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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. Read More 

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