Volume I[Mein Leben und Streben, Band I]
Autobiography by Karl May (1842-1912)
Translated by Gunther Olesch in 2000 from the 1st edition of 1910
- Text (HTML)
- Compressed ASCII version
- Compressed HTML version
- Compressed ISO 8859-1 version (German umlauts)
Karl May, born in 1842 under the name Carl Friedrich May, published the first volume of his autobiography in November of 1910. He never found the time to write the planned second volume or any of the other future works he is referring to in this book before he died in 1912.
Rudolf Lebius felt insulted by what Karl May had to say about him in his autobiography, and, less than one month after the sale of this book had started, Lebius succeeded in obtaining an injunction against it, so that it had to be taken out of the shops, and all remaining copies had to be destroyed. Rudolf Lebius is portrayed by Karl May as a villain of the worst kind, a man who changes his political loyalties for money and specialises in blackmailing people, after digging up dirt from their past, in order to control and use them and, most of all, in order to extort money. It is a fact that Lebius had been asking Karl May to „loan“ him money, and when Karl May refused to pay, Lebius started publishing ever more aggressive articles against May in a newspaper he owned, full of exaggerated and partially false accusations. Lebius had been working for several newspapers with different political backgrounds before joining the social democratic party and writing for their newspapers. After founding his own newspaper, he left the party and changed his political views into the very opposite. Lebius then focused on anti-Semitic propaganda, and, after the first world war, he even led an anti-Semitic party for a few years. He died in 1946.
Thus, the first edition of Karl May’s autobiography could only reach a few hundred people, probably mostly among German speaking readers outside of Germany, e.g. in Austria, where the injunction of the German court did not apply. About three month prior to his death, Karl May wrote to his publisher: „Concerning `My Life and My Efforts‘ I am willing to do your bidding. I will tackle it.“ Whether Karl May rewrote some parts of his autobiography, is uncertain, but very soon after his death, his publisher announced that an abridged version would soon be available. Four month after Karl May’s death, this abridged version was published. It did not just omit the passages about Rudolf Lebius, but much more, and it even added texts taken from other autobiographical writings by Karl May. This adaptation is credited to Karl May’s widow and E.A. Schmid (1884-1951). Little more than a month had passed before someone else, the lawyer Oskar Gerlach, felt insulted by this version and obtained an injunction against its publication. The publisher reacted by printing new, mostly blank, versions of those two pages Gerlach had objected against, instructing booksellers to rip out the offending pages and to glue the new ones in. In December of 1912, the lawsuit was settled, and the remaining copies of the adaptation could be sold with all of its pages, but a new edition would have to be changed. This third, further abridged edition was published in 1914 by E.A. Schmid. In early 1917, a 34th volume was added to the series of Karl May’s collected works, of which 33 volumes had been published in the author’s lifetime. This 34th volume is titled „Ich“ <I>. It contains another abridged version of the autobiography as well as a few other texts, mostly about, but not by, Karl May. By 1995, this book had gone through 39 editions, in which the text of the autobiography had again been revised several times, though the later revisions aimed at a partial restoration of the original text. The compilation of other texts contained in this volume also differs in the various editions. Even the edition of 1995 still omits a large passage (at least 36 pages in the first edition) about Rudolf Lebius. It also moves two passages which had been omitted from the seventh chapter in previous editions to an appendix. In the first one of these passages, Karl May writes about his views on plagiarism.
Though, Karl May insists on being truthful in this book, one should not approach it without scepticism. It is particularly hard to believe that all of his repeated deceptions, assuring his readers that his fictional adventure stories were based on fact, were all just designed to set the scene for some great work, he was all the time planning to write at some later point in his life. Probably, his mind just sought a way to escape his unpleasant past and his present problems with his failing marriage to his first wife by retreating into the fictional persona of the protagonist of his novels.
Furthermore, there are many details where May’s memory might have proven slightly unreliable or which he might intentionally or subconsciously try to conceal. For instance, his description of the events due to which he was thrown out of the boarding school completely contradicts the version found in the school’s files. He writes that before Christmas he had to clean the candlesticks and kept the tallow he scratched off of them, to make small candles from it, to be used as Christmas decorations. He was watched by a fellow student, who reported this theft of what Karl May regarded as garbage to the principal. According to the school’s files, it happened like this: In November, Karl May had to clean the candlesticks and to replace the burnt down candles. Two weeks later, two older students found six complete candles in his unlocked suitcase. They turned them over to the student who was in charge of the candles for that week, but agreed not to tell the teachers. Shortly before Christmas, accusations are made that, at two occasions, money had been stolen. The students who had found the candles came forward and were reprimanded by the teachers for having covered the matter up before. The question of the stolen money was never resolved.
Also, everything Karl May tells us about the life of his father’s mother before he was even born is very questionable. It would seem that this grandmother was not just a gifted stroy-teller, but might also have invented a more romantic past for herself, which she then passed off as the truth to her family, just as Karl May later also pretended that his fictional novels were true. Karl May writes that this grandmother lost her mother at an early age. She fell in love with his grandfather, but felt obliged to devote all of her energy to taking care of her ailing father. Thus, she kept her faithful lover waiting until her father had died. After giving birth to two children, she lost her husband in a tragic and rather dramatic accident at Christmas. After some hard times, she found a job as a housekeeper, had a near-death experience, lost her job, and married a poor weaver by the name of Vogel, who also died shorty afterwards. Some aspects of this story plainly contradict the few facts from her life which could be pieced together from old church documents. These facts are: On May the 1st, 1803, she married C.F. May, while both of her parents were still alive. Five months later, their daughter was born. In 1810, her son Heinrich, Karl May’s father, was born. The records of his baptism state that Heinrich’s father was not his mother’s husband. He was baptised under his mother’s maiden name. On February the 4th, 1818, C.F. May died due to a „disorderly way of life“ (whatever this is supposed to mean). In 1820, the mother of Karl May’s grandmother died. In 1822, she married C.T. Vogel. In 1825, her father died. In 1826, C.T. Vogel died. Later in the same year, a church document lists her son Heinrich with the surname May.
There are indications that Karl May was not just aware of the fact that some things he wrote about his grandmother were not literally true, but that he had also invented some of it himself. The most striking indication of this is an old book of oriental myths, entitled „Der Hakawati“, which May claims had belonged to his grandmother. He claims that the fable of Sitara, which he tells us in the beginning of his autobiography, had been contained in this book. It seems that neither such a book nor the author Christianus Kretzschmann ever existed. The author’s name is strangely similar to May’s grandmother’s maiden name J. Christiane Kretzschmar. The fable of Sitara seems to be Karl May’s own creation. In the end of the fifth chapter, he mentions another book, which he claims he had received from a man who had a great impact on his life while he was in prison. This book also never really existed. Apparently, these books are only meant to serve as symbols for abstract concepts and ideas which he got to know through the persons concerned. Thus, not just Karl May’s novels, but also his autobiography, would have to be interpreted in a somewhat allegorical way, not necessarily representing literally true facts, but rather symbolising a spiritual truth.
Karl May’s grandmother is of particular interest, because he writes that she had inspired the character of the princess Marah Durimeh, whom May regarded as the female counterpart in the Orient to the Indian chief Winnetou in America. Winnetou is the title character of Karl May’s most famous novel and also appears in several others of his books. But Karl May never wrote the planned novel about Marah Durimeh, which he had intended to cover three or four volumes, just like „Winnetou“. Thus, Marah Durimeh only plays a comparatively smaller role in his existing novels and we can only guess how he planned to develop this character into the central character of his later, unwritten works.
Though the fifth chapter, relating the darkest part of Karl May’s life, is the longest in the book, it still skips many things, which the author obviously does not want to remember. Thus, the question which crimes he had actually committed remains largely unanswered. He also does not tell us anything about the journeys he claims to have taken in those days, promising to disclose this in the second volume, which he never wrote. The rumours he fostered that he had already in this early part of his life travelled to the Orient and to America are definitely not true; he probably never left Germany at this time. Only in his later years, he took a long trip to the Orient and Asia (1899-1900) and a trip to America (1908).
As far as the lawsuits and the events which led up to them are concerned, Karl May, of course, cannot be expected to relate them in an objective manner. After he had resigned his job at H.G. Münchmeyer’s publishing company in 1877, he wrote for other publishers and got married in 1880. From 1882 on, we find him working for Münchmeyer again, writing those novels which were to become the reason for his first lawsuit. According to Karl May, Münchmeyer was on the verge of bankruptcy and begged May to save him with his gift for writing bestselling novels. But the truth might have been rather different. Karl May admits himself that the other publisher, he had mainly been working for, did not pay him much: „The royalties I received from Pustet were (…) so insignificant that I cannot bring myself to naming the amount.“ Having to support a wife, one can easily imagine that May was the one who was in need of some cash. Furthermore, I have read elsewhere that Münchmeyer had payed May an advance of 500 marks, a fact which May fails to mention in his autobiography.
And then there are Karl May’s allegations that Münchmeyer, or rather one of employees, had spiced up those novels with indecent passages. Though it is likely that some abridgment had taken place, the claim that those novels were completely rewritten from morally impeccable stories into immoral trash are surely an exaggeration. For almost twenty years after their original publication, nobody seemed to be offended by these so-called „indecent novels“. Only after Münchmeyer’s widow had sold the rights to these novels, which she did not even own, and was therefore sued by Karl May, articles started appearing in the newspapers denouncing theses novels as highly immoral. These articles were not just designed to destroy Karl May’s reputation and thereby ruin his chances in the pending lawsuits, they also increased the demand for the illegally printed copies of these novels. Perhaps, Karl May saw no other way to escape this trap than to pretend that his novels had been altered, and perhaps, his memory of them had also changed, regarding them as closer to his later works than they really were. At any rate, a proof, one way or the other, would be impossible. The original manuscripts had been destroyed, and those who allegedly rewrote these novels were already dead when the lawsuit started.
After Karl May’s death, E.A. Schmid obtained the rights to all of his works. He believed in the myth that Karl May’s novels had been thoroughly rewritten without the author’s consent and made sure that the original versions were no longer published. He then created what he regarded as „improved“ versions of all of Karl May’s works. Especially the disputed novels, originally published by Münchmeyer, were rewritten rather dramatically; large parts of the plot were removed and new solutions to certain mysteries were invented; characters from Karl May’s more popular novels were added; etc. Generations of readers have known Karl May only through Schmid’s adaptations. After Karl May’s works had entered the public domain, a few editions presenting the original texts have been published, but the vast majority of all books sold in Germany under the name of Karl May still contains the adaptations by Schmid et al.
I have read that Karl May was the most frequently translated German author of all times, but unfortunately this does not apply to the English language. Though even the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes him as „one of the world’s all-time fiction best-sellers“, he is virtually unknown by most English speaking readers. The earliest English translation of one of his works came in 1886, probably in the form of a weekly series of booklets under the title „Rosita“ (a translation of „Das Waldröschen“, the first one of those disputed novels Karl May had written for H.G. Münchmeyer under a pseudonym). I suppose, these booklets were just as quickly discarded and forgotten as they were printed. In 1898, two books entitled „Winnetou, the Apache knight“ and „The Treasure of Nugget Mountain“ were published, containing a severely abridged and altered translation by Marion Ames Taggart of Karl May’s most famous novel „Winnetou“. Among other things, the main character is changed from a German, implicitly a Protestant, into an American, whom the translator has named Jack Hildreth and who keeps on emphasising that he was a Catholic. In one place, the translator has even added a line in which the hero is made to point out that the religion of the murderer Rattler was not his own, but that of a non-Catholic, when Winnetou suggests to him that he had the same religion as the murderer. In the original book, the hero simply answers „Yes“ and then goes on to explain, as he also does in the translation, that the murderer did not keep the commandments. These liberties of the translation are particular serious since Karl May often had to defend himself against allegations of promoting Catholicism, though being a Protestant, just because he published many of his stories in a Catholic magazine. In 1900, the series of translations by M.A. Taggart was continued with „Jack Hildreth on the Nile“, based on Karl May’s „Der Mahdi“ a.k.a. „Im Lande des Mahdi“.
In 1955, a translation of the beginning of Karl May’s big oriental adventure by M.A. de Becker and C.A. Willoughby has been published under the title „In the Desert“. I have neither read this, nor any other later translations, but I have read about this translation that it had a tendency to simplify, shorten, and paraphrase the text. It is also peculiar that someone would only translate the first volume of a novel in six volumes. Thus, the reader would witness the hero finding the body of Paul Galingré in the desert and starting on his pursuit of the killers, but he would never solve the mystery and discover the criminal mastermind behind all of it in the end of the last volume. In 1971, two volumes of short stories entitled „Canada Bill“ and „Captain Cayman“, translated by Fred Gardner, have been published in London. These sold only about 3000 copies each. In 1977, a series of translations by Michael Shaw was published. It included „Ardistan and Djinnistan“ (2 volumes), „Winnetou“ (2 volumes), and „In the Desert“ (1 volume). These translations have been described as faithful to the original. In 1979, the series was continued with 4 books, entitled „The Caravan of Death“, „The Secret Brotherhood“, „The Evil Saint“, and „The Black Persian“, continuing the oriental adventure which had started with „In the Desert“. Only between 3000 and 4500 copies were sold per volume. In 1980, some of these books were reprinted as pocketbooks, but less than half of the printed books were actually sold, which put an end to all plans for further English translations. (By the way, the German original of „Winnetou“ had sold about three million copies in the edition as volumes 7 to 9 of „Karl May’s collected works“ alone, when I bought it many years ago.) In 1998, there seems to have been a new edition of Michael Shaw’s translation of „Winnetou“, and in 1999, David Koblick published his abridged translation of the first volume of „Winnetou“.
In this first (and only) volume of his autobiography, Karl May describes his life until about 1887/88 and then turns to the current events of 1910, when he had to defend himself against various slanderous accusations, touching only upon those events from the meantime which are somehow connected with these lawsuits. In the time from 1887 to 1899, he wrote most of those novels which have been the foundation of his lasting popularity. In 1899/1900, he went on his long journey through the Orient and, in 1908, he visited America. In the unwritten second volume of his autobiography, Karl May had planned to discuss those novels and his travels in detail. Here, I only want to give a short list of his work and a few events in his life after 1887:
1887: Karl May publishes „Der Sohn des Bärenjägers“ <The Son of the Bear-Hunter> in a magazine for boys, published by Wilhelm Spemann. In the course of the following years, he off and on publishes several stories there, which are later collected in seven books. This gets him the reputation of being mainly an author for children, against which he vigorously protests in this autobiography. Nevertheless, these stories, mainly set in the Wild West, still rank among his most popular works.
1888: May finishes his big oriental adventure novel, which he had already started publishing in a magazine called „Deutscher Hausschatz“ in 1881. For eight years (with interruptions), the readers of this magazine had been able, to follow the adventures of the first person narrator, whom many readers identified with the author, regarding the imaginative story as a factual account.
On September the 6th, Karl May’s father dies.
In early October, he moves from Dresden to one of its suburbs, called Kötzschenbroda.
1889: Karl May meets Richard Plöhn and his wife Klara. They become his closest friends.
In October, the „Hausschatz“ starts publishing Karl May’s novel „El Sendador“.
1890: Karl May can no longer afford to pay the rent on his large house in Kötzschenbroda. He moves to Niederlößnitz.
1891: Karl May moves to Oberlößnitz.
In October, the magazine’s publication of „El Sendador“ ends, and „Der Mahdi“ starts.
F.E. Fehsenfeld becomes May’s publisher. This marks the beginning of a series of 33 books, called „gesammelte Reiseerzählungen“ <collected traveller’s tales>, which are regarded as his most important works.
1892: On April the 6th, H.G. Münchmeyer dies.
The first six volumes of the „collected traveller’s tales“, containing the big oriental adventure, are published, with one additional chapter in the end of the sixth volume, which was previously unpublished.
1893: Karl May and his wife take a trip to the Black Forest. Afterwards, they visit F.E. Fehsenfeld and his wife, and together they travel to Switzerland. The trip only worsens the deteriorating relationship of Karl and Emma May.
„Winnetou“, Karl May’s most famous novel, is published as volumes 7 to 9 of his „collected traveller’s tales“. While the first one of these three volumes was written entirely from scratch by Karl May, only reusing very few ideas from earlier stories, volumes two and three mainly recycle material, which he had previously published as individual stories.
Volumes 10 and 11, published by Fehsenfeld, present collections of earlier stories with a few new passages to tie them together.
In September, the publication of „Der Mahdi“ in the „Hausschatz“ ends and „Satan und Ischariot“ starts (though this title is not used by the magazine).
1894: Karl May’s health is suffering. Together with his wife, he visits a health resort in the Harz Mountains.
„El Sendador“ is published as volumes 12 and 13 of Karl May’s „traveller’s tales“, with only minor changes, but under new titles. Volume 14 contains the first volume of a new western novel, entitled „Old Surehand“.
Karl May rejects an offer by Pauline Münchmeyer, the widow of H.G. Münchmeyer, to write a new novel for her.
1895: Volume 15 is published as the second volume of „Old Surehand“, but it does not really continue the story of the first volume, but rather interrupts it with a series of flashbacks to earlier stories, in which the title character does not even occur. In editions published after Karl May’s death, these stories have been removed, so that „Old Surehand“ no longer covers three, but only two volumes. Most of the contents of the original second volume was then adapted into an additional volume entitled „Kapitän Kaiman“.
[The English translations published in 1971 under the titles „Canada Bill“ and „Captain Cayman“ are based on these stories which Karl May originally incorporated into the second volume of „Old Surehand“.]
Karl May is visited by Ferdinand Pfefferkorn and his wife. Karl May had gone to school with Pfefferkorn, who had since then emigrated to Lawrence, Massachusetts. The Pfefferkorns conduct spiritualistic séances with the Mays and probably also the Plöhns.
On December the 30th, Karl May buys a house in Radebeul, which he names „Villa Shatterhand“ after his alter-ego „Old Shatterhand“ from his western novels. Here, he spends the rest of his life. Nowadays, the house continues to be preserved as a museum.
1896: Karl May further fosters the myth that his fictional adventures were based on facts by commissioning a gunsmith to make three customised rifles for him, which he then passes off as the „actual“ weapons used by the two main characters from his novel „Winnetou“. He also has himself photographed, dressed in appropriate costumes, as the main character from his adventure stories.
„Der Mahdi“ is published under the title „Im Lande des Mahdi“ <In the Land of the Mahdi> as volumes 16 to 18 of Karl May’s „collected traveller’s tales“. Originally the story consisted of two parts, which were both too large to fit into one volume each. Karl May shortened the first part and extended the second part to fill two volumes. Thus, most of the third volume presents new material, not included in the magazine’s version. Volume 19 contains the third volume of „Old Surehand“, not published before and finishing the story which had begun in the first volume.
1897: „Satan und Ischariot“ is published as volumes 20 to 22 of the „traveller’s tales“. In adapting the novel for this edition (in the year before), Karl May had realised that Heinrich Keiter, the editor of the „Hausschatz“ magazine, had almost entirely removed a rather long chapter from the novel. May demanded that his original manuscript should be returned to him, but only those pages of the lost chapter which had been ignored in their entirety, as well as most of the last third of the novel, had survived. But still, in spite of all this, he did not completely restore the novel for the edition published by Fehsenfeld. Instead, on about six printed pages, he only gives a summary of the lost chapter, which otherwise would have covered approximately 200 pages. After Keiter’s promise that this would never happen again, Karl May writes the beginning of „Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen“ <In the Empire of the Silver Lion> for the magazine, but discontinues his work on account of a new controversy. For the next ten years, Karl May publishes no further novels in this magazine.
Karl May and his wife travel through a large part of Germany, Austria, and Bohemia.
Volume 23 of the „collected traveller’s tales“ presents a collection of earlier short stories, and volume 24 contains a new novel, called „Weihnacht!“ <Christmas!>.
1898: On August the 30th, Heinrich Keiter dies.
„Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen“ is published as volumes 26 and 27 of the „traveller’s tales“ with an additional chapter, not published before.
1899: „Am Jenseits“ <Near the Afterlife> is published as Karl May’s 25th volume for Fehsenfeld.
On March the 26th, Karl May embarks on his big trip to the Orient. In Egypt, the news of the planned illegal printing by Adalbert Fischer of his earlier novels reaches him. He protests and threatens to sue. Furthermore, he has to find out that a smear campaign has been started in several German newspapers against him and his work, while he has been travelling abroad.
1900: May is joined on his journey by his wife Emma, his friend Richard Plöhn, and his wife Klara. He returns home on July the 31th.
Karl May publishes a book of poetry, entitled „Himmelsgedanken“ <Thoughts of Heaven>.
1901: On February the 14th, Karl May’s friend Richard Plöhn dies.
May writes his pacifist novel „Et in terra pax“, but has to interrupt it, since it violates the not so peaceful intentions of the publisher Joseph Kürschner.
The illegal publication of his earlier novels starts, causing those lawsuits, which were to drag on until long after Karl May’s death.
1902: Karl May publishes a third volume of „Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen“ as the 28th volume of his „traveller’s tales“, but this is no longer a plain adventure novel like the first two volumes, but rather an allegorical novel with many hidden, autobiographical references.
On September the 10th, Karl May files for divorce.
1903: On March the 4th, the divorce is final.
On March the 30th, he marries Klara, the widow of Richard Plöhn.
The fourth volume of „Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen“ is published as the 29th volume of the „traveller’s tales“.
1904: The lawsuits against Rudolf Lebius start.
The painter Sascha Schneider, a close personal friend of Karl May, creates new cover illustrations for his novels, which reflect the metaphorical interpretation which Karl May now gives to all of his work.
Karl May completes „Et in terra pax“ and publishes it as volume 30 of his „collected traveller’s tales“ under the German title „Und Friede auf Erden“ <And Peace on Earth>, upon a suggestion by his publisher.
1905: Karl May meets Bertha von Suttner, who won the Nobel Peace Prize that year.
1906: Karl May publishes his drama „Babel und Bibel“. It is generally rejected by the critics and has, to my knowledge, never been performed on stage.
1907: On January the 9th, Karl May wins his lawsuit against Adalbert Fischer and Pauline Münchmeyer.
On April the 7th, Adalbert Fischer dies.
Karl May reconciles his differences with the „Hausschatz“ magazine and publishes in it his novel „Der Mir von Dschinnistan“.
1908: On September the 5th, Karl and Klara May embark on their journey to America. They visit New York, Albany, Buffalo, and the Niagara Falls. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, Karl May meets his old friend Pfefferkorn, who had emigrated to America. On October the 18th, he makes a speech on mankind’s big questions: „Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we go to?“ Probably in early November, he returns home, to depart again for London by the end of this month, spending about one week in England. In early December, Karl May and his wife return home.
1909: The magazine’s publication of „Der Mir von Dschinnistan“ ends. Under the new title „Ardistan und Dschinnistan“, this novel becomes volumes 31 and 32 of his „collected traveller’s tales“.
Karl May adds an fourth volume to his Winnetou trilogy, written in his new, allegorical style. It is published in an supplement to a newspaper called „Augsburger Volkszeitung“.
1910: The fourth volume of Winnetou is included into his „traveller’s tales“ as its 33rd and last volume.
Karl May publishes his autobiography.
1911: Karl May’s health is getting worse. From May to July, he spends time in several health resorts in Austria and Italy.
On December the 18th, Karl May wins his lawsuit against Rudolf Lebius.
In the end of the year, May suffers from a severe case of pneumonia.
1912: Against doctor’s orders, Karl May accepts an invitation to speak before the academy for literature and music in Vienna. On March the 20th, he arrives in Vienna, and in an interview with a newspaper reporter, he says: „What I have created up to now, I regard as preliminary studies, as études. I have, in a manner of speaking, tested my audience. Only now, I want to approach the actual work of my life.“
On March the 22th, he speaks before an enthusiastic audience of about 2000 people.
On March the 30th, back at home in Radebeul, he dies.
About my translation:
This translation is based on the first edition of 1910.
That one footnote from the original text is marked with a .
Here and there, I have added some footnotes, to explain things which do not translate so well into English or some readers might not be familiar with. These additional footnotes are marked with [a], [b] etc. I admit that there are still a few more expressions which might require an explanation, but I could not fully resolve myself.
Names of places and titles of books are often left untranslated, but when they carry a translatable meaning I have added this in angle brackets.