And at the end of it I came away convinced they were wrong. Deep down all these modern-day Lakota Sioux and Montana ranchhands do share something very basic with Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, something very German: a love of Romanticism. That's the common thread.

Karl May's Imaginary America

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The American West in the American Imagination

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