There was a blip on the radar screen with the 2012 centennial of his death, and a few translators have pushed through labor-of-love translations, but on the whole he is still remarkably unknown in America. This from a man who was the largest selling author in the German language, bigger than Thomas Mann or Erich Maria Remarque, or – well, everyone, really.
So why the indifference? It’s not as if his work is introspective dark philosophical central European doomsday jobs. He wrote page turners. Good page turners. It can take a little bit to get into the spirit of the thing – we are talking a nineteenth century writer here – but once hooked, you will be hard pressed find the work anything but compelling. He has narrative drive up the wazoo, and could teach pretty much anyone writing thrillers today a thing or two about action.
Bit of a Dickensian childhood – parents were weavers, an industry in the process of dying at the time, nine of his fourteen siblings died in infancy. His career path was a thing of fits and starts. His first job was as a pin boy at a bowling alley, then set his sights on becoming a school teacher. This hope was cut short after he was found in possession of a watch not his own, for which he spent time in jail. It was a fortunate bit, Oberstein Castle near Zwickau, which had a well stocked library. It gave him time to think about his life. There wouldn’t be a lot of options for an honest living after a stint in jail, and so he decided that he would be an author, and indeed, he wrote up a list of books he intended to write.
His timing was good. Popular press in Germany was in a boom and he proved to have a knack for the business. With a variety of pseudonyms, he churned out short stories, serials, travel works (not necessarily tainted by his actually have been to the places in question) with astonishing speed , albeit not quite fast enough to be completely without money worries.
He managed to make the moved into more legitmate fiction. With a bit more care, he began writing travel and historical novels in exotic settings: Benito Juarez and Maximilian in Mexico, the Franco Prussian war, Napoleonic wars, and tales of the Islamic world.
And then there were the westerns.
His greatest success came with tales of the old west featuring the noble Apache Indian Winnetou and his blood brother, the rugged white man, Old Shatterhand.
He came to inhabit the part. He dressed in leather, wore a necklace of bears’ teeth, hired professional photographers take pictures of him in costume, filled his house with other people’s travel souvenirs, and in public speeches gave the impression that his work was thinly disguised autobiography. Fantasy overflowed – he was an honorary Apache nobel, he spoke forty languages, he had a PhD from the university of Rouen (Germans had an exalted view of doctoratese, and given what it took to get one at that time, not without reason) – all manner of nonsense, and the public ate it up.
The money flowed, but it was not until 1899 that he was able to travel to the places he had been writing about, Port Said and the Orient as far as Ceylon and Sumatra. He hated it. Reality could not measure up to the fantasies he had conjured up in dozens of books, and he found the truth hard to take. The food, the smells, the dirt, the poverty – he had two nervous breakdowns in in the course of sixteen months before he got back home.
Nor was home the refuge that it should have been. No poppy so tall that someone won’t try to cut it down, and so it was with May. His criminal past now came back to haunt him, and defamation suits took him to court for the next ten years. His writing slowed. His sales, happily, did not.
They are boys books, no question, but with a bit of heft and a strong brotherhood of man theme behind them. They were a refuge for boys such as Albert Einstein. Albert Schweitzer admired him. Also Hermann Hesse. May died before World War One, which was probably just as well. The more pacifist bent of his work was frowned on by the wartime German government, and by the time of his centennial, the Nazis banned his novel Peace On Earth. (This despite the fact that the youthful Hitler had devoured the books in his own youth.) East Germany also banned his work.
But the books have legs, and still sell in great numbers. The characters Winnetou and Old Shatterhand were translated into movies in the sixties; Mattel came out with a line of toys in the seventies. In Germany his home is been turned into an museum, and fandom maintain a healthy interest.