Karl May was to Hitler what Emilio Salgari was to Che Guevara and (one imagines) Mussolini: a purveyor of adolescent fantasies about macho adventurers in lands that were just aching to be conquered. Having an infamous, horrible fan is a mean thing with which to saddle an artist, of course. It’s particularly unfair in the case of May (1842-1912) whose best trait is that, as a German writer dealing with second-hand notions of the American Western, he was years ahead of his American counterparts in imbuing his Native American characters with a full humanity; that is, his novels are full of good Injuns, bad Injuns, indifferent Injuns, cowardly Injuns, brave Injuns, drunken Injuns and teetotaler Injuns- a spectrum on Injunness that matches the spectrum of his Pale Faces. If he can’t exactly transcend the racism of his time, he’s still less racist than, say, Joseph Conrad.
May’s German take on the frontier legends ( let’s call it the Sauerkraut Western) unfolds ambitiously in a series of long novels depicting the friendship (indeed, blood brotherhood) between the noble Apache Winnetou and May’s quasi-alter ego, Old Shatterhand. A man of colorful psychology, May came to have trouble differentiating between himself and Old Shatterhand, a confusion encouraged by readers who mistook his fictions for autobiographical travel accounts. May didn’t even travel to the United States until late in life, when he adventurously got as far as Albany, New York.
The most widely read of all German writers, May is virtually unknown in the U.S. In fact I’ve only read him in French and Spanish. Attempts at American translations have failed. ( Here is a very abridged, and unnecessarily altered, version of “Winnetou 1”.) When the time would have been ripe for America to discover him, WWI broke out. There was little room between wars for America to care about German literature: Thomas Mann practically absorbed all of our interest. Then WWII came, Hitler declared himself a fan of May, and that was it; the unfortunate connotations doomed Old Shatterhand to be the Richard Wagner of literature. Although May regained his popularity in Europe in the ’80s, there were few people to care this side of the Atlantic: the Western is a dead genre whose fandom shrinks daily, and who wants to hear some German’s old-fashioned, inaccurate fantasies about the Wild West?
So the question is: why translate May into English at all? I think young readers of adventures would highly enjoy the tales of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, and as an adult I got some nostalgic value from it all. They’re not as badly written as Salgari’s; in quality they compare to Edgar Rice Burrough’s and H. Rider Haggard’s. They belong to a simpler world of narrative cliches where there was little effort to surprise the reader: the bad guy with the sinister mustache will do the bad things you think he will, the good guys will do their best to maintain their moral rectitude, a promise is a promise, and women… well, women aren’t really a factor in May’s world. Winnetou and Old Shatterhand are always one brokeback mountain away from scandalizing the reader. I wonder how Hitler would have felt about THAT.