In the year 1842, in a small town in Saxony called Ernstthal, a son was born to Christiane Wilhelmine May, née Weise, and her husband Heinrich August May. The child was named and baptised Karl Friedrich. In his second year, Karl went blind, probably due to insufficient nutriment. He was cured but, according to his biographic commitment and also to the investigation of scholars and teachers of literature, in this shaping period his phantasy was goaded by a beloved, story-telling grandmother from the father’s side, Johanne Christiane Kretzschmar, as his giftedness was also fostered (and maybe misled) by his father, when the boy had finally learned to see, to read and write.

The family was bitterly poor, the father being a linen weaver in times when cheap products, mechanically produced, from England flooded the market and impoverished the domestic workers. Nevertheless, the May family, acknowledging the talents of the child, took to the classical proletarian story of social advancement that stated, ‘my children shall be better off than we are’. The father made the boy read, write down and learn by heart whatever of books he brought home and put before the child’s eyes. The town’s parson encouraged him, too, and the cantor saw to his first music experiences and taught him violin, organ, and harmonics. In addition, Karl enjoyed private language courses, and worked as a skittle boy in the village’s tavern to finance them.

The mother, having gained a small inheritance, used it to qualify in a six-month course as a midwife and finished with a superior certificate. Karl, however, to attend the teachers’ college, was dependant on the financial help of the territorial prince, the Count Heinrich von Schönburg-Hinterglauchau. He was dismissed from the first seminary in Waldenburg because of the theft of six candles, pardoned and then allowed to finish the education in Plauen. His career as a teacher came to an abrupt end when he was arrested during the Christmas holidays, which he should have spent at home with his family. He had brought with him a fob watch, which he claimed was lent to him by his roommate, the bookkeeper of the factory, the apprentices of which Karl was to tutor.

He was reported to the police by the clerk, charged with ‘unlawful use of a foreign object’ (furtum usus), and sentenced to a six-week detention in Chemnitz. He was cancelled from the country’s list of teachers. After his release, he lived for the following two years (1862 – 1864) again with his family in Ernstthal, giving private lessons, leading a men’s choir called ‘Lyra’, composing and writing, and organising petty evening entertainments where he declaimed classical and contemporary German poetry. 

But all these occupations did not suffice to make a living and he began to perpetrate one fraud or the other. Those impostures had all the same trademark: He slipped into the roles of detectives, policemen, attorneys, physicians and thus as an imposter obtained money which he confiscated as counterfeit, cigars, clothing and furs which he kept or sold on, without paying for, of course. In the year 1865, at end of February, he was caught while trying to pawn a coat and sentenced to a four years’ detention in the workhouse of Zwickau.

He was released half a year ahead of time, went home, tried to find some income, also as an author of humorous stories, found none, and was regarded suspiciously in his hometown. So, it all started over again. What he hustled and chiselled out of the townsfolk and villagers of the surroundings was not worth mentioning, though the stories and aliases he produced to cover up his deeds become more and more fantastic. He was caught, escaped by shattering the handcuffs, hid, tramped about, was caught again and sentenced to a four years’ time, which he served from 1870 to 1874 in the jail of Waldheim. Under the instructions and the influence of the Catholic catechist, he found his way, preparing to become a writer after having done his time.

Karl May, the editor

And so it happened. The year 1875 finds Karl May as an editorial journalist serving the publisher Heinrich Gotthold Münchmeyer, who had recognised the narrative talents and realised it would be easy to shape the erstwhile convict to the needs of the company. And the now 32-year-old was thankful and did what he was told to do and wrote what he was told to write. It was his second chance to establish a civil livelihood and he seized it.

He moved to Dresden and worked for two years for Münchmeyer, but decided to leave on various grounds, worked one year for Bruno Radelli, doing the same job for an equal-minded publisher and then lived as a freelancer for another year. In this time, the first relations, in which Winnetou appeared, were published. In the year 1879, Karl May was engaged by Friedrich Pustet, a Catholic publisher whose company, founded in 1826 in order to compete against the liberal protestant ‘Gartenlaube’, still exists, nowadays managed by a member of the family, Fritz Pustet. May now was not engaged as a journalist but, having gained some reputation, as an author. He was paid by Pustet immediately for the incoming manuscripts and was ensured they would be printed. 

In the following years, May married his friend, Emma Pollmer, and worked, parallel to the Pustet journals, mainly on ‘Der deutsche Hausschatz’, but also for other publications, including ‘Der gute Kamerad’ and, for a second time, for Münchmeyer, supplying him over the years 1882 to 1888 with pulp fiction for the colportage. Each week, a booklet of 24 pages, comprising the text (to be continued over one or two years) of a voluminous crime and love novel and with cheap illustrations, was delivered to the subscribers. Five big tomes were thus produced. This production, which May was tricked and persuaded into, turned out later to become the cause for much grievance, being the background for blaming him as a writer of pornographic issues.

Karl May himself turned out to be a writing maniac. But he followed a strict plan, that was first schemed during his detention in Zwickau and then undertaken in Waldheim, from where he sent his first stories home to his parents, who contacted publishers, among them Münchmeyer. May described his literary plans later, in 1910, in ‘Mein Leben und Streben’ (My Life and Quest), and reconstructed an order through which he had allegedly arranged all his works under the goal of improving mankind by his noble paragons. Equally he complained the fates of the Orient, the decay of its olden civilisations which had nourished and enhanced the West in bygone times, and of the Indian race.

In his first Münchmeyer period, he founded new journals: ‘Schacht und Hütte’ (Shaft and Mill), ‘Das deutsche Familienblatt’ (The German Family’s Pages), and ‘Feierstunden’ (Solemn Hours, but the title of the paper can also be translated into After-Work Hours, stressing the German pun). Stories from the Wild West were published in the Familienblatt, whereas Feierstunden were earmarked for stories from the Middle East. In the works of the Pustet period, he changed to more voluminous formats and produced, in the 1880s, not only for Münchmeyer, but equally for Pustet, large extensive novels. But there is a difference to be remarked. While the literary standard of the Münchmeyer items was low, the other contributions developed their own life, in the true sense of the word. 

While May let his famous character, Wild West hero Old Shatterhand, appear in the first stories and tales ‘for the youth’ like ‘Der Schatz im Silbersee’ (The Silverlake Treasure) in the third person, he later changed to the prospect of the first-person story teller. But it was not only the legerdemain of a gifted narrator. It seemed that Karl May was overtaken by his own phantasy, and by the traumatic experiences of his youth, by his longing for social recognition, and by his childish imagination of omnipotence. So, he came in for the qualities of his fabled super heroes, until he identified himself with his own fictitious characters. The climax was reached with the three-volume novel ‘Die Felsenburg(The Rocky Fortress), Krüger BeiDie Jagd auf den Milionendieb(Hunting down the Thief of Millions)’, first published in the Hausschatz, then as ‘Satan und IschariotI – III’ (Satan and Ischariot) in the Fehsenfeld edition.

Karl May was, to be specific, contacted in the year 1891 by publisher (and admirer) Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld, who offered to release his works as a series of books. So, May was now working for two publishers, producing new pieces for Pustet’s Hausschatzwhile revising his old works or writing new ones, in order to conclude different items into one novel, as he did with the Winnetou novels, the first volume of which were completely rewritten to introduce the heroes of the formerly-separated stories, now compiled into two other tomes.

In the above-mentioned novel, a story of crime and love dealing with America, Germany and Africa, as well, Karl May, the Herr Doktor, attending a men’s choir, is called by Winnetou in Radebeul to convey him to Africa in pursuit of evildoers and in help of protégés. In Africa, Winnetou’s blood-brother Old Shatterhand turns out to be Kara ben Nemsi, to be sure, and back in America, Old Shatterhand betrays his surname as May. 

Karl May posing as Old Shatterhand

In the mid-1890s nothing seemed to impede him. He bragged and strutted, sent photographs in which he posed as Old Shatterhand (Dr. Karl May) with the silver gun of Winnetou, showed in lectures his scars, answered letters with the confirmation that he had lived through all the adventures he had told of in his books. He even dispensed locks of Winnetou’s hair. All the petty offences of his youth, the showing-off as a detective (Polizeilieutenant von Wolframsdorf), a physician (Dr. med Heilig), a rich planter (Albin Wadenbach from Martinique), can now be performed under the shield of a respectable existence, protected by the screen of his prominence. So, the history of his life recurred.

The breakdown came, as it must, and it came twofold. Karl May undertook a long journey (from March 1899 to July 1900) to the Middle East and Asia and was struck by two nervous breakdowns, when he realised the huge gap between the phantasy world he had made up for himself and which he was promulgating to his readers and fans, and the dull reality of imperialism, tourism and complete lack of heroism. This experience afflicted his soul, body and self-esteem, but when he had overcome the disease and returned home, he was full of plans for a new Karl May and a new literary production.

All his previous works were declared to be only antecedents of what should now become his real task: To lead his readers to the highest possible moral level. He had written all the tales, stories, and novels only to gather this huge readership, this grand number of followers, that now would be confronted with the real Karl May and his message of love, peace and understanding, the proclamation of the Edelmensch; the sublime human being. And he got down to work again. But this work would be hindered by the second breakdown.

The well-known journalist, Fedor Mamroth, a feuilletonist and writer himself (author of stage plays, together with the musician Otto Weiß, successful in its days, and author of travelogues, too), attacked Karl May in some squibs of the Frankfurter Zeitung (The Frankfurt Journal)in June and July 1899 and rebuked him for his enactments. Mamroth was an expert, as he had formerly, during his time in Vienna, encouraged and promoted Arthur Schnitzler, the young Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, and other poets, and so he explicitly conceded the talent of the narrator, but he never would put up with all the false stories May had conveyed about his own person and life, his deeds, journeys, and adventures.

It was the first attack on Karl May, but the only one to allow for the literarily rather considerable level of his talent. The rest of the attacks that led to appearances in court, consisted of slander, making public the sins of his youth, involving his divorced wife (May had married again, this time to his private secretary and the widow of his friend, Richard Plöhn), and even of blackmail. And they ruined the health of Karl May, though they were not too successful legally. He died shortly after a last lecture on his image of Edelmensch (The Sublime Humane Being), which he gave in Vienna 1912. 

So far for the live of Karl May, as it can be seen in numerous biographies and surveys. The stress lies with these authors and scolars (e. g. Hans Wollschläger, a co-founder of the Karl May society, or Heinz Stolte, the first to write a thesis on Karl May, or Arno Schmidt, a most psychologically influenced author and scribe, who wrote an elegant, albeit rather false analysis of May) on the singular personalitiy of Karl May and his subjectivity. As a contrast I recommend a biography by Christian Heerman (‘Der Mann, der Old Shatterhand war’ [The Man who Was Old Shatterhand], Verlag der Nation 1988, Berlin [GDR]) which stresses the social facts and circumstances, for example the involvement of May’s father in the 1848 revolutionary incidents.