Karl Friedrich May was a popular German writer, noted mainly for adventure novels set in the American Old West (best known for the characters of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand) and similar books set in the Orient and Middle East (with Kara Ben Nemsi and Hadschi Halef Omar). In addition, he wrote stories set in his native Germany, in China and in South America. May also wrote poetry, a play, and composed music; he was a proficient player of several musical instruments. Many of his works were filmed, adapted for the stage, turned into audio dramas or into comics. A highly imaginative and fanciful writer, May never visited the exotic places featured in his stories until late in life, at which point the clash between his fiction and reality led to a complete change in his work.
Karl May was born into a family of poor weavers in Ernstthal, Schönburgische Rezessherrschaften (then part of the Kingdom of Saxony). He was the fifth child out of fourteen, nine of whom died within a few months of their birth. According to his autobiography, he suffered from visual impairment shortly after birth and regained his eyesight after treatment at the age of five. Possibly a lack of vitamin A led to night blindness, which then grew worse.
During his school years, he received private music and composition lessons. He made money at the age of twelve at a skittle alley, during which time he heard the coarse words of the players.
In 1856, May began his teacher training in Waldenburg, but was expelled in 1859, when it was discovered that he stole six candles. After a petition he was allowed to continue his education in Plauen. His career as a teacher ended abruptly after only a few weeks when he was accused by his roommate of stealing a pocket watch, whereupon he spent six weeks in jail in Chemnitz and his license to teach was revoked permanently.
During the following years he attempted to earn a living as a private tutor, writing tales, composing music and by recitation. But these did not secure his livelihood. As a consequence he started to commit thefts and frauds, and as a result May was sentenced to four years in a workhouse. From 1865 to 1869 he was jailed in the workhouse Osterstein Castle (Zwickau). Due to good behaviour he became the administrator of the prison’s library and had the chance to read much, including travel literature. He planned to become an author and made a list of titles of works he planned to write, that he titled Repertorium C. May. Some of the planned works he actually wrote later. Following his release, he failed to begin an honest existence but continued his thefts and frauds. Compared to the effort expended, his take was meager. He was captured, but during a judicial investigation, when he was transported to a crime scene, he managed to free himself. May fled beyond Saxony's boundaries to Bohemia, where he was detained for vagrancy. He spent time in jail once again in Waldheim from 1870 to 1874. There he met the catholic prison’s catechist Johannes Kochta, whose influence helped May find himself.
After May’s release in May 1874, he returned to his parents in Ernstthal and began writing. The first known publication of a Karl May tale (Die Rose von Ernstthal) "The Story of Rose Ernstthal", appeared in November 1874. It was at a time when the German press was on the move. Industrialisation, increasing literacy and economic freedom had led to many publishing start-ups, especially in the field of light fiction. Between his two long imprisonments he contacted the publisher Heinrich Gotthold Münchmeyer in Dresden. As a result, Münchmeyer hired May as editor in his publishing house, and for the first time May experienced financial security. May managed several entertainment papers (e. g. Schacht und Hütte), "Bay and Cabin" and wrote and edited numerous articles, some published under his own name, some under a pseudonym (e. g. Geographische Predigten, 1875/76) or "Collected Travel Stories". May quit in 1876, when his employer Münchmeyer tried to bind him to his company through marriage with Münchmeyer’s sister-in-law and due to the firm's bad reputation. During his second engagement as an editor in the publishing house of Bruno Radelli, Dresden, in 1878 he became a freelance writer and moved to Dresden with his girlfriend Emma Pollmer, whom he married in 1880. His publications did not result in a regular income and he came into arrears on his rent and other payments.
In 1879 Deutscher Hausschatz or "German Treasure House", a catholic weekly journal from the press of Friedrich Pustet in Regensburg, published May's tale Three carde monte. After some additional stories, they made May the offer that he should present all future works to them exclusively. In 1880 he began the Orient Cycle, which ran, with interruption, until 1888. At the same time he wrote for other journals, under different pseudonyms to gain multiple payment for his texts. Until the time of his death, more than one hundred of his tales were published in instalments in diverse journals. May was also published in the journal Der Gute Kamerad, or "The Good Comrade", of Wilhelm Spemann, Stuttgart, later named Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft, a magazine intended for secondary school boys. It was there that his first tale was published in 1887 (Der Sohn des Bärenjägers) or the "Sons of the Bear Hunter", to became one of his most famous stories: Der Schatz im Silbersee (1890/91) or "The Treasure of Silver Lake". In 1882 he entered a new contact with H. G. Münchmeyer during which May began the first of five large colportage novels for his former employer. One of which, Das Waldröschen (1882–1884) had a total print run of several hundred thousand copies until 1907. Unfortunately, May had made only a verbal agreement with Münchmeyer which later led to trouble.
In October 1888 May moved to Kötzschenbroda (a part of Radebeul) and 1891 into Villa Agnes in Oberlößnitz. His breakthrough came in 1891 through contact with Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld, who offered to print the Deutsche Hausschatz or "Son of the Bear Hunter"-stories as books. With the start of the new book series Carl May’s Gesammelte Reiseromane or "Collected Travel Accounts" in 1892 (since 1896 Karl May's Gesammelte Reiseerzählungen) for the first time May experienced financial security and recognition. But after a short time he had problems differentiating reality from fiction and went so far as to say that he himself had experienced the adventures of Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi, his fictional characters. This became the so-called "Old Shatterhand Legend". A gunsmith in Kötzschenbroda who manufactured the legendary guns of the heroes in his novels, first the "Bärentöter" (Bear Killer) and the "Silberbüchse" (The Silver Gun), later on the "Henrystutzen" (Henry Rifle). Many readers equated the author with the protagonist and sent numerous letters to him assuming them to be one and the same. In the following years he conducted talking tours in Germany and Austria, and allowed autographed cards to be printed and photos in costume to be taken. In December 1895 he moved into the Villa "Shatterhand" in Alt-Radebeul, which he purchased from the Ziller Brothers.
In 1899/1900 May travelled to the Orient. He was at first accompanied by his servant Sejd Hassan, as they moved between Egypt and Sumatra. In 1900 he met his wife and friends, Klara and Richard Plöhn. Together they continued the journey returning to Radebeul in July 1900. For that year and a half May wrote a travel diary, extant in fragments and transcription. According to his second wife Klara, May twice had a nervous breakdown during the journey, each lasting over a week. Hans Wollschläger and Ekkehard Bartsch believed that it was due to an irruption of reality into May’s dream world. May overcame the crisis without medical care.
While May was on his Orient journey, attacks in the press began, persecuted especially by Hermann Cardauns and Rudolf Lebius. They criticised – with different motivations – May’s self-promotion and the associated "Old Shatterhand Legend". Simultaneously they reproached his religious sham (he wrote as protestant for the catholic Deutscher Hausschatz and several Marian calendars), his supposed immorality and his criminal history. These polemics and several trials about unauthorized book publications lasted until the time of his death. His marriage was dissolved in 1903 through a suit brought by May. According to May, Emma, a friend of his adversary, Pauline Münchmeyer (widow of H. G. Münchmeyer), had embezzled documents, which could have proven the verbal agreement with Münchmeyer. In the same year, Mays married the widow Klara Plöhn.
Since his initial employment as an editor, May had illegally added a doctoral degree to his name. 1902 he received an Doctor honoris causa from the Universitas Germana-Americana in Chicago for his work Im Reiche des Silbernen Löwen or "In the Realm of the Silver Lion." Christian Heermann assumes this to have happened at the behest of May or Klara Plöhn to give the false doctoral degree a legal basis. This university was a known diploma mill, where degrees could be bought for money.
In 1908 Karl and Klara May travelled for six weeks in North America. They visited among other cities, Albany, Buffalo, the Niagara Falls and friends in Lawrence. But May did not travel as far as the Wild West. May used the journey as inspiration for his book Winnetou IV.
Tomb of Karl and Klara May
Since his Orient journey May wrote in another way. He called his former works "preparation" and started then writing complex, allegoric texts. He was convinced that he could solve or at least, discuss the "question of mankind". He turned deliberately to pacifism and wrote several books about the raising of humans from "evil" to "good". His friendship with the artist Sascha Schneider lead to new symbolistic covers for the Fehsenfeld edition. May experienced approval on 22 March 1912 and was invited by the Academic Society for Literature and Music in Vienna to hold a talk, Empor ins Reich der Edelmenschen ("Upward to the Realm of Noble Men"). Thereby he met his friend, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bertha von Suttner. Karl May died one week later on 30 March 1912. According to the register of deaths, the cause was "cardiac arrest, acute bronchitis, asthma". Today an (unrecognised) lung cancer is not excluded. May was buried on the graveyard at Radebeul-East. The tomb was inspired by the Temple of Athena Nike Klara had seen during his travels to the Orient.