The idea of utopia as a place of peace and plenty away from the hardships of ordinary life, is a recurring theme in literature. The term entered popular usage after publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516. His Eden is an idyllic island society wholly removed from the corruption of sixteenth century England.
After the French exploration of the South Pacific, Rousseau and Diderot shaped the theme of an earthly paradise, sheltered from nefarious Western influences by the remoteness of its island setting. Over time, the genre diversified. There is a multitude of utopias, biblical, political, economic, scientific, or erotic, although in most cases a state of bliss lies in the combination of these.
Land of Plenty
The natural disasters that hit Europe in the 1850s (severe winters, crop diseases, failed harvests) left landholders evicted and farm workers unemployed. Germany’s stagnant economy led to social misery. As global trade became part of ongoing industrialization, British mechanized textile manufacture wiped out its cottage industry.
The rural economy was collapsing, and with it a traditional way of life. People left the land in droves, but German cities were ill-equipped to feed an influx of starving newcomers. It was then that the powerful image of a province of plenty began to circulate. The American West became the new Promised Land.
The more insecure prospects of survival appeared, the more attractive the fantasy became. Influenced by auspicious adverts spread around by land-selling railroad companies, America was seen as a land of the free with fertile soil in abundance. Any ambitious person would have opportunities to succeed out there. As hunger knows neither dogma nor homeland, mass movement was set in motion. Lines of communication improved, people were “better” informed, which meant that chain migration became a factor.
Hearing encouraging news from distant relations or friends, and learning about reports on America’s economic expansion, displaced persons came to the conclusion that Europe was “done for.” What once was the mere promise of a better life elsewhere, became a mind-set. The West was the future. During the second half of the nineteenth century German immigration into America outnumbered that of the Irish and English.
The visual representation of the West a made an impact on migration patterns. A number of German émigré artists captured its allure in paint. Emanuel Leutze had arrived in Virginia from Württemberg in 1825 as a child. He is known for his iconic painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851). Karl Wimar too was a child when taken from North Rhine-Westphalia to Missouri. He specialized in depicting Native Americans and their buffalo hunts on the Great Plains. Both artists had traveled to Germany to train at Düsseldorf Art Academy which was associated with the acclaimed Düsseldorf School of Painting.
Most famous amongst them was Albert Bierstadt. Born in 1830 in Solingen, North Rhine-Westphalia, his parents left Germany two years later, sailing from Rotterdam on the brig Hope to the whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The town’s multi-national population most likely inspired the youngster’s later passion for travel. In 1853 he moved to Germany and applied to study at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, but was rejected. He trained with his American friend Worthington Whittredge during his stay in the city and concentrated on painting Alpine landscapes.
On his return, he joined two survey expeditions of the West (1859 and 1863). With sketchbook and camera as tools, he recorded mountain ranges and rock formations which would later be used in the narrative of his paintings. In 1860 he settled with his brother Edward, a photographer and engraver, in Tenth Street Studio Building at 51 West 10th Street, Manhattan. Constructed in 1857, it was the first facility designed specifically for the use of artists. It soon became the center of New York’s art world.
The drama of Bierstadt’s romanticized (“golden light”) frontier landscapes appealed to the imagination of the public and art collectors alike. His Emigrants Crossing the Plains (1869) gave an idyllic veneer to the harsh realities of the pioneer trek.
Bierstadt became America’s most celebrated painter, at home and abroad. Exhibiting at the Brooklyn Art Association and at the Boston Art Club, his paintings (which were produced at pace and in large quantity) brought record prices in his lifetime. In 1867, he traveled to London and was received by Queen Victoria. In Britain he was hailed as a successor to J.M.W. Turner.
He and his wife stayed in Europe for two years. He continued working in studios in London, Paris, and Rome, presenting Europeans with his images of the American West that left a deep impression. At the same time, he cultivated business contacts to sustain the overseas market for his work. He created Among the Sierra Nevada in a studio in Rome, showed the painting in Berlin and London, before sending it off to New York. He was an entrepreneur whose “grand manner” Western landscapes fueled European (German) migration.
Made in New York
In 1869, novelist Ned Buntline (real name: E.Z.C. Judson) traveled by train from California to Nebraska where he met William Cody, a tough guy who had been fighting the Sioux and Cheyenne. The two men became friends. Cody’s tales inspired Buntline to write Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men which, beginning on December 23, 1869, was serialized in the New York Weekly.
To critical readers the novel was little more than a compendium of clichés, but the public was enthralled. In 1872, Frank Meader adapted the story for the stage at the Bowery Theatre, Lower East Side of Manhattan. In December that same year, Buntline produced the play Scouts of the Prairie in which Cody himself took part. The Old West was an urban invention.
In 1883, Cody founded an outdoor Wild West show in partnership with Nate Salsbury, an experienced actor and shrewd businessman. With an enormous cast the event featured cowboys, Indians, shoot-outs, a buffalo hunt, a stagecoach under attack, and a Pony Express ride.
In 1886, Cody received an invitation to perform at the American Exhibition in London’s Earls Court. His tour of England was a triumph. On the eve of her Jubilee festivities, Queen Victoria requested a Royal performance in the presence of the kings of Belgium, Greece, Saxony, Denmark, as well as the future Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The troupe returned to Europe to perform at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition. The Wild West show then travelled via Spain to Rome where Pope Leo XIII blessed its performers. Germany was next and the Germans were completely taken in by Cody. When Buffalo Bill visited Munich in 1890, people camped out overnight to get tickets. King Ludwig II attended the show. The arena, which seated five thousand visitors, sold out for each of the eighteen shows. Europe was conquered by cowboys, Indians, and popcorn.
Shortly after Buffalo Bill’s departure Karl May started publishing his stories.
May’s Native American
Karl May grew up in Hohenstein-Ernstthal in rural Zwickau, a small town hit by the Great Hunger. Diet was limited to the occasional potato. Lack of vitamin A caused his severely disturbed eyesight (“blinding malnutrition”).
Having trained as a teacher, he lost his license after being charged with theft. Karl became a con man and spent several years in jail where he was a voracious reader, using the prison library to prepare himself for a literary career. After his release, he tried his hand at creating short stories and pulp fiction novels. He began writing full-time in 1875. His Wild West novels dating from the 1890s sold some 200 million copies worldwide and his fan base ranged from Alfred Einstein to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even Adolf Hitler claimed to be a devotee.
May introduced his reader to the figure of Old Shatterhand, a German immigrant, who first fights and then befriends Winnetou, Apache chief of the Mescalero tribe. They stand together in correcting the injustices perpetrated against the Indians. The fate of Native Americans as projected by Karl May was used by the Nazis in a propaganda war directed against the United States.
Winnetou is a Germanic cousin of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Noble Savage.” Because of their harmonious relationship with nature, May’s fictional Native Americans are superior to settlers. They face the devastation of their shrinking territories by the intrusion of pioneers whose abuse of the natural world threatens to wipe out the West’s pastoral character.
Facing urban and industrial expansion at home, romantically-inclined Germans feared similar environmental destruction. Winnetou spoke for Germany too. Old Shatterhand appealed to a different group. Readers admired the pioneer’s toughness and rugged individualism. In the midst of untamed wilderness, he was the embodiment of masculinity (with pioneer women in a perpetual state of angst and distress).
The two fantasies became intertwined. For many generations of Germans the image of the American frontier stemmed from myths manufactured by a great story teller. Karl May did not visit America until 1908 (after he had published most of his stories). His version of the Old West was dreamed up in a villa at Radebeul, Saxony.
The romance of the American frontier was splashed over large canvases by German émigré painters who had been trained at the Düsseldorf Art Academy; it was presented in a cliché-ridden series of tales scribbled by a New York hack that were turned into a grand show that enthused European audiences; and then blown up into fantasy fiction penned in the Elbe Valley by an author with poor eyesight who had never seen a native American. All ingredients and banalities were at hand once the silent-film industry established itself during the 1890s, making Westerns the most popular screen genre.
Illustrations, from above: The Island of Utopia (1518) by Ambrosius Holbein; Emigrants Crossing the Plains (1869) by Albert Bierstadt; The Buffalo Hunt, 1860 by Charles Ferdinand Wimar (Kemper Art Museum, Washington University); Buffalo Bills Wild West; Karl May as his fictional character Old Shatterhand, with silver rifle, ca. 1900 (Ullstein, contributor Getty Images); Winnetou by Karl May; and Karl May’s villa Shatterhand in Radebeul (now Karl May Museum).