Subscription Required : THE NEW YORKER, April 09, 2012.
How nice to welcome Old Shatterhand in America again! The article by Rivka Galchen called “Wild West Germany” brought after some time again the famous German writer Karl May (1842-1912) to the attention of the ‘The New Yorker’ [Apr. 09, 2012 edition] readers. Exactly at the place where Karl May landed in 1908. Rivka Galchen described nicely what is happening today at May’s birthplace and even touched the fact that generations of Europeans are still fascinated by his writings as were people a century ago. She left out two halves of May’s other literary output, the Oriental stories and the philosophical books of his later years. However Rivka Galchen is writing as an American and for Americans and did this very well. Thanks to the article letters could be sent again from America to the so famous laconic address – as in the past did the famous Frontier men and the Indian chiefs: May – Radebeul – Germany. And as far as we know such letters did arrive safely indeed!
Somehow less informative are Rivka Galchen’s notes on Karl May’s life story. As fresh and colourful are her observations from today on May’s legacy, so somehow out of touch and biased is her version of what Karl May experienced whilst alive. I detect in the article a continuation of the old accusation by May’s enemies of him being a thief, a liar and a “Hochstapler” [trickster] when she says “a typically May-like ring of both truth and falsehood.” Karl May was a creative writer combining freely fiction with facts. This is not a crime! May also did not claim he was “mysteriously cured” from his vision impairment as a child. He suffered from Xerophthalmia and after coming into the hands of good doctors and being prescribed vitamin D and diet rich in vitamin A, his vision returned. Karl May did not claim to have been “mysteriously cured” but realistically described what happened to him in his biography.
The Rivka Galchen’s statement that Karl May “was later fired from a teaching job for stealing a pocket watch” is today not considered correct. Rivka could have gone to contemporary research on Karl May before repeating this slander of yesteryears. Also the “rumors [sic!] of an affair with a married woman” are fantasies created lately in another attack on Karl May’s integrity.
What attracted my attention and astonishment is Rivka Galchen’s statement “May ran the prison library, where he read a lot of Baedeker.” The idea of a prison library stuck up in those days with travel guides seems ludicrous. May never ever in his description of what books were available there mentioned any travel guides.
Karl May would not have been sentenced to prison terms nowadays. This has also been described lately and Rivka Galchen could have made the effort to peruse latest literature on Karl May instead of using old outdated sources. Rivka wrote “In the first volume of the Winnetou series, ‘Winnetou, the Apache Knight’”? This seems rather confusing to her. Book under this title appeared in the US in 1898 as a pirated version not mentioning Karl May’s name as the author. Instead it was published by Benziger Brothers under the name of the author who pirated it and bowdlerized the text as: “Taggart, M.A.: Winnetou, the Apache Knight.” Taggart also bowdlerized Karl May’s Winnetou I and II: “Taggart, M.A.: The Treasure of Nugget Mountain.” Benziger Brothers, USA 1898. Was Karl May right in complaining that his writings had been printed without his consent and he never received a penny as an author?
Rivka Galchen erroneously quotes the following sentences as written by Karl May, when in fact it comes from the pirated translated version by M.A. Taggart: “back home in Germany, Old Shatterhand was Jack Hildreth, a fourth child, and, by his own confession, a “dull kind of person, especially on a rainy day when I have to sit in the house alone with him.” And she continued with another fabrication by M.A. Taggart presenting it as an original Karl May’s sentence: “And so I found myself in a new and strange life, and beginning it with a new name, which became as familiar as dear to me as my own.”
There are more inaccuracies in the article: “A tale of a split soul, given to him by a good priest while he was in prison” writes Rivka Galchen. This historically documented person was not a priest, but a simple Catholic catechist Johannes Kochta. The description of the “split soul” from Karl May’s pen is clear nowadays to anyone who studied psychology. It is a very important piece to understand Karl May.
What is completely left out from the article is Karl May’s message in all his writings: peaceful solution of conflicts, equality of races, racial tolerance and motivation to become a better person. All this shortly before the WWI, which became a perversion of all what Karl May stood for in his books. The first female Nobel Prize winner for peace, Bertha von Suttner, appreciated Karl May’s work, as also did Albert Einstein. It is regrettable that the article does not mention this aspect of Karl May’s work worth preserving to posterity.
Dr. William E. Thomas, M.D.