To read / 2 September 2019

On Truth, on Reality, and on Karl May

Part II

After all, Karl May was dead and buried, buried against his will in a grave, his second wife had had constructed for her first husband, May’s friend Richard Plöhn, for her mother and for herself – and for Karl May, too. He himself had wanted to be buried in the garden of his house. But the authorities opposed – so back to what was schemed by Klara. I have told sweepingly in the first part about Karl May’s life. Now let’s have a look at its aftermath.

His considerable fortune went to his second wife and to a trust to be founded in 1913, the Karl May Stiftung. There must have been an illegitimate daughter, called Helene, from a liaison with a certain Martha Vogel, May had had before his marriage with Emma, his first wife. The name Martha Vogel, by the way, appears in two novels. But though the child was talked of time and again, Helene had never been mentioned after the death of Klara May, the second wife, in the year 1944, and her existence had been disavowed, perhaps for causes of heritage, as witnesses in the 1950s insinuated. A daughter of this child Helene died in 1986, making no claims though being convinced that she was a grandchild of our author.

The widow Klara May, his publisher Fehsenfeld, and Euchar Albrecht Schmid founded in the same year 1913 the publishing house Verlag der Karl-May-Stiftung Fehsenfeld & Co, which was renamed into Karl May Verlag in 1915. The author’s house and that of his wife, the Villa Shatterhand’ (the quotation marks were set originally in this way by May) became partly a museum. Klara May inhabited the rest of the house until her death. In its garden, the German circus artist, performer, researcher on Indian culture, collector and traveller, Patty Frank, originally Ernst Johann Franz Tobis, was allowed to erect a hut in the American log cabin style, called Villa Bärenfett (House of Bear’s Lard), in exchange for the donation of his ethnographical collection to the Karl May Museum. He hence lived here, married Marie Barthel, the housekeeper of Klara May, in 1941,and was well-known for his witty guided tours through the museum.

The name Bärenfettwas first used by May in a short story in 1888 in Der gute Kamerad. It was the fictive home of one character of May’s texts for young readers, called Hobble-Frank. This fellow is introduced as a scout and trapper in the Wild West, hailing from Saxony and returning and retiring from his adventures abroad as a well-to-do man who had made his fortune abroad and now lived a life of ease in Dresden. In the Kamerad, he answers willingly the letters of the readers when requests are made, where his home can be found and when his visiting hours are. He makes excuses, writing in the paper in answer to the letter to the editor, that he has been ordered to the sultan of ‘Zschanzibar’ to teach him Saxon German and that he took his doorbell and name plate with him, to attach them to his tent in Africa.

We find here the first signs of a literal identification of Karl May with the characters fabricated by him. Though it must be remarked, of course, that this could not have happened, if the publisher had not agreed with this gimmick (if it was not ordered). A similar deception can be found made by Münchmeyer, who addressed and presented his editor as Herr Doktor. May took over this presumption, called himself a Dr. Phil. (doctor of philosophy), as he was described in the register of residents, and also in the Hausschatz; but again we may say that he admittedly was prepared to stick to the hoax, albeit one that was not his own invention. Eventually, his then-secretary and second wife, Klara Plöhn, arranged for a diploma, issued by the Universitas German-Americana in Chicago, which turned out to be a ‘degree mill’, a hoax, as well.

But there are other occurrences, and in these, we may not light-heartedly discharge Karl May. After the journey to the Orient and his nervous breakdowns, Karl May declared that his true work should begin only now, and while he wrote symbolist, pacifistic pieces, missing any traits of adventure stories, but providing long religious and philosophical discourses, he published, at that time, a last Winnetou romance, exalting the American Indians, preaching his message of love and understanding, but also of improvement and progress by technological development. There, nevertheless, he wove into this novel the legend of Old Shatterhand, the identification of the scout with the author, and reproached former listeners to his speeches, who had challenged the existence of his famed weapons.

But in his 1910 self-portrait, he wrote that any sharp-witted reader must have seen long ago that all the characters and deeds, all these travels and adventures were meant and depicted as symbols for the long journey to true humane mankind, for the development of the Menschheitsseele, the soul of manhood. His last appearance in Vienna was on this topic, a speech garnished with poems penned by him and with personal recollections, too, which he used to support his arguments for a pacifistic and progressive approach.

To illustrate the conundrum of Karl May, let me refer to two articles and one photograph. In May 1912, in the social democratic monthly, Der Strom, a cultural journal appearing from April 1911 to August 1914, Stefan Hock (1877, Vienna-1947, London, a private lecturer at the Vienna University until he was removed for racist grounds in 1938 and had to immigrate to Great Britain, from where he never came back), attacked the author (and, may we say, poet) for his lies, his biographical constructions, and his – as he meant it – frauds. He argued on moral grounds and with moral indignation. In the following month, Berthold Viertel (1885, Vienna-1953, Vienna, a writer and film and theatre director, in exile from 1933-1947, translator of Tennessee Williams in Vienna) defended Karl May, but less the literature than the man and the pleasure of reading. And he stresses the poetic integrity of the writer and the moral grounds (citing the foreword of the Winnetou relation, ‘this really beautiful lament of the decline of the Indian race’).

Karl May and friends, 1906.

And now let’s have a look at this photograph. It was shot by Klara May in the year 1906 in May’s orchard, in the days during which he took a symbolist turn. In the foreground, pipe in mouth, Colt in hand, we see a certain Rudolf Kafka. Whereas the other persons are friends of Karl May, Kafka is a protegé of the writer, who lived temporarily in the Villa ShatterhandHe was a gifted musician and was, from time to time, supported financially by Karl, but much to the annoyance of Klara May. Two things are remarkable about this photo. 

One is the disguise of May’s friends. Are they joking about Karl May’s story-telling and identification with his heroes or are they stressing their own belief in the truth of what their friend is still disseminating? Private letters to Karl May from the first years of the new century insinuate that his admirers were willing to see and discover what they wanted to see and discover. The publisher Fehsenfeld (or his wife), having called the author for the first time in his home in 1891, told afterwards that he (or she) had noticed May’s bowlegs, presumably from a long life of riding. The sorry truth, however, is that in a wanted poster, dated 1869, May is described to have crooked legs.

It is questionable whether May’s proper friends were conscious of the huge bulk of lies and fancies that Karl May served up. But the publishers and his admirers believed him, or pretended to believe, often on grounds of publication policies, and let him go on, without restraining or questioning him. Carl Ball, for example, a military musician leading and conducting the brass corps of the Treffenfeld lancers and raving about Herr Doktor, wrote May, in a letter dated March 1909, that he told his comrades and mates, after a visit to May, that he had seen the scar of a knife wound that Winnetou had inflicted on him in the first novel of the trilogy. ‘On the left downside of the throat’, as he recalled.

The second thing to be remarked about the photo is Rudolf Kafka. This leads us to those details in May’s œuvre in which he willingly (but, as I may add, unconsciously) speaks about himself. There are two romances where a musician is supported by the hero, once by Old Shatterhand himself in ‘Satan und Ischariot’, the other time in the Münchmeyer tome ‘Wege zum Glück’ (Paths to Happiness). His acquaintance with the virtuoso violinist dates from 1906, long after the two pieces had been written, but it seemed that Karl May was willing to fulfil the duties of a Maecenas, as he himself was fostered and taught in his boyhood, and as he regarded it is as correct and civic.

Equally, the leitmotif of the poor poet appears again and again, for example where the naïve poet, a wunderkind who dwells under miserable circumstances as an adopted orphan in a poor family, in the Münchmeyer novel ‘Der verlorene Sohn’ (The Lost Son) is exploited by his publisher and denied justifiable fees. In the same piece, thefts are mentioned (even of a fob watch) that are not thefts but gifts or loans. Although in the Münchmeyer novels May is not prepared to identify with the superheroes of those romances, they wear traits of their creator’s desires and experiences. 

In ‘Der verlorene Sohn’, the hero is a former police detective, charged wrongfully with murder, who comes back in disguise and immensely wealthy and, moreover, as a secret agent. Dr. Karl Sternau, the hero of ‘Waldröschen’ (Little Rose of Forests), has nothing in common with his maker, aside from his Christian name, but he is a physician. Karl May himself is fascinated by medicine and psychology, too, he had wanted to study medicine, a dream of childhood and youth, and also Kara ben Nemsi, that is the author in Arabic disguise in his Oriental novels, poses in an episode of the tome as a physician. Sternau, as Old Shatterhand, is a master of all weapons and is fluent in several languages, which enables him to hunt down the culprits throughout the world. Richard von Königsau, a commissioned lancer officer on a secret mission in the volumes of ‘Die Liebe des Ulanen’ (The Lancer’s Love), is master of French and Arabic, athletic and strong, trained and educated, and saves his father, his love, and others, before finally saving Germany itself (then, 1870, it was still Prussia, but not for long) from the mischief schemed by his archenemy, Alouin Richemonte.

It is only in the Hausschatz pieces that May transferred the marvellous features and characteristics, though invented, onto himself, whereas in former works, he transferred his experiences and his longings onto the characters he created. Old Shatterhand has nothing to do with Karl Sternau, although both are of the same super-hero kind. It is the author who intervenes and makes the difference. Karl May never disguised himself as the secret agent, as he disguised as Old Shatterhand and Kara ben Nemsi. And that is because his assumption of bogus authority had already been achieved, and this had brought him directly to jail. To slip into the garments of physicians, officers, detectives or high officials was a forbidden fruit already consumed.

The identifications we can find in the early works are rather pathetic. One of the sidekicks of the hero in The Lost Son is a bitterly poor reporter, but he is also a PhD and a former virtuoso violinist, now inhibited by a badly-treated wound in his right hand that keeps him from performing, leaving him as the only honest soul working at the newspaper. Can we see Karl May? Of course, and in any case, more sincere than in his well-travelled romantic personages of Old Shatterhand, Kara ben Nemsi and Charley. But it seems to me that Karl May humbugs only his adult readership. Perhaps in retaliation for the prerequisites of his publishers?

Novels distinctly dedicated to young readers display an Old Shatterhand who is referred to in the third person. No first-person storytelling occurs and Old Shatterhand is one scout, digger, or hunter amongst others, the stories appearing in about the same time, albeit in different papers.

There are astonishing moments of clear-sightedness, too. In the 1910 apologist autobiography, Karl May declares that ‘I have not the heart to let my haji die, it is beyond my vigour. I love the little guy all too much, him being yet part of my own life. (…) this haji is my soul reflected, yes, the anima of Karl May! Me describing all the faults of the haji, I depict my own and thus make a confession as sincere and thorough as any writer has yet made before’.

It seems clear to me that two braggards are mingled into one and then again divided into two, but what remains is the most likeable small figure of a henpecked husband who never wanted to be such, but adores his wife and master in a loving and confident manner, who holds a title never gained (neither haji nor PhD), who produces a religion sui generis, based on Christian foundations while denying Protestant or Catholic biases and propagated in his respective entourage (the Haddedihn, the tribe of Karl May’s Arab friends, as well as May’s pacifist surroundings). So here Karl May makes no excuses, but does some frank talking.

The believers among the admirers did not die out. There are years scarcely documented biographically between the detentions in the jails. Some fans were (and sometimes still are) interpolating travels to America and the Middle East, where the young man could have experienced foreign cultures and lives, if not gone through the adventures he later described. There is a certain Carl Traugott Urban (1843-1919) who claimed to have travelled and tramped in the company of a wandering type-setter and of Karl May, through Switzerland and southern France, and to have been told by May stories of his sojourn in America. These stories, allegedly passed to his son Gustav (1884-1969), resemble a bit the tales of the Winnetou volumes. And Urban tells that Karl May made for northern Africa, too, but he was not willing to accompany him. To strengthen the tale of May’s early journeys and adventures, a letter, or to say it correctly, a piece of a letter from a certain Fred Sommer or Summer was produced, Summer being a companion of Karl May in America.

Though the Urban – père et fils – relations are refuted and in no way acknowledged, they seem to bustle about. In the year 1979, a book was published bearing the title ‘Karl May. So war sein Leben’ (Karl May. Thus Was his Life), by a certain Albrecht P. Kann. This man was a writing maniac, too, and concerned mainly with dime novels for pulp magazines, using several aliases, as May did. He was famous for his Wyatt Earp stories, which lacked any historical references, and used his aliases in a monstrous way, for example, Peter Altenburg, to insinuate a reference to the noted Viennese author and homme de lettres, Peter Altenberg.

So, we can close the circle. In the beginning, we find a Karl May trying to make his own luck, pursuing his plans devised in childhood, youth and imprisonment, putting up with exploitation, cutting back his dreams, and producing for pulp magazines. Gradually, he emerged from these restraints, but without overcoming his own bondages. Nevertheless, he managed to become a well-esteemed member of bourgeois society, but the prices he paid were high throughout his life.

In the end, when our novelist is long dead and surviving only in our childish dreams, another producer of dime novels shows up to insinuate that Karl May might have been not only the hero we wanted to see, but had – as a hero – really existed. Though the Urban tales are not as heroic as they might be imagined, they fit into the lives of 19thcentury journeymen and tramps. There remains no testimony that Karl May made it to Southern France and North Africa, not to speak of America. If you want to learn more, look for the respective links in KarlMayWikiKarlMayVerlag and KarlMayGesellschaft (all in German). May himself, in his apologetic ‘Mein Leben und Streben’, promises us a second volume concerning the journeys of his youth. But, alas, he died, and we never were able to see what he wanted us to see.

We are restricted to the dullness of an author of our days who wrote his dime novel fictions about Wyatt Earp and supplies us with a Karl May fiction, too. And the riddle of Karl May is this: When all the scientific scholars and men of letters had led their efforts to the ultimate end to prove that May never had been to America (not to speak of the Wild West) before 1908, why do we crave a most silly account of Old Shatterhand’s early travels to the land of the Apaches?


Gerold Wallner

Born in 1953, lives in Vienna, occupied with the bourgeois and civil society, its arts and politics, both actively and passively.

Publications: Gültige Aussagen. Was ist die bürgerliche Gesellschaft und warum hat sie keinen Bestand? (with Petra Haarmann and Jörg Ulrich), G. M. Tamás, Kommunismus nach 1989. Beiträge zu Klassentheorie, Realsozialismus und Osteuropa, translated and edited by G. W.

Carl Michael Bellman, der Beginn der modernen Dichtung in Schweden, translations of Bellman’s songs from Swedish into German and essay on the poet.

Lamentationes, poems, and in illo tempore, short stories at