Karl May's Imaginary America

"My friend and blood-brother Winnetou, the great chief of the Apaches!"
The cowboy salutes him with a flow of the hand. Cavalry and Indians stop in their tracks, momentarily struck dumb, while I, along with eight thousand Germans rise to applaud the return of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, the two most famous Americans in all of Germany for the last hundred years. No, this isn't Arizona or the Black Hills of South Dakota. This is open-air theater under the stars in the north German town of Bad Segeberg. Every summer for the past forty years, 300,000 Germans come to renew acquaintance with their idols - Winnetou and Old Shatterhand.

Never heard of them? Maybe that's because Winnetou and Old Shatterhand never really existed. They're purely imaginary, the creations of the fertile mind of Karl May, a nineteenth century Romantic writer who still arouses intense and contradictory emotions here in Germany. He's been called everything from Germany's greatest popular writer to a charlatan, trash artist and much worse:

"A thief, an impostor, a sexual pervert, a grotesque prophet of a sham Messiah!"..."The Third Reich is Karl May's ultimate triumph!" wrote Klaus Mann, son of the great novelist in 1940. To which no less a personage than one Albert Einstein replied: "...even today he has been dear to me in many a desperate hour." Herman Hesse called his books "indispensable and eternal" and the film director Carl Zuckmayer even christened his daughter Winnetou in honor of May's great Apache chief.

Yet, the English-speaking world is almost totally ignorant of May and his heroes Winnetou, Old Shatterhand or Kara Ben Nemsi, a German scholar, and his Arab friend Hadji Halef Omar who shared many an adventure in what is now called Kurdistan just over a hundred years ago. The reason is simple. Almost none of May's books have ever been translated into English.


Karl May's Imaginary America

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The American West in the American Imagination

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