Seth Cannon and Robert McFarland, Department of German and Russian
From Columbus to the Spaghetti Westerns of the 20th century Europeans have manipulated and sculpted America to reflect their values and priorities. Germans in particular have developed a strange fascination with America, specifically the American West. This “America” is, however, largely an intellectual construct, heavily influenced by the nineteenth-century author of juvenile, cowboy literature Karl May. Myriad Germans have devoured his novels for more than a century, making him one of Germany’s most read authors. Although many other German authors have written Wild West novels, no other novelist has been able to supplant Karl May’s reigning popularity. The durability of May’s popularity cannot be understood outside of the context of German nationalism and his own cult of personality. His works, written without firsthand experience, have had a dramatic impact on German impressions of America, especially the American West.
There were three main research objectives in completing this project. First, I hoped to further explore strains of German nationalist fervor that May had, either consciously or subconsciously, imbedded in his most famous novel sequence—Winnetou I-III. This first objective entailed a careful reading of the novels in both English and German. Second, I was interested to learn more about May’s portrayal of Mormons and his potential sources for learning about the Latterday Saints in order to prepare a conference paper. This objective took me to the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany where May’s personal library is on display. With the help of two resident archivists, I was able to locate some books that May had in his possession that contained information about 19th-century Mormons. I also perused May’s only work that deals with Mormons in a significant way, “The Revenge of the Mormon.” Finally, I wanted to learn about how Karl May’s Amerika is still being portrayed and received in present-day Germany. Annual outdoor play productions especially caught my attention. I tackled this challenge by attending and carefully scrutinizing both an outdoor play and the Karl May Museum.
Results and Discussion
May’s glorification of Germany and Germans is inescapable in his novels. This adulation comes in the form of his numerous German characters, especially his protagonist, Old Shatterhand. Throughout the sequence, Old Shatterhand, the epitome of a Westmann, is underestimated by those around him. He is judged for his lack of experience, or even, in one case in the third installment, for his national identity. Each time, Old Shatterhand defies the expectations of those around him and stuns with his remarkable skills. Through episodes like this and simplistic moral categories of good and evil that inevitably place Germans on the good side, the excitement of German nationalistic fervor just following unification in the 1870s makes an unmistakable appearance.
Karl May was able to create an America for Germany by transplanting German heroes to the landscapes of America. Good character traits like strength and morality correspond with German cultural and ethnic heritage. Even second generation German-Americans retain the positive attributes that are associated with new immigrants like Old Shatterhand, although May fails to explain whether the strength of these German characters is the result of their blood or of their cultural upbringing (i.e. speaking German). The wide array of good, German characters that crop up in the Winnetou sequence gives the impression that America and her Wild West are ideal places for Germans and their Native American friends to prosper side by side. May was able to appropriate the American landscape for his German readers, allowing them to transplant themselves intellectually from their European homes to their own imagined Wild West.
Just as Germans are inevitably the good guys in May’s works, Mormons always seem to be deceitful and scheming. The most significant work by May about Mormons is “Die Rache des Mormonen.” May’s presentation of Mormons is superficial at best. His marked materials in his library also suggest that the author spent very little time researching Mormonism. His short story does show a superficial understanding of several defining features of late-nineteenth century Mormonism: polygamy, the Book of Mormon, Mormon hierarchy (including specific names), the use of “Brother,” and missionary work among Native Americans. The lack of extensive discussion surrounding each of these issues coupled with the modicum of marked source material about Mormons in May’s library suggests that he was relying less on printed sources than common knowledge. His readers would have needed a basic familiarity, even if it was simply a negative connotation, with Mormonism to understand his piece. Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a very small religious organization, especially outside of America, it seems to have made its way into the public discourse in Germany by the 1890s.
Germans still read Karl May and think about the American West. I visited Karl May “pilgrimage” sites on my recent research trip to Germany. The first was an outdoor play production, the second, the Karl May Museum. Both sites bustled with visitors, primarily children and older adults. The popular museum focused on the author himself, showing that people are still fascinated by the man behind the popular stories.
The play was far more interesting, because it showcased how Karl May’s American West remains a strange amalgam of authentic America and Germany. Germans who continue to read May may be reading fairly accurate descriptions of American peoples and landscapes, but they, as seen in the play’s setting, use their own world as a lens on the West. The play did not draw enough of a crowd to fill up the majority of the seats; still at least two-hundred fans made the hike up from the ferry on the Elbe to experience the play at the stage that is set in front of the backdrop of a dramatic, gray sandstone cliff. It was quite a walk. The primary unit of viewers were families with young children, under the age of ten. The simplistic May narrative of good versus evil, not surprisingly does not seem to appeal as much to more mature audiences. There were a couple of adults, like myself, scattered in the crowd. The majority of those seemed to be older. Talking to my German friends, it becomes clear that May is going out of vogue among modern youth in Germany, although even those who have not read May are familiar with him and his famous characters: Winnetou and Old Shatterhand.
Karl May’s books shortened the distance between the American West and Germany. May made Germans feel as if the Wild West was their home away from home as he placed his German characters in American landscapes where they prospered. In many ways he perpetuated the preexistent biases of contemporary Germans by relying on both public discourse and print materials. This pattern of imagining an America that resembles Germany continues today.