tearing down fences

Today is the 135th Anniversary of Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn between the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army and the Northern Cheyenne and as my mother said in a phone conversation this morning, northern Wyoming and southern Montana is—of course—currently swarming with Germans.

Several years ago my mother owned her own bookstore called simply The Book Shop in Sheridan, Wyoming. She cherished the opportunity to talk all day with strangers and regulars alike about books of all kinds. While winter is a difficult season for any small business, summer always brought people traveling through from many corners of the world.

My mother posted a large world map on the wall and began placing pins in it, marking the origins of her customers. After a few years she began to notice a consistent rush of tourists in late June who came from many locations in Germany and Austria. Finally, she asked a friend, Mischa, who grew up in Austria what the meaning could be. Why did so many German-speakers seem so fascinated by General Custer, whose demise was brought about at the hands of Northern Cheyenne warriors and his own daring?

“Don’t you know?” said Mischa, “You own a book shop, you must know of Karl May…No?

“Well, May wrote something like 70 adventure books, both as Old Schatterhand set in the American Old West and as Kara Ben Nemsi, the hero in his Arabian adventures. It is my understanding that May spent much of his life in prison, mostly for petty crimes, and that he never traveled to any of the countries he described.”

Karl May was born in 1842 in Germany and wrote in the later part of the 19th century and at the turn of the 20th. There was a mysterious period of his life when he claimed to be traveling the United States and the Middle East. His books set in the American Old West described the adventures of an unassuming young German man who earned the moniker “Old Shatterhand” because of his incredible strength and brave spirit. According to Richard H. Cracroft, May “carefully fed the popular misunderstanding that he was Old Shatterhand (“The American West of Karl May,” 1967).” However, as his popularity grew, he came under scrutiny during his “rapid divorce and … remarriage” and it was uncovered that he had spent about 8 years in prison, working as the prison librarian, where he presumably wrote many of his tales. But the question of whether or not May’s stories were based in experience remained unclear throughout his career and life. There is only one confirmed trip to North America taken by May and his young wife Klara, who “always claimed that May gave undeniable evidence of familiarity of the United States” (Cracroft, 1967).

Later, during the 1960s, many of his books were made into popular films and to this day there is an annual Karl May Festival (make sure your sound is on for this one), which displays May’s tales in play-form in northern Germany in the town of Bad Segeberg.

So, it’s interesting to know that the line between romance and reality in the story of the American Western Frontier is as tricky to toe in Europa as it is in the US and that the appeal of the Wild West stretches as far in miles as it might well do in time.

Cole Porter may never have said, “Begrenzen Sie nicht mich,” but he did sing, “Don’t fence me in.” And if you’ve never seen a tap-dancing horse, look no further:


One thought on “tearing down fences

  1. Mischa could play Karl May! And I’m intrigued by the notion that if anyone knows something about being fenced in, it’s the German people.
    (Also, I never knew Trigger could tap dance.) Buck Brannaman says everything you do with a horse is a dance, so I guess it’s the logical extension of that idea.

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