Karl May, aka Old Shatterhand, aka Kara ben Nemsi
Excerpt from: Savage To Saint: The Karl May Story, Lulu.com
In 1876 May quit his job as editor with Muenchmeyer, began working as a freelance writer and received royalties for nine stories altogether in 1877. He seemed to have cracked the jackpot. But in 1879 he was sentenced to another prison term on account of ‘unauthorized carrying out of an official duty’; he spent the days from the first to the twenty-second of September in the courthouse lockup in Hohenstein-Ernstthal. May had undertaken to investigate the mysterious death of Emil Pollmer, one of Emma’s uncles (Emma was to become May’s first wife), and posed as a private detective—a role he couldn’t resist. The consequences of this caper were unjustified imprisonment, because the mere statement that he held an official title wasn’t the same as carrying out an official act, and not punishable, a fact the defense lawyer for the Ku Klux Klan in ‘Der Scout’, Winnetou II, later deliberated at length, as did Shatterhand in an argument with detective Treskow in Old Surehand III (1896), translated as Old Surehand—Book 2.
May was powerless to lash out at the establishment for this renewed humiliation, because even a petition to His Majesty King Albert of Saxony only yielded a denial of a pardon; however, his fictional characters were free to slash, stab, shoot and burn their trail across the pages—savages of any color, including white, in faraway lands. They were his proxy retaliation for the harsh treatment his free spirit had to endure.
This was also the year in which the name Old Shatterhand first appeared, in ‘Unter Wuergern’ (1879) (‘Among Outlaws’), a small adventure set in the Sahara, a journey he alluded to in Winnetou II during the newly compiled opening paragraphs to chapter 5, ‘Old Firehand’, when Old Shatterhand first meets Emery Bothwell on his return to St. Louis via Colorado and Kansas from the Sonora goldfields where he helped Old Death’s brother, Fred Harton, establish his gold claim. There, May wrote: “Even before he could make a move, I punched his forehead with my fist; he collapsed and immediately fell to the ground unconscious. This was precisely the same hunting blow that was the reason for Emery Bothwell to call me ‘Old Shatterhand’ at times.”
In the same year, ‘Ein Dichter’ (‘A Poet’) revealed some of May’s deeper philosophies. “The entire existence is a stage play to which deception provides its lights. Wealth and honor come and go, only the one who can exploit the moment is happy.”
May’s alter ego in the Wild West novels, Old Shatterhand (and Kara Ben Nemsi in his Oriental novels), more than made up for his own inadequacies; they never lost out and were always in charge and admired. The year of 1879 was said to be May’s most successful in his early times as a writer. His work— serialized novels of adventure tales in faraway places—was being published by various periodicals. Yet, in 1880, within the plot of ‘Deadly Dust’, which was later to become part of Winnetou III, he ruminated about the fact that he had only made a casual remark about his excursion into the Sahara around a few campfires and, many months after his return to the Wild West, while eavesdropping on some villains about to hold up a train, discovered that he and his sojourns were being talked about and that he “seemingly had more success in becoming famous with the bowie knife than with the ‘quill’ back home.”
Karl May the writer still wasn’t where he wanted to be. Winnetou still refused to smoke the peace pipe with willing enemies, like the Comanche, and shot the man who ‘washed his hands in blood’ from behind without batting an eye even though the man was unarmed.
In 1880 Karl and Emma were married, and in 1882 Karl entered into a new verbal contract with the Muenchmeyer publishing house to deliver serialized trash novels (pulp fiction)—so-called colportage, or popular fiction novels—under pseudonyms. He was in the money, but later came to regret that the contract hadn’t been made in writing. The readers of Karl May’s adventure tales, which he still wrote for the periodicals and family publications, were repeatedly told that the writer was traveling, on his way home, had sent news and manuscripts from overseas when he was unable to deliver the adventure tale installments in time because of trash-writing commitments. The charade had begun, the kitsch continued, and May had become a name in the publishing industry.