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Karl-May-Forum • View topic - American Perception Of Karl May’s Work

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 Post subject: American Perception Of Karl May’s Work
PostPosted: Wed Jul 25, 2007 10:43 am 
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In the 1964 film “Old Shatterhand” (released in the U.S. under both the original title, and as “Apaches Last Battle”), there is a scene in which some bandits are about to hang an innocent Indian. Old Shatterhand, Karl May’s alter ego, arrives on the scene and shoots the rope to prevent the hanging, and then shoots the guns out of two of the bandits’ hands. This, and their fear of Old Shatterhand’s reputation as a marksman, causes the bandits to flee. Old Shatterhand permits them to escape unharmed.

While “Old Shatterhand” was not based on a specific Karl May work, the sequence above is perfectly true to the spirit of his work. There are similar events in other films in the Winnetou series. Scenes like this, and the typical reaction of American viewers, provide insight into some of the reasons that May’s work has not become very popular in a country where many of his most famous and popular stories were set. I cite the films because it was in primarily in this form that May’s work and ideas have been accessible to Americans. I will be able to get away with this because this is an English language Karl May forum. For example, some of the participants on the German version of this forum would vehemently deny that the Winnetou films of the 1960s are in any way representative of May’s work! And while it is true that the films are very free with May’s plots, and even with some of the characters (and some of the films are not based on May’s stories at all), I would argue that the films beautifully capture the spirit and ideas of Karl May. Thus, by examining how Americans responded, and now respond, to these films, it is possible to learn something about why there appear to be barriers between Americans and Karl May.

The Winnetou films did not meet with a very favourable critical or box-office reception in the United States; at best they were greeted with indifference. Some of the films have been shown for years on American television. About three years ago, the cable television channel Starz Westerns presented “Rampage at Apache Wells” (“Der Ölprinz”), “The Treasure of Silver Lake” (“Der Schatz im Silbersee”), and, if I recall correctly, “Frontier Hellcat” (“Unter Geiern”). The films were discussed on various American internet forums on Western and Western shooting topics. The consensus often was that “The Treasure of Silver Lake” was an example of a very bad Western (in some cases, it was described as one of the worst Westerns ever made). It saddened me to see such commentary, but reality can not be avoided. “Silver Lake” is a visually beautiful film, with superb cinematography of spectacular locations. The sublime music of Martin Böttcher is legendary and of a universally appealing nature. The cast members are attractive, charismatic, and portray their parts superbly. Harald Reinl’s extremely visual directing style is always highly imaginative and inviting. There is plenty of rousing action! But none of the criticisms of “Silver Lake” had to do with these aspects of the film. Rather, the story itself, and the behaviour of the characters, were cited as “silly” or “unrealistic”.

America has a history of pragmatism, in part due to its comparatively recent foundation and very rapid development. Americans pride themselves on what they call their “can do” ability to solve problems in a practical manner. There is romanticism in American culture, but in many parts of that culture, it is anything but overt. Americans are not generally prone to internal or philosophical reflection. Thus, while the Western story and film have had strong appeal for Americans, since they are based on American history and on the American sensibility of individuality, freedom, personal responsibility, and triumph over adversity, Americans can be very particular about what they desire to see in these stories and films. They seek at least an appearance of realism and some fidelity to the ways, if not the actual events, of the Old West. Romanticism can certainly be a principal component, but preferably “cloaked” by the ostensibly pragmatic overall presentation. Complex characters and interesting philosophical ideas are accepted, but again, in a realistic context, and in settings that include sufficient entertaining elements to satisfy the less cerebral audience members.

Most of the great, intellectually dense, American Western films were made between 1948 and 1962. This was also a period in which the Western story and film were extremely popular. It is likely that most viewers of films like “The Naked Spur”, “Man of the West”, or “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” missed some of the deeper ideas expressed, but the very realistic and serious settings of films like these, combined with plenty of conflict and action (and other production values, such as star casting) kept them at least reasonably popular, though Americans seemed to tire of darker and more cynical Western films after a time, unless those elements were somewhat disguised, as in “Hombre”, 1967.

In a most interesting message on the “Secondary Literature” part of this forum (“Ben Novak: The Third Logic”), Bill has cited Mr Novak’s description of elements of Karl May’s stories that alienates them from English-speaking (and, I should think, primarily American) readers. It is true that the narrative style is clearly not American, though it is very “modern” and concise by comparison to most contemporaneous literature. Coincidence was a favourite device of Victorian authors, and it certainly was employed by May—“Holy Night!” is an especially noteworthy example. If modern American readers are very put off by coincidence, then they must also be inclined to reject Mark Twain and Charles Dickens! But it would be fair to say that, in Karl May’s stories, coincidence might add an element of “unbelievability”, when other such elements are also present. Mr Novak claims that the “seriousness” of May’s stories reduces their appeal to Americans, but I would point out, in opposition, that a great many American Western stories are very serious indeed. The “blunt” sense of humour Novak ascribes to May’s stories is something he may have extrapolated from the 1960s films, which have occasional episodes of broad humour that Americans would not expect in the context (note how much misunderstanding there has been about the so-called “Dodge City interlude” in John Ford’s “Cheyenne Autumn”); in fact, some of these episodes were edited out of the English versions of the Winnetou films.

A part of American pragmatism, and of the mostly Christian religious influence that suffuses the sensibilities of many Americans, is the concept that men are by nature imperfect, and that the best of men will strive to behave as well as possible, but will necessarily fail occasionally. As a result, characters like Old Shatterhand, Winnetou, Old Surehand, and Old Firehand seem impossibly perfect to Americans. This kind of morally incorruptible character (and such people do exist in reality, although they are very rare) was featured in a great many American Westerns: the serials and B-films directed primarily at children. It was thought that exposure to idealised heroes would be morally edifying to children, and perhaps it was, to a certain extent. But American audiences made a distinction between the Westerns of Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry (for example), which were thought of as children’s fare with characters and concepts that were simple and unrealistic, and the serious Westerns that emerged after World War II, which often had cynical heroes (often called “anti-heroes”), and villains who were not necessarily as bad as they appeared on the surface. The Winnetou stories and films present heroes and villains that are primarily “white” and “black”, and which thus have a commonality with the characters in the children’s Westerns; yet the stories and films are otherwise not at all of the nature of the children’s films (their superb and costly production values alone ensured that the Winnetou films could not be mistaken for B-films). Thus, to an average American, there is something peculiar about the Winnetou stories and films, which combine serious themes and adventures with unrealistic heroes and behaviour; and this peculiarity is often perceived as a significant fault.

Americans expect children’s fare to be somewhat benign, and even moralistic; and while in that context they accept perfect heroes whose behaviour is always morally faultless, and whose benevolence exceeds prudence, they prefer more realism in their own books and films. Americans tend to accept the concepts: that some problems can be solved only through violence; and that some acts are so monstrous that the perpetrators should be killed when interdicted in the course of their evil acts (I do not refer here to the process of capital punishment, which a majority of Americans support despite its intrinsic moral faults). These concepts are not always wrong, pragmatically or morally, and even Karl May readily admits this in his stories, though his Old Shatterhand will try everything to avoid violence or killing, even placing himself and others in jeopardy to do so. When Americans see the film scene described above, in which Lex Barker’s Old Shatterhand shoots the guns out of the hands of bandits who were about to kill an innocent Indian, and then lets the criminals ride away unscathed, the situation seems unrealistic to them—and they are right. In reality, men who would murder would likely perpetrate further acts of evil, if set free. And they might well seek revenge for their humiliation (which males in particular find intolerable). If one were travelling in the Old West, in a remote location, and were attacked by criminals, it would be prudent to kill them, for if let go, the criminals would very likely try again, with greater motivation—and possibly more success—than before.

What Karl May was presenting in his Western stories was an idealisation of the Old West (or of life anywhere; the specific setting is not philosophically important), though with an acknowledgement that there were evil men and evil acts, as well as the wholesale subjugation of the Indians. He was showing his readers what men could be, and demonstrating morality by an implementation of it that might not always be logical in reality (which he often acknowledged in the stories, too; May was a highly intelligent author who understood exactly what he was trying to achieve with every passage he wrote). Americans do not realise that Lex Barker/Old Shatterhand’s actions above are meant to be taken symbolically; to them, such actions seem naïve or even silly. The actions have meanings—Shatterhand values human life so much that he will give scoundrels a second chance; even evil men might realise the error of their ways if spared; morality may be taught to the amoral by example—ideas that are meant for the elevation of humankind. Americans expect entertainment, and perhaps, emotional impact, from Western stories and films. They do not expect the exposition of philosophical concepts, expressed symbolically through the words and actions of the characters. American Westerns occasionally do present philosophical concepts, but in a more realistic context, where it is likely that the majority of viewers miss them entirely.

May’s written stories do explain actions that, in the films based on his work, may seem inexplicable or unrealistic to Americans. The films, as delightful and beautiful as they are, were perhaps a poor introduction to Karl May for Americans (after all, they were intended for an audience familiar with the books). But even with an explanation, the resolute idealism of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, symbolic of ideas dear to May, would likely seem strange to most Americans, in whose view even idealistic heroes must bow occasionally to pragmatic reality.

While the study of Karl May and his work, by Americans, must involve an understanding of German sensibilities and German social history, the stories themselves are not so Germanic in outlook that they can not be understood or appreciated by people in English-speaking countries. The divide I have discussed here may not exist in the case of the small percentage of readers who are inclined to read classical literature. And let us not forget that the high ideas and philosophy in May’s Western stories are combined with wonderful adventures that would delight any reader with imagination. It is possible that the new English translations will bring Karl May a better and more enduring welcome in America than the films were capable of inspiring.


Last edited by Philip Colston on Thu Aug 02, 2007 11:48 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 25, 2007 1:30 pm 
You've hit the nail on the head, Philip. Thanks for the great post! In my own opinion, introducing Karl May to Americans as a valid literary great, has to happen AWAY from the 'Western' theme. The Wild West 'cycle' is only part of May's work, and while there's nothing wrong, legally or morally, with separating Winnetou and Old Shatterhand (as the 60s movies did) from May's stories, the depiction of the Indian/Whites relationship has to be done more carefully and 'American-sensitive' (it's only a logical conclusion), and perhaps in a new 'envelope' - not so much visually but in the delivery - with American producers/directors who are at the same time sensitive to Karl May's era and culture (difficult task! and a challenge because of the thrust behind Karl May's messages - global peace and understanding among nations ?). I agree with you, perhaps the 60s movies weren't the best of introduction to May for non-Europeans ...

In addition, he wrote some charming stories that play everywhere around the globe from Lapland to China, from Siberia to South America, etc, (and that's aside from his famous 'Orient' cycle, as well as his late philosophical works) but more importantly, his own life story is worth telling and in today's environment of exposees on 'famous' greats of the past (explorers, painters, composers, etc) the audience ought to have a ready ear for Karl May's life story as well - it is in many ways much more peculiar than any of his fictional stories could ever be.

On some level, May’s philosophical parables (all of his stories per se) parallel those of Flatland creator Edwin A. Abbott who said: ‘To the inhabitance of space in general…this work is dedicated by a humble native of flatland in the hope that even as he was initiated into the mysteries of three dimensions having been previously conversant with only two so the citizens of that celestial region may aspire yet higher and higher to the secrets of four five or even six dimensions thereby contributing to the enlargment of the imagination and the possible development of that most and excellent gift of modesty among the superior races of solid humanity.’


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 26, 2007 6:29 am 
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As you know, of course, Marlies, this is the topic we were discussing recently; and we are in agreement on many of its aspects. However........I think that it is precisely the “Western” Winnetou stories that have the most potential to appeal to Americans, in part because of the Old West connexion, and the fact that the main characters in the Winnetou stories are extremely vivid and appealing. I have not had the opportunity to read any of Karl May’s non-Western stories, and it has been a great many years since I have seen any of the films based on them (though my latest package from Germany included the Orient Box and the Mexiko Box). But I think that even May himself considered his Winnetou stories his greatest achievements, and he speaks of Winnetou in uniquely reverent terms (please correct me if I am wrong).

In addition, due to the most unfortunate political circumstances of the moment, most Americans have a very negative view of the Middle-East, where May’s most significant body of non-Winnetou work is set. And because of the growing resentment of “illegal immigration”, primarily from or through Mexico, that land is not considered very fondly at the moment. I will allow, however, that the sort of people most likely to read books like May’s are also less likely to be affected by these mindless national moods.

The depiction of Indians, in the Winnetou stories and films, is very positive, and perfectly in line with the trend in American Westerns. There is nothing “politically incorrect” in the films, and while there are some terms in the stories that are less accepted to-day, readers expect them in period literature, and in literature and films that are set in the past. After all, modern editions of “Huckleberry Finn” are not edited or altered to eliminate the chance that some readers might be offended. The only thing about the films that might bring an objection to-day is the fact that the Indian parts are portrayed by non-Indian actors. (I think that far too much has been made of this issue; it is traditional, and reasonable, for actors in theatre and cinema to portray all sorts of characters, many of which differ in all sorts of ways from the actors themselves.)

While there have been occasional rumours of a Hollywood Karl May production, which would almost certainly be a Winnetou film, no concrete plans have materialised, as far as I am aware. It is difficult to imagine a Hollywood production company committing funds to a film that is related to the 1960s Winnetou films, which were not box-office sensations in America. Given the general quality of modern Hollywood films, it is fortunate that a Winnetou film is not under consideration! A project like this demands artists who understand and love the material. However, a good Hollywood Winnetou film would probably do more for Karl May readership in America than any other plan that could be conceived.

Note that in my message above, I considered only some of the reasons for a divide between Americans and Karl May. I still think that the principal barrier is the simple fact that May is virtually unknown in America. He can be introduced now only as a “classical” author. In Germany (for example) May became popular while he was still a current author, and his popularity to-day has been greatly assisted by a continuity of publication and reading by subsequent generations. Suppose that Mark Twain’s works had not been published in America: it would take strategy and enterprise to successfully introduce them now. A small enough percentage of Americans read Mark Twain as it is, despite the fact that he is considered America’s greatest author. The Karl May phenomenon in Germany and other parts of Europe is a special and unique situation that can not be replicated elsewhere at this late date. But America is a big country, and there enough educated readers who might appreciate Karl May if they were to know of his works. America has been culturally insular. Many great foreign works of literature are unknown here. Until the advent of the internet, I was unable to obtain here a copy of Ferenc Molnár’s world-famous novel “A Pál utcai fiúk” (“The Paul Street Boys”), despite the fact that the excellent 1969 film, an American-British-Hungarian co-production, was shown in the U.S. to favourable critical acclaim.

I agree that an English-language biography of Karl May (such as your upcoming “Savage to Saint”) :D might well inspire interest in his work.

I consider modesty an artificial affectation. Why shouldn’t people be realistic about their abilities? Self-deprecation, for the purpose of making others “feel better about themselves”, is a pernicious concept with many unfortunate consequences. But it is a fact that modesty is widely lauded. This is very true in America, and it may be that Karl May’s total lack of modesty as Old Shatterhand is another factor in the divide, though it is, to me, a refreshing change from the usual. You are right, though, that May’s works do lead the mind to higher contemplation. His stories are much more than they appear on the surface! 8)


Last edited by Philip Colston on Fri Jul 27, 2007 7:44 am, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 27, 2007 6:51 am 
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My modest bit to Karl May’s work:
(1) Karl May is a European phenomenon from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
(2) Karl May was a professional writer whose books were written for German readers in Europe at that time.
(3) Karl May’s books are still popular in Europe. Lately his books have been translated into languages of countries which do not have English tradition, as China or Indonesia.
(4) Karl May’s books never became popular in the English speaking countries (US, Canada, Britain, Australia) because of cultural diversity and partly late introduction of English translations of his work.
(5) His literally output has four parts: (a) German homeland stories (b) Stories from the Orient (c) from the Wild West (d) from other parts of the world.
(6) The so called “philosophical content” in Karl May’s writing dates only from the last decade of his life.

An attempt to bring May’s writing to the US market is very problematic. Many questions come to mind: Are his books outdated? Should they come in unabridged form or in updated version? Which of the output would be most likely read by the public - German homeland stories? Oriental narratives? – At present quite in vogue [I remember a w-page post from a US soldier deployed in Iraq saying he took with him “Kara ben Nemsi” who described exactly what it looked like over there] – the ‘Winnetou’ word by word translation or abridged?

Stories from other parts of the world were attractive to May’s contemporaries – would they be today? Are the English translations read nowadays only for sentimental reason by people who remember reading Karl May in their youths? Or only by a selected few Karl May enthusiasts or experts?

Contrary to popular thought there are Karl May’s English translations available to the interested reader. The first – at present a collector’s item - the Taggart’s translations from 1898; the Bantam Book Seabury Press from 1970’s and 1980’s [terminated because of low sales]; the present Nemsi Books translations; The M. Bugmann’s translations; and other. All these are presented in rather low key to the public. Mr. Philip Colston is absolutely correct in his view that an interest in Karl May and his work could be brought to the American public in some spectacular – and contemporary – way, as a 21st century movie would be. Or a concerted effort by an established publishing house with the help of all the translators to bring selected Karl May books out.

These are just my thoughts, others certainly have different opinions. I would be very interested in hearing such – is Karl May going to stay a European phenomenon, or do his books have a chance to become popular in the English speaking world?


Last edited by Bill on Sat Jul 28, 2007 9:29 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 27, 2007 9:32 am 
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First of all, I should like to apologise for the typographical errors in my previous message, which I have corrected.

Bill, when I was referring to “philosophical” content in May’s work, I meant inherent content, rather than overt content as in his later works. Many of May’s most famous works originate in stories dating from the 1870s. This is true of the Western stories. In my opinion, an important reason for the greatness of these works consists in the underlying sensibility (May’s sensibility), which has some very important “philosophical” components, including potent moral ideas (morality is certainly in the province of philosophical science). I think that Winnetou and Old Shatterhand remain so popular and famous not only because of their formidable abilities, and the adventures and romanticism associated with them, but also because of the moral integrity and beneficence of their characters.

You mentioned a very important point in consideration of the potential for May’s work to become popular where he has hitherto been essentially unknown. In May’s day, works like his brought distant, exotic places to readers who had no other way of knowing them. This was a principal reason for May’s popularity. This particular appeal of his work is mostly non-existent to-day, for even people who will not, or can not, travel can turn on a television set or computer, or go to the cinema, to “visit” almost any place in the world. However, there is now a sufficient remove in time that May’s descriptions depict a much earlier era: his current readers travel in time more than space. Also, May’s perspective of the places he describes is itself interesting, and very different than those of other travel writers of the era.

It would be interesting to know something about the people who are purchasing and reading the new translations. I suspect that some of them are reading this forum, and I should like to take a moment here to encourage readers to feel free to post their thoughts, which could very well stimulate much useful discussion. Marlies has mentioned to me that most of her translations go to Indonesia, where there is a substantial Karl May fan base.

The two abridged translations of Winnetou by Marion Ames Taggart, of 1898, are currently in print(!):





I don’t know if any changes have been made to the 1898 text. Interested readers would do much better to choose the new translations of Winnetou I & II, the former by Victor Epp and available from Nemsi Books (where the Oriental Odyssey series, “The Rock Castle”, “The Ghost of Llano Estacado”, “The Treasure of Silver Lake”, a book of poems, and Bill’s book, “Karl May: A Medical Casebook”, are also available)—



—and the latter by our own Marlies and available from BookSurge through Amazon.com:



“Winnetou IIII”/“Winnetou’s Heirs”, translated by Herbert Windolf and Marlies Bugmann, is also available from that source—



—as is “Holy Night”, translated by Marlies—



—a very powerful Shatterhand and Winnetou story, despite the possibly misleading title, as well as her translations of “Black Mustang”—



—and “Old Surehand I” (with II & III to follow soon):



Herbert Windolf’s translation of “The Oil Prince”, published by Washington University Press, is also available from Amazon:



The 1977 Michael Shaw translation of Winnetou I,II, & III (with successive parts increasingly abridged due to the source used by Shaw) is also in print:



The other Shaw translations are available through the used book market.

As I suggested in another discussion on this forum, another plan that might bring Karl May new fans in America and other English-speaking regions would be a new, English Winnetou novel. Major publishing houses conduct extensive advertising campaigns for new literature; the situation is very different than the specialised arena of historical reprints and translations of classical literature.


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 27, 2007 4:13 pm 
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Philip - I admire your ability to summarize complicated issues! I love Karl May's stories because they were part of my young years, because I learned German by reading his books, and because his philosophy was in accordance with what I felt was right. I still occasionally find time to read May's stories in its original German (to brush up on the language) and compare it with the latest English translations.

I stood in amazement when visiting the scenery Karl May described in his Wild West stories - how true they were to the real thing! When I saw the Assiniboine tribe grounds in Canada and thought of Winnetou's love of Rybanna - how far could you go in submerging yourself into the Karl May's dream world?


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 31, 2007 1:48 pm 
In reading the responses and posts in this thread a small detail has just popped into my head - Never before has so much Karl May text (his own classic texts that have been published during his lifetime), so consistently, with a purposeful intent, been translated into English than at the present time. Although I initially only planned to translate one single book, it has become a hobby of a permanent nature to me, and we all, combined or individually, are contributing towards one thing ... the translation of the entire Karl May works.

Naturally, the 'market penetration' we would all envisage for these translations requires a large 'machinery' - not to mention the finances - behind that project.

I know it is a cliche (I profoundly apologise for using a cliche, although May was a master of it) but Rome wasn't built in a day either -- the Earth and the Universe might have been created in 6 days :wink: , but May's 'fame' as it exists today in Europe also took over 130 years to develop.
I also take a glimpse at the 'hit' counters on our threads every now and then, and the counts are at times quite surprising (most resulting from search engine visits according to the IP addresses). By this I mean to say that we're making huge leaps forward into the English Language 'world of reading' - compared to only as much as 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago.


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Karl May Museum

Editor: Der Beobachter an der Elbe, Moderator: Ralf Harder
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