Buy an adventure for a dime!
Pulp fiction of the American Wild West from—of all places—Germany!?
In the 1870s, you could spend a dime and revel in the western adventures of Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, or Jessie James. For a half dime you could buy a novel featuring Fancy Frank of Colorado or Daisy Dare. Western pulp fiction of the 1870s had captured the imagination of America! One publisher—Beadle and Adams—turned out 2,200 western titles, hungrily consumed by readers of all ages.
While some of the early Western novels’ characters were real, they didn’t always recognize themselves in print. When presented with a novel featuring himself killing seven Indians with one hand while holding a damsel in distress, Kit Carson was said to have commented, “I ain’t got no recollection of it!” But never mind, stories like this satisfied Americans’ arm-chair desires for wild West adventures.
Yet America was not unique in its demand for glamorized stories of the West. One German author, Karl May (pronounced My) began writing exciting cowboy-and-Indian novels in the latter part of the 1800s. His stories featured a noble Apache—Winnetou—and his white blood-brother, the frontiersman Old Shatterhand, who had immigrated to the West from Germany.
May is the primary author credited with creating Germans’ view of the American West. His 33 novels have sold over 200 million books, been translated into 37 languages, and been made into movies and plays. Today, more than one hundred years later, May’s “cowboy cult” still provides reasons for Karl May festivals—the largest of these draws 300,000 fans annually. At least 200 German Cowboy Clubs attract members, Wild West towns draw visitors, and trips to US dude ranches are other offshoots of May’s German popularity. Yet he is largely unknown in the US.
May’s books have been fabulously successful; however, despite the tales May told about his personal journeys to the American frontier, he never traveled to the West. Late in his life, he did visit the US, for the first time, but never went west of Buffalo, NY. His stories are fraught with errors and the life he said he had led was mostly fiction. Although May is Germany’s best selling author of all time, he began life as a thief and a conman who spent eight years in prison or the workhouse for assorted fraudulent acts. But he claimed his time in lock-up was spent traveling abroad. Despite his being a con artist and imposter, the German public continues to love May’s stories and are apparently willing to ignore his books’ historical errors and his checkered life. For his fans, an exciting tale trumps all else!
May’s fictional view of the American West, as shaped by his pulp novels, still lives today in Germany—just as the American view of the West has been largely glamorized by books, television, and the movies. It’s all about a good story!
This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with the Texas Brave and Strong Podcast. Tune in every other week for a new episode. It’s tidbits of Texas history you didn’t learn in school.
Pick up a copy of my historical novel, “GONE TO DALLAS, The Storekeeper, 1856-1861.” You’ll find it—along with enthusiastic reviews—on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords and other sites where books are sold. Thanks for listening. Ya’ll come back!