Now that the gene sleuths have identified the genes for a great many human quirks and compulsions, perhaps it will soon be discovered that there is even a gene for pulp fiction—or, if not a whole gene, at least an errant particle that induces in its victims a kind of lifelong, low-grade logorrhea. The sufferers can’t really write well, but they can’t stop writing, either. I once saw a letter from an extreme case, Frederick Faust, the so-called “King of the Pulps,” who wrote under at least nineteen pseudonyms, the most famous of which is Max Brand. The letter was twenty-eight pages long, single-spaced, and yet Faust had evidently just tossed it off before settling down to work. Frederick Faust’s lifetime output has been estimated at thirty million words. But he had aspired to poetry and one of his books of poems was published by Basil Blackwell in Oxford. (Louis L’Amour also aspired to poetry; his book of verse was published in Oklahoma City.)
Somewhere, perhaps, reruns of Dr. Kildare—one of Faust’s inventions—are still lighting up obscure lives, and a few Max Brand reprints continue to circulate, but the King of the Pulps is long dead and so are his thirty million words. Few pulpers escape immediate oblivion, yet Zane Grey has, and so—perhaps most remarkably—has the German writer Karl May (1842-1912), who set a number of novelettes in the American West, featuring such Germanic pioneers as Old Shatterhand, Old Surehand, Old Death, Old Wabble, and, of course, Winnetou, the competent Apache sidekick who is probably the source of our own Tonto. Early in life May had been a petty criminal; success, when it came, soon brought out the faker in him. He began to dress like Old Shatterhand, or Kara Ben Nemsi, another of his characters, and to claim that he had actually lived all the events that happen in his books. Peter Gay, in The Naked Heart, quotes a letter in which Karl May makes the following claim for his own linguistic skills:
I speak and write: French, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Romanian, 6 dialects of Arabic, Persian, 2 Kurdish dialects, 6 Chinese dialects, Malaysian, Namqua, a few Sunda idioms, Swahili, Hindustanic, Turk-ish, and the Indian languages of Sioux, Apaches, Comanches, Snakes, Utahs, Kiowas, in addition to Ketshumanu, 3 south American dialect. Lapp I will not count among them.
Karl May’s westerns are some of the dottiest in that vast genre, which is saying a lot, and yet there is a scholarly journal devoted to him (Jahrbuch der Karl May Gesellschaft), and an annual festival held in his honor at Bad Segeberg. Der Spiegel claimed that he had the greatest influence of any German writer between Goethe and Thomas Mann, and his fans have included Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Adolf Hitler, and Hermann Hesse. Schweitzer, Einstein, and Hitler very likely were subject to bouts of brain fatigue severe enough that Karl May’s weird, quasi-Wagnerian …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.