Sunday, November 25, 2012

He was a Liar, an Imposter and a Thief



The above was the introduction by Klaus-Johen Guehlcke, German Consul General in Houston, to an exhibition that just opened at the History Museum in Santa Fe.

 “Tall Tales of the Wild West: The stories of Karl May” is based on the fictional travels of Karl May (pronounced My) who was the German author of over 100 books. Many of which were about the cowboys and Indians of the American Southwest and focused on the Mescalero Apache south of Roswell, New Mexico. 

May’s writings were guided by his own principle, “Don’t tell the truth when you can come up with something more interesting to say.”  His influence on Europe’s vision of the myth of the American West cannot be underestimated.  There is only one minor detail, he had never been to the United States, and when he finally did come, in his old age, he never got further west than Buffalo, New York.

May had a substantial library with books by the sources that he used to inform himself about our Southwest, however, much of the geography of the region was not yet recorded in the European atlases and maps available to him.  Today, his library resides in the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany.

May was born in 1842, the son of poor weavers in a small town in Saxony, and died at age 70 in Radebeul, near Dresden in 1912.  Early on he got into trouble as a liar, a thief and an imposter, posing as a police officer and a doctor and as a result ended up in jail on three occasions.  At about the age of 35 he found that he could write and he published a number of articles.  In 1895 he published his first novel  and only then did he begin making real money from his writing, just fifteen years before his death.  His most famous series of books, selling over 200 million copies, was about a fictional Indian by the name of Winnetou and his closest friend a German, by the name of Old Shatterhand, who narrates the stories.  In the 1960’s a number of movies based on these stories were produced in Germany and Yugoslavia and some were dubbed in English.  May also lived the part of Old Shatterhand and would often dress according to his fantasies.  In this photo May poses as old Shatterhand.



The opening lecture for the exhibition at the History Museum in Santa Fe was given by Hans Grunert, the curator of the Karl May Museum, in Radebeul. With the introductory remarks by the Honorary German Consul to New Mexico and the German Consul General from Houston, for the entire Southwest,  it was quite an affair, and very German in style.

The audience was asked how many were from Germany or had German ancestors and half the audience must have raised their hands.  What really amazed me was when asked who had read Karl May in their youth, a good percentage kept their hands in the air.  My knowledge of Karl May was only when my father would talk about him because, as a child in the late 1940’s and early 50’s I loved cowboys and Indians. The curator from the Karl May museum said that he read the novels the only way he could, “under the covers” because his parents kept trying to get him to read more illustrious German authors such as Goethe, Schiller and Thomas Mann.  Today, he is very happy with his choice of author. 

The Librarian archivist at the New Mexico History Museum and curator of the exhibition, Thomas Jaehn, is also originally from Germany.   He told the story of trying to import
the mock rifle that Karl May said he took from the grave of Winnetou in Wyoming.  It  was actually made in the town of Radebeul.  When the curators naively tried to get permission to bring it in as hand luggage on their plane they did not succeed and before it was over the departments of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the TSA and Homeland Security were involved.  Here is a picture of the curator holding the gun victoriously in the store room of the History Museum

Thomas Jaehn with rifle

and another of the cover of May’s book “Winnetou”.  Here Winnetou leans on his trusted Silberb├╝chse, as he called it, with Old Shatterhand peering over the cliff next to him.



“Tall Tales  of the Wild West”  brings to a New Mexico  audience the stories that have long shaped the European view of the American West.  It is ironic that the one place that they have not been known is where they were situated.

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