Tall Tales of the West: The Stories of Karl May

Karl May's Research Library

Over the years, May assembled a substantial research library in Radebeul of more than 2,000 text books, monographs and magazines about ethnology, geography, travel, religion, language, politics, history, art, and literature. Titles covered Europe, Africa, North and South America, and Asia. The mostly factual or presumed factual works provided him the tools and the muse to travel the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone, or the Llano Estacado without leaving home.

May was a gifted man, knew facts well, and used creative license purposefully in his settings and descriptions. Why he chose Winnetou and the Apaches as his leading tribe is not clear; his papers provide no clues.

Although May claimed to have been fluent in many European, Asian, and Native American languages and dialects, he knew none. His library contained almost exclusively German-language books (some shown here in English). He likely knew some elementary English, but as the director of the Karl-May-Museum once put it, somewhat lightheartedly: “Karl May knew two languages: Saxon [dialect] and German.”

Villa Shatterhand, 2 February 1908
Radebeul – Dresden
Dear Sir!

Thousands of letters arrive here and my wife answers all of them. I, who spend so much time abroad, have hardly any time to answer even the most pressing correspondence when at home. It is completely impossible for us to respond to questions from readers who have read my books only superficially and don’t grasp the purpose and meaning of them. I am giving you a few hints here how to read, search, and research.

Let me reassure you that my reports are based in reality and not on fantasy. So I ask you to just keep reading, your questions will then be answered all by themselves.

Please send my regards to your father!

I do not write for children, I write for adults. It requires more than the usual cerebration to understand my books and my undertakings. The latter are

  1. 1. To awaken the longing for faith and God
  2. 2. To prepare the evolution from a violent human to a noble human
  3. 3. To point toward the reconciliation between the Orient and Occident
  4. 4. To substantiate the likelyhood of peace on earth

Just don’t tell anybody, at least not any serious and educated person, that you consider my travel narratives, which should be taken symbolically, as simple Indian and Bedouin stories. The Indians and Arabs that I describe did indeed exist and still exist today, but every one of them stands for something else, something higher or something deeper. I offer an entirely new psychology. I prepare for the understanding of our magnificent and grand human soul. This human soul I call Marah Durimeh. Hadschi Halef Omar is only the human animus [inner subconscious soul]. My ego is the human question.

Well, these are only hints. I wish you luck and understanding for your continuous research.

Best wishes!
Your, Karl May.
May’s response to a reader about an image of Winnetou. May to Rohlfing, February 2, 1908. Courtesy Karl-May-Museum, Radebeul, Germany

May’s study in Radebeul.
Postcard. Courtesy Karl-May-Museum, Radebeul, Germany.

Cronau visited the United States in 1881-1882, reporting for the German magazine Die Gartenlaube. He got to know Sitting Bull and other Native Americans. Having immigrated to the United States in 1894, he is still considered one of Germany’s best Native American and Western Americana painters.
Rudolf Cronau. Eine Straße in Alt-Albuquerque (A Street in Old Albuquerque), 1883

Catlin traveled extensively among the Native peoples of North, Central, and South America and took his collection of drawings on a tour of European capitals in 1839. May had ample opportunities to view Catlin’s art and apply it to his own work.
George Catlin. North American Indians. 2 volumes. London: Egyptian Hall, 1880.

Froebel participated in the failed German/Austrian revolution in 1848 and was forced to immigrate to the United States. He undertook travels into the American West and published his experiences. Upon receiving amnesty, he returned to Germany.
Julius Froebel. Seven Years’ Travel in Central America, Northern Mexico and the Far West of the United States. London: Richard Bentley, 1859.

As illustrator and graphic artist, Möllhausen accompanied Duke Paul Wilhelm of Württemberg on his tour into the Rocky Mountains in 1822-1824. His travel accounts and graphic art are important to the exploration of the American West. Upon his return to Germany, Möllhausen became one of the most widely read writers, but did not reach May’s popularity.
Balduin von Möllhausen. Diary of a Journey from the Mississippi to the Pacific. 2 volumes. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, 1858.

Schlagintweit traveled twice to the United States (1869 and 1880) and crossed the continent from New York to San Francisco. He was an acquaintance of Alexander von Humboldt and knew his works well.
Robert von Schlagintweit. Santa Fe- und Südpacificbahn (The Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad). Köln: Verlag von Eduard Heinrich Mayer, 1884.

An explorer and cartographer, Wheeler conducted one the most important surveys of the American West in the late 19th century. May had several of Wheeler’s works on his shelves in German translation through Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen.
George M. Wheeler. Progress Report upon Geographical and Geological Explorations and Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian in 1872. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1874.

One of the many lesser-known writers about North America, Zill only published one book about his travels on this continent. May might have learned about his book, because it was published in nearby Dresden.
Carl Friedrich Mortiz Zill. Kreuz und quer durch Nord Amerika: Reisen und Erlebnisse (Crisscrossing through North America: Travels and Adventures). Dresden: Ferdinand Heinrich, 1894.

Hesse-Wartegg was known foremost as a well-published world travel writer. Among his journeys on the North American continent, he trekked several times through New Mexico and the Southwest (1876, 1883, 1886) and lived in the United States and Canada in 1888 and 1889. May (and Mark Twain, for that matter) extracted numerous details from the book Nord-Amerika for his own works.
Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg. Nord-Amerika, seine Städte und Naturwunder, das Land und seine Bewohner (North America, its Cities and Natural Wonders, the Land and its Occupants). Leipzig: Gustav Weigel, 1888.

Gatschet, a Swiss ethnologist and linguist trained in Bern and Berlin, migrated in 1868 into the United States. He specialized in indigenous languages of North American and worked for the Bureau of America Ethnology. May could have derived Native phrases and names from Gatschet’s publications.
Albert S. Gatschet. Zwölf Sprachen aus dem Südwesten Nordamerikas (Twelve Languages from the North American Southwest). Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1876.