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Karl May: The Man
Karl Friedrich May was born in 1842, at the beginning of the German Industrial Revolution, into a family of poor weavers. His childhood was spent amid abject squalor, disease, and personal blindness (probably due to malnourishment). Recalling this period of disability – the first six years of his life – May remembered one experience above all others, the hearing of folktales, stories, and legends, as read by his grandmother. But by age seven, the young May had recovered his sight, and the economic sacrifices of his parents, as well as a scholarship, allowed him to begin studying to become a teacher.
That career never materialized because Karl May was then arrested and given a prison term for petty theft in 1861. After being released, May slid into a debilitating depression that drove him to “revenge" openly the injustices – some real, others imagined – committed by bourgeois society. So more serious crimes, such as grand larceny, occurred, and the youth was imprisoned to do hard labor (served in segments of different periods of time, totaling seven years). After this time, May read all kinds of reference books besides the many travel memoirs so popular at the time, and his knowledge of distant countries was such that he could write with uncanny realism about American Indians, Middle East Arabs, or the people of Asia.
The subsequent success of Karl May was remarkable, even unprecedented, in literary history. Not only did readers respond eagerly to each new volume, but some even believed that their author had lived through each adventure himself.
With this devoted readership supporting him, May gradually allowed his true artistic impulses to come forth within ever more symbolic, often surreal novels, like Ardistan and Djinnistan (1909). These works constitute an accomplishment sui generis, a literary genre all of their own. As mythic allegories of discovery, strife, and redemption, they seize upon the spirit of 19th century imperialism, turn it around, and transform it into a world-wide Quixotic search for the lost soul of modern man, with their common message being peace through universal brotherhood. Indeed, when an influential editor invited May to contribute to a chauvinistic volume celebrating German victories after The Boxer Rebellion in China, May slyly sabotaged the project by delivering his manuscript in installments, which gradually revealed an anti-imperialistic message (“Et in Terra Pax,” Latin for “On Earth, peace.”). May even hoped, perhaps naively, that Kaiser Wilhelm II might read his books and thereby be converted to a peaceful foreign policy.
Although Karl May enjoyed public adulation, during much of his lifetime, he was not without enemies, especially when his pacifistic beliefs became unpopular in pre-World War I Germany. At that time, school authorities removed his books from libraries, while certain journalists started a campaign of defamation, alleging that May’s books had a corrupting influence on the young. The scandal eventually proved fatal to May, who – exhausted by the struggle to clear his name – eventually collapsed in 1912, just weeks after delivering his now-famous lecture “Tower a World of Grace” in Vienna.
May’s pacifism also later displeased the Nazis who banned his novel Peace on Earth and boycotted the centennial celebrations of the writer’s birth in 1942. Ironically, a similar situation occurred after the Second World War. The communist government in East Germany found the religious character of May’s work reactionary. As a result, the Karl May Museum and publishing house relocated to Bamberg, West Germany. Since 1945, Karl May has again sparked the imagination of readers, especially among the young. An illuminating study has focused attention on the symbolic meaning of his tales while the following events represent just some of the recent attention paid by the writer. May festivals, held in outdoor theaters, take place every summer in many German cities, and movie producers throughout Europe continue to make films based on the Karl May books. More popular than ever today, these volumes sell thousands of copies each year and remain in print in over 30 languages.
Karl May: The Writer
The most amazing single fact about a career notable for its abnormalities was the imaginative transformation of time and place achieved by May. Not until the turn of the century did he ever leave Germany, and then his trips included only a few of the geographic areas which his books so convincingly describe from methodical research based on military, foreign maps, and foreign dictionaries.
1. Karl May Verlag, http://www.karl-may.de
2. Karl May Society, http://www.karl-may-gesellschaft.de
3. Karl May Society, http://www.karl-may-gesellschaft.de
4. Karl May Museum, Radebeul http://www.karl-may-stiftung.de/museum/engl/index.html
Karl May on Karl May
As a child, I promised my grandmother: “I will be a hakawati. I will tell of the ‘Djinnistan;’ therefore, I must escape from the Ardistan.” And I have become a hakawati – a teller of legends, stories, and fables – because I want to clothe the truth of the future, which is now being turned away unrecognized from nearly every door, with the garment of fairy tales, so that it may be received everywhere with an open heart.
I have made mistakes, big mistakes in my life. But who can truly judge me? Only artists, musicians, sculptors, poets, writers, and critics – princes in the realm of the spirit. This kind of criticism can find fault with me, but it will not regard me as the enemy.
(From his last public lecture in Vienna, 1912)
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