Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Canada Bill, Karl May, and Imagining the Old West

This week’s installment of Poker & Pop Culture over on PokerNews is the last of a few entries discussing “steamboat poker” during the 19th century.

The last of the characters covered in the steamboat sequence is William “Canada Bill” Jones, a hustler who was in fact better known for his prowess dealing three-card monte than for his poker playing. In fact, George Devol (with whom Jones partnered for a time) said “he was a fool at short cards” (i.e., poker).

The section on Canada Bill includes mention of one of the more famous quotes attributed to him, one having to do with it being “immoral” to let suckers keep their money, a line that comes up in Rounders (among other places).

One side road that I didn’t go down in the column regarding Canada Bill was the way he pops up in a couple of stories from the 1870s written by a popular German fiction writer named Karl May. One is titled “Ein Self-Man” and the other “Three carde monte,” and the last one gets retold early on in a later work of May’s called Old Surehand II.

The stories are set in the Old West and involve a fictional version of Canada Bill. In the stories May pits his version of Canada Bill against Abraham Lincoln, kind of staging an odd, partly humorous “battle” between the Canada and the U.S. with the two characters representing their respective nations. With both characters, May is highly liberal with his embellishing and reimagining, so much so that the characters are really only superficially connected to their historical counterparts.

May isn’t so well known in the U.S., but is very popular in Germany, having sold over 200 million books during a career that stretched from the 1870s to his death in 1912. He wrote adventure stories and novels set in various places far from Germany such as the Orient, the Middle East, and the U.S. A recent New Yorker profile of him says his “stories of the American West are to this day better known to Germans than the works of Thomas Mann.”

Among his most popular works were a series of stories and novels about an Apache named Winnetou and his friend Old Shatterhand, a German immigrant who narrates. Well after his death during the 1960s, a bunch of film adaptations of May’s writings were made, most of them of his Old West stories. Whether via his writings or indirectly through the films, May’s many “Cowboys and Indians” stories have had a lot to do with how many Germans came to view the early history of the United States and especially Native Americans.

I’m intrigued to read more of Karl May and get more familiar with this curious Europeanized version of 19th-century America. Perhaps what makes me most curious, though, is the fact that May never actually visited the U.S. (even though apparently he often told people that he had).

That is to say, all he knew of the American West he had learned from books and others’ writings. Then he transformed it into something else. As The New Yorker piece explains, May’s writings never did that well in translation among American audiences, primarily because what they were describing was too familiar, or not as “exotic”-seeming as was the case for the Germans who read him.

“Americans would be more likely to get the stories if they were set on another planet,” says an American publisher of May’s translated works. He adds that the books are in fact most popular among German immigrants.

Seems like it could be an interesting detour to take, reading some more Karl May and learning more about this wholly imagined Old West he created in his writings.

Meanwhile, if you’re curious to read about the actual Old West -- in particular poker playing on 19th century steamboats -- here are those Poker & Pop Culture columns:

  • Professional Card Sharps Rocking the Boat
  • George Devol, the Ultimate Steamboat Sharp
  • ‘It’s Immoral to Let a Sucker Keep His Money’
  • Image: Winnetou, Karl May, Amazon.

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