His life reads like a novel itself. Being a child of very poor parents, he went to work early (child labor laws not yet in place in Germany). Nonetheless he did finish school and gained entry to a teacher's academy. After fruitless search for employment he turned swindler and cheat. That career brought him time, off and on, in jail (1865-74) .
Amazingly, after that he found work as journalist and Editor. In 1880 his path to fame begins as author of Travel novels which he proclaims fraudulently (guess once a fraud always a fraud - tee hee) as personal experiences without having actually done so. Having become wealthy through his books, he finally does travel extensively during 1899-1900 with less than exceptional success.
Now he starts to write philosophical novels which gain him little success. He continues to fight at court against accusations of being a swindler.
Finally on 30. March 1912 he dies at his estate Shatterhand in Radebeul.
Naming his estate after the hero of many a novel shows his ego and claim to fame.
A fame built on fraud fueled by a superlative imagination. May read and (perhaps copied), looked up geography, and used that found knowledge as the base for all his novels, set anywhere but Europe. His Hero Old Shatterhand with his side kick Winnetou, an Apache hero who appears as embodiment of the nobel red savage.
His Kara Ben Nemsi - a proponent of German technological superiority and his, too, amiable sidekick Hadji Halef Omar lives through events in which we, perhaps, already may recognize seeds of the Islamic extremism of nowadays!
But May's enormous outpouring of inventive imagery garners him entry to noble houses and recognition as speaker of the hour leads to a lecture "Empor ins Reich der Edelmenschen" on March 22 in Vienna which, it is said, was attended by the unemployed Hitler who may have been inspired by it to create HIS interpretation of the German Superman, but who surely missed May's appeal for peace and enlightenment. Which must have been the reason that Noble Price recipient Bertha von Suttner was also present at that lecture.
May may have been a fraud. But a charismatic fraud for sure.
Writing novels about a foreign world as if he had been there without actually having been there, is an achievement few have done. Parodied and copied even in his own lifetime and more recently, such as in the 2001 film 'Der Schuh de Manitou' by Michael Herbig, a parody on the Karl May Films of the 1960s and spoofs extensively the characters and motives of May's Winnetou trilogy. And made into a musical as well.
It was precisely that facility of a born wordsmith that inspired the voracious reading of his novels.
By adults as well not only kids with an abundance of imagination.
And the huge success of a series of films in the 60's. (see clips above)
And let us not forget admirers such as Winifred Wagner and Hitler, who read May for inspiration and solace.
Now I must admit, I did gobble them all down with great relish as an 11 year old without questioning a single word or the intent behind it. All the 'Noble Savage Winnetou', the 'German Tourist in the Sand of Araby' (lol) and the single pirate novel "An der Tiger Bruecke"- playing out in Sumatra's Padang- all were read fervently and all fueled my wish for adventures in foreign lands. Which lead to my emigrating to the USA (Land of Winnetou ;-0), travels to Oklahoma (Trail of Tears etc,) and New Mexico (Pueblo cultures) and perhaps, my fascination with the turquoise.
Perhaps - although delighting in and collecting of (in a very small way) silver Indian jewellery and dolls needs no excuse. Right!
Some time ago on a trip over there I found and bought a couple paperbacks representative of the Winnetou as well as the Kara Ben Nemsi series and - to some small horror - found them somewhat indigestible. Could it be that I haven't read much in German lately? And that those convoluted sentences so inherent to the German language have become out of favor with me after being so used to simple English prose?
However, I still think the novels worth reading as truly vivid samples of a fertile gone-wild imagination! Or viewing on DVD...LOL. HAVE FUN!
BTW the scenes in Winnetou films were actually shot in Croatia, NOT the USA.. and that seems to me so appropriate for May, the inveterate dissembler ....lol!!