Karl May was born in a small Saxonian town, in Germany, in 1842, a poor weavers‘ son. At the age of 13, so he confessed in his autobiography (1910), he left home for Spain, intent on calling the contemporary Robin-Hood-like Spanish brigands – who so vividly filled hundreds of pages of 19th century books – to the rescue of May’s home area from social squalor. His father, driven to anxiety, caught up with him after a mere 24 hours.
Financial straits precluded studies at a university. Karl May became a teacher at an elementary school, and gave every satisfaction, but one day found himself charged with stealing a roommate’s watch and was unable to expose the frame-up it probably was. Found guilty and sentenced to six weeks prison, he lost his teacher’s license forever. The shock unsettled him psychologically and temporarily warped his mind. In ensuing years, he commited a number of confidence tricks – masquerading, among other stunts, as a medical doctor, as a lieutenant of the detective police and as a notary’s assistant – and in planning and executing his schemes showed considerable boldness and imagination. All in all, he spent more than seven years in prison, but made good use of this period by reading a variety of improving books and laying down plans for a career as a writer of fiction.
In 1875, he became editor of a couple of weekly journals in Dresden, Germany, and on the side wrote and published his own stories, which were duly serialized in a number of periodicals. Again, and pointedly, he read extensively and acquired useful knowledge in numerous fields.
Quitting his editor’s job in 1878, he felt equipped to climb to success as a writer of exotic tales which showed their author, as first-person narrator, identical with his hero, apparently writing from vast personal experience. Within few years, Karl May, through his tales of Winnetou on the one hand and (alleged) ‚reminiscences of travels in the Ottoman Empire‘ on the other hand, soared to fame. Eventually, he moved into his own spacious villa, which he filled with (clandestinely purchased) trophies of all sorts – so-called memorabilia of his grand adventures.
By 1900, when he actually traveled in the Orient – for the first time in his life – he was among Europe’s most popular and most widely read authors, amassing a fortune in royalties.
Upon his return, he faced ill winds: he found the market strewn with unlicensed new publications of some older novels of his, previously published under a pseudonym for financial reasons. These novels were shown to bristle with moral indecencies – a capital sin in Wilhelminian Germany. The former publisher who, unbeknownst to May, had been responsible for the incriminated eroticisms, had long since destroyed the author’s manuscripts and, by 1901, had been dead for a number of years. May desperately enlisted legal aid to save his name from blemish. Promptly, malevolent, unscrupulous antagonists unmasked him as a fraud who had actually experienced the heroic acts claimed in his books and, worse, as a former jailbird. Karl May was publicly branded.
He recuperated but slowly. His inner rescue came from an unexpected source: During his extended tour of the Orient, he had undergone a violent change of personality and outlook, which set a permanent stop to his reverting to the previous racy and vivacious storytelling. Taking solace from this blessing in disguise, May henceforth devoted himself to novels of philosophical character, bordering on metaphysics, and to religious themes. The ingenious fruit of his thought processes was his two-volumed work ‚Ardistan and Djinnistan‘, in 1909, the most unusual fictional portrayal ever written on man’s evolution, eternal sin and perpetual yearning for peace and redemption – a fabulous fairy tale, a traveller’s journey through aeons and the universe, and a stupendous work of art. Up to the present time, this masterpiece by a great thinker has been appreciated by a minority only, but appears to be on its read towards shaping attitudes and destinies with a view to mankind’s survival.
Karl May died peacefully in 1912, at the age of 70, serenely content in the knowledge that he had after all triumphed in his various lawsuits and had silenced all his adversaries. His books have singularly survived him and have proved indestructible longsellers.