Books displayed at the Karl May Festival in Radebeul, Germany, May 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
I had dinner the other night with an Italian friend who worked in film for many years. He recounted his love of westerns and the fascination with the Wild West he had had since childhood. I asked him how he had first become interested in the West, how it had captured his imagination. The answer? The stories by Emilio Salgari -- a 19th century Italian adventure writer who can be called the Italian Karl May.
Salgari, who was born in 1862 in Verona and committed suicide in Turin in 1911, was, in fact, an almost exact contemporary of May, the German writer who created the iconic Western heroes Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. And, like May, Salgari wrote adventure stories set in the Middle East and elsewhere as well as Western tales. (He is, in fact, bestknown for creating the character Sandokan, a Bornean prince turned pirate: the Sandokan tales were turned into many movies and an inconic television series.)
Also like May, Salgari rarely traveled -- he created his swashbuckling, incredibly detailed and wildly popular worlds from his imagination, based on books, encyclopedias and other reading. Karl May never visited the American West -- his one trip to the U.S. came in 1908, four years before he died and decades after he had created Winnetou, and he never went further west than Niagara Falls.
Salgari, it seems, never ventured further than the Adriatic Sea.
There has been considerable study on Karl May -- in English as well as German. But Sagari, and particularly his western stories, remain largely unknown in the English-speaking world. As do the dozens of other European authors who produced hundreds -- thousands? -- of westerns in the 19th and early 20th century.
The Brigham Young University scholar Richared H. Cracroft writes in detail about these writers in his chapter "World Westerns: The European Writer and the American West" in the huge volume A Literary History of the American West, sponsored by the Western Literature Association and published by Texas Christian University Press in 1987.
From the steppes of Russia and the cities of Poland and Italy to the villages of the Spanish plains, the zest for literature of the American West continued through much of the nineteenth century. This fervor, centered primarily in Germany, spilled over the borders of German lands into every nation of Europe. In every case, the western works of popular German writers, including those already considered, and others not considered (such as the fifty-nine western adventures of Wilhelm Frey, or Fricks), thrilled Europeans from Holland to Greece. Nineteenth-century Norwegians, for example, elevated Frey and Möllhausen to top position among their nation’s most popular writers and read the translations of English Western author Mayne Reid as well. And in the twentieth century Karl May continues a best seller in many European nations.
Such German success stimulated writers throughout Europe to turn their pens to western subjects. Emilio Salgari, in Italy, and Ferenc Belányi, in Hungary, joined France’s Gustave Aimard and England’s Mayne Reid in producing hundreds of sensational western adventures.