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It’s Not the Size But the Angle: Friedrich Gerstäcker and Karl May

Our new translation of Friedrich Gerstäcker’s frontier novel The Arkansas Regulators, out in January from Berghahn Books, sheds new light also on what is perhaps the most curious publishing phenomenon in the history of western literature, the novels of the prolific German writer Karl May (1842-1912). Gerstäcker was a major inspiration and influence behind May’s works. But unlike Gerstäcker, May had not been to the United States when he wrote his western fantasies, which involved such iconic characters as the intrepid frontier hero “Old Shatterhand” (his alter ego) or Winnetou, the noble Apache chief, which are still familiar to most German children.

Karl May was born in Elsental, Saxony, on 15 February 1842, as the fifth of fourteen children of a dirt-poor weaver and his overwhelmed wife. Nine of his brothers and sisters died in infancy. He trained to be a teacher but was arrested for petty theft—or as he liked to call it, “an honest mistake”—and promptly lost his job. May spent time in prison also for more serious offenses, such as impersonating a doctor and a policeman, theft, robbery… the list continues. One of his tricks involved dropping in on unsuspecting families, telling them that he was a secret agent who had come to inspect the cash they kept in the house cash they kept in the house, and then declaring some or all of the money counterfeit—which is why it had to be confiscated. While on the lam, May even spent some time living in an actual cave, near Hohenstein-Ernstthal, a place now sacred to millions of fans.

When he was released from jail after four years of hard labor in 1874, May said that his plan for the future was to “emigrate to America.” But, unlike thousands of his fellow countrymen and –women, Karl May didn’t leave (when he finally visited the U.S., towards the end of his life, he never ventured west of Buffalo, NY—the name might have seemed “western” enough for him). May turned to literature instead, probably because it allowed him to continue, within a legally more acceptable framework, a game of deception to which, as his court-appointed attorney once noted, he seemed constitutionally inclined. And he became fabulously successful.

Friedrich Gerstäcker, during the years he spent living in the American backwoods, had hunted, farmed, logged, and hung out with real trappers and Native Americans. May had done none of the above, yet he confidently wrote about all of it, as if he had been there himself. Was he ever worried that his many fans were on to him? “I am, indeed, Old Shatterhand,” May assured his adoring fans when he toured the country (a lifelong believer was the princess of Bavaria). He even posed for the camera in authentic western garb. After a while, some did wonder. “How on earth do you manage to knock your enemies unconscious with these little hands?” asked one of them, Lisbeth Felber of Hamburg, after she had seen Karl May aka “Old Shatterhand” in the flesh. It was the angle that mattered, May answered tartly, not the size. His model, Friedrich Gerstäcker, would have approved. But there was a crucial difference: Gerstäcker had the western experience to back up his swagger.

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