Karl May – A to Z: K

K is for Karl May (1842-1912), an author very well known in German-speaking countries, but probably rather unfamiliar to most in the English-speaking ones. He led a troubled life and was imprisoned for stealing several times. He worked as a teacher, a tutor, an editor in a publishing house, and a freelance writer before writing most of his works as a full-time author.

Karl May

Karl May (1842-1912) in 1907; image from Wikipedia Commons

Most of May’s famous books were adventures of his “alter egos”, set in faraway places (from the Orient to the Wild West of America to Mexico) which he’d never actually visited. His imagination was incredible, bringing these places to life in such a way that many of his readers believed that he was in fact writing about his own adventures. It is said that he himself had trouble distinguishing his writing from reality (though of course that could just have a “publicity stunt”, if such a thing existed in those days).

He wrote over 90 books (yes, ninety… although it’s hard to be certain, because he used many pseudonyms and some works were published from his notes only posthumously), several of which have been turned into films much later, and is amongst the most-read German authors in history. An estimated 200 million Karl May books have been printed, half in the original German and half as translations into various languages. His influence on German speakers, especially on their concept of American Indians, and his admirers range from Hitler to Einstein. The most popular books are probably his Winnetou series about the friendship between his alter ego, “Old Shatterhand”, and Winnetou, chief of the Apache tribe.

If anyone is to blame for turning me into a bookworm at an early age, it would have to be Karl May. I remember finding one of his books, Winnetou I, in the attic when I stayed with my German grandparents, and being hooked immediately. I still enjoy reading his old-fashioned flowery long sentences today (and they certainly help to keep my German from becoming too rusty).

Karl May's "Der Schut"

Cover of Karl May’s “Der Schut” (image slightly tweaked as it’s quite faded)

My particular favourite among the Karl May books I own is an old copy of Der Schut, Book 6 of the “Orient Cycle”, which was printed in an old German font. It always takes a while to get back into reading it (on of the types of “s” and the “f” are hard to distinguish at first), but after that, you hardly even notice it. There is no publication date, so I’m not even sure how old it is; it was first published in 1892 but I think my edition is from somewhere between WWI and WWII.

First page of Karl May's "Der Schut"

Beginning of Karl May’s “Der Schut” – as you can see it’s not in the best condition, but I love the old script.

His contribution to literature is celebrated even today, over 100 years after his death, in festivals and theme parks in and around his native Germany. If you ever feel up to some unusual reading, the English Kindle edition of Winnetou I is $0.95 on amazon. Probably quite “cheesy” for today’s market, but still a great read.

Do you have any old books (or newer editions of them) you’re very fond of? Let me know in the comments.

About Amos M. Carpenter

Web dev by day, author by night, and generally interested in (and opinionated about) way too many things.

Posted on 12 April, 2014, in A to Z Challenge Part II, Books, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great post, very interesting to learn about writers like this 🙂

    • Figured I’d throw something more “unusual” in the mix, since most of the other writers on my index are pretty well-known in their genres. And, even though I don’t write in German, his books were some of those that first drew me to reading as a kid.

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