Magazine article Sunset

Willkommen to the Wild West. (Western Wanderings)

Magazine article Sunset

Willkommen to the Wild West. (Western Wanderings)

Article excerpt

* CAMP VERDE, ARIZONA--Things don't look good for gallant greenhorn Scharlie, also known as Old Shatter-hand for the brutal power of his fists. Sentenced to death by the Apache, he is pursued by the cruel Inshu-chuna. Yet he escapes, grabs Inshu-chuna's tomahawk, and presents it to Winnetou, the "High Chief of the Apaches," in whom he senses a kindred spirit.

"You have put yourself in my hands," says Winnetou.

"Yes," says Old Shatter-hand, "because I know that Winnetou is not a liar but a noble warrior who would not break his word."

It was the start of a beautiful friendship--one that, for generations of readers in Bern and Berlin, has cast as powerful a spell as the bond between the Lone Ranger and Tonto does for Americans. For these readers, Old Shatterhand's German creator, Karl May, became the ultimate literary interpreter of the West, while remaining utterly unknown to those of us who live here.

"May wrote remarkable bestsellers," says Richard H. Cracroft, professor emeritus of English at Brigham Young University and a May expert. "Even if he was treated as a writer of trash."

The outline of May's life reads as improbably as one of his novels. Born in Ernstthal, Germany, in 1842, he grew up bright but impoverished. He spent his 20s engaged in petty fraud, a career that landed him in prison. Here he began to write. Soon after his release, he published his first story. Eventually he would publish more than 100 books, the most popular of them the 1892 trilogy on the adventures of Winnetou and Shatterhand.

For an American, reading a Karl May Western is like opening your front door and discovering your living room has been filled with cuckoo clocks. He had strong ideas about who constituted American villains: Chinese, Mormons, and Yankees. Heroes numbered many Native Americans--notably Winnetou, who speaks with Ciceronian eloquence punctuated by many "Howghs! …

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