Karl Friedrich May (February 25, 1842 – March 30, 1912) was one of the best selling German writers of all time, noted mainly for books set in the American Old West and similar books set in the Orient and Middle East. In addition, he wrote stories set in his native Germany, in China and in South America. May also wrote poetry and several plays, as well as composing music; he was proficient with several musical instruments. May's musical version of "Ave Maria" became very well known.
May was born into a family of poor weavers in Ernstthal, Kingdom of Saxony. According to his autobiography, he suffered from visual impairment and rickets shortly after birth, due to lack of vitamins A and D. He regained his eyesight after treatment at the age of four or five. May graduated from a teachers' college and taught in both Waldenburg and Plauen. His career as a teacher ended abruptly during 1863 when he was accused by his roommate of stealing a pocket watch, a charge which May always denied. His licence to teach was revoked permanently and probably as a consequence he suffered a nervous breakdown. During the next few years he was accused of petty misdeeds whilst suffering from what is now diagnosed as Dissociative Identity Disorder; he was jailed twice for small thefts and alleged frauds.
During the years in prison, May began writing. In 1875 his first known story was published. However, not until 1892, when 'Winnetou I' appeared in a book edition, did he achieve success with his writing. Many of his books are written as first-person accounts by the narrator-protagonist, and he sometimes claimed that he actually experienced the events he described.
May used many different pseudonyms, including Capitan Ramon Diaz de la Escosura, M. Gisela, Hobble-Frank, Karl Hohenthal, D. Jam, Prinz Muhamel Lautréamont, Ernst von Linden, P. van der Löwen, Franz Langer, and Emma Pollmer (the actual name of his first wife; according to May, she was never aware of the purpose or content of his writing). Nowadays his works are all published under his own name.
May visited North America in 1908, long after writing the novels set there, and he never travelled farther west than Buffalo, New York. He compensated successfully for his lack of direct experience with the West by a combination of creativity, imagination, and factual sources including maps, travel accounts and guide books, as well as anthropological and linguistic studies.
Non-dogmatic Christian feelings and values play an important role, and May's heroes are often described as being of German ancestry. In addition, following the Romantic ideal of the "noble savage" and inspired by the writings of James Fenimore Cooper, his Native Americans are usually portrayed as innocent victims of white law-breakers, and many are presented as heroic characters. In his later works, there is a strong element of mysticism.
For the novels set in America, May created the characters of Winnetou, the wise chief of the Apache Tribe, and Old Shatterhand, the author's alter ego and Winnetou's white blood brother. Another successful series of novels is set in the Ottoman Empire. Here the narrator-protagonist calls himself Kara Ben Nemsi, i.e. Karl, son of Germany, and travels with his local guide and servant Hadschi Halef Omar through the Sahara desert and the Near East, experiencing many exciting adventures.
Both series are linked not only by the common narrator, the author himself as either Old Shatterhand or Kara Ben Nemsi, but also by numerous other references and shared minor characters.
May's works were extremely successful, particularly in continental Europe, and have been translated into more than thirty languages including Hebrew, Latin, Volapük, Esperanto and Ido. More than 200 million copies of May's books have been sold worldwide. Recently his work has become popular among English-speakers, due to a publishing company called Nemsi Books in South Dakota, USA. Translations from the original version are available, as well as all four Winnetou books, in print, and also narrated by an American born speaker. Several of May's novels were made into films, during the 1960s, usually with the scenery of the former Yugoslavia serving as the Wild West.
May's work has had famous admirers, including Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Mann, and Bertha von Suttner. Carl Zuckmayer named his daughter after the character "Winnetou". For a long time, literary critics tended to regard May's literature as trivial. The Karl May Society (Karl-May-Gesellschaft) was founded in 1969 to commemorate his life and works.
May's house "Villa Shatterhand" in Radebeul near Dresden, Germany has been made a museum devoted to him and his collection of anthropological artifacts of American Indian origin. It is also the home of "Karl May Foundation", which publishes a quarterly journal called "Beobachter an der Elbe".
Karl May and his works are deeply rooted in the belief that all mankind should live together peacefully; all of his main characters avoid killing anyone, except when necessary to save other lives.
The music for the movie Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure of Silver Lake) (1962), composed by German Martin Böttcher, became well known. Music was one reason for the great success of the Karl May movies of the 1960s. Their success made possible the so called "Spaghetti Western" from Italy (with the famous compositions of Ennio Morricone). The star of some of the Spaghetti Westerns, Terence Hill, began his career in the German Karl May movies.
The 1960s Karl May films are typical productions of the time and have not aged as well as the Italian westerns from the same time period. Most were shot in former Yugoslavia, some in Spain, and none in America. May himself is the subject of a 1974 film by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.
Compositions by Karl May:
Nets in rare long-form for May: marks first May sweeps to fall in prime time regular season.(television broadcasters plan for ratings sweepstakes)
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