It took graduating from college, a Google search and a fascination with the American West to realize what’s important in life.
Grace Cannon, 26, came to that conclusion after earning her degree in American Culture.
“Which is kind of a weird thing to major in,” she adds.
The graduate of Vassar College in New York eventually made her way to Germany on a Fullbright Scholarship. It helped that she had studied German in college.
“While I was away from the West, I became more interested in the West and missed it,” she said.
She wondered if she could combine Germany and the American West.
She’s from Sheridan, a city that lays claim to Buffalo Bill Cody through his interest in the historic Sheridan Inn where he held tryouts for his Wild West show.
She wanted to know how much influence Cody, the performer, had in Europe.
She focused on Western identity and culturally what is celebrated – Buffalo Bill, rodeos and the pioneer spirit.
As she immersed herself in the German scene, her eyes were opened.
“It struck me how strong Wyoming’s identity is,” she said. “I thought it was funny. We have an amazing storyteller who goes all around the world.”
It turns out there’s a large subculture of enthusiasm for the American West in Germany.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” she said.
Her research led her to Germany’s equivalent to Buffalo Bill – German icon and “Western” legend Karl May (pronounced my).
Cody and May lived in parallel universes, born just four years apart and dying five years apart.
May was best known for writing, in Germany, long series of adventure stories set in the American West.
He was widely published and his popularity grew from about 1800-1900.
Storyteller May had “delusions of grandeur.”
The main character in his books is Karl who earns the name Old Shatterhand because his strong punch can shatter a skull.
Through her research, she found Karl getting into all kinds of adventures.
“May leads readers to believe it’s an autobiography,” she said. “He builds (himself) a persona like Buffalo Bill.”
After earning his readers’ love and adoration, it eventually came out that May had never been to the U.S.
“Not at all, ever,” she says. “Yet, this guy is a huge cultural icon.”
His stories are ficticious. Readers were angry, but entertained.
It took a long time before he was able to overcome that fall from grace. Still it didn’t make the stories less interesting, she says.
He claimed he read books by James Fenimore Cooper.
“No doubt he said, ‘I can write stories like this.’”
What she loves about May is the fine line between myth and reality.
“You have to consider May to be a wonderful writer with an active imagination,” she said.
The West was a symbol of opportunity, adventure and freedom, she said.
She learned that more than a century later Germans continue to read May’s books.
“So he lives on.”
The adventures in print allowed a temporary escape for many Germans from the horrors of World War I, Nazism, World War II and the Berlin Wall.
Mention Buffalo Bill in the U.S. and most people have an inkling who he was.
May’s name has the same impact in Germany.
“Essentially, that was what I went after – studying him and the after-effects,” Cannon said.
Upon May’s death in 1912, Indian clubs popped up around Germany and were similar to Civil War reenactors.
As a result of May’s work, readers identified with Native Americans “because they were the original victims.”
The clubs are places of fun, fantasy and escapism that evolved in different directions.
“They refer to it as ‘hobbyism,’” she said and the hobbies have been handed down generation-to-generation.
“It’s in their DNA. They did it, love it and pass it on,” she said.
As she continued to study the phenomenom, she was prepared to find it “kitschy.
“I don’t have the right to call it unauthentic or disingenuous,” she added. “It’s not for me to judge. I had to realign my thinking. In some ways the identity we put on is a myth.”
To this day many Germans dress up in clothing of the 1880s American West, she said.
“It’s the allure of the American West,” Cannon adds. “That was fascinating to me. I think at this point, when the clubs were founded, it was a longing for something not that far in the past.”
With all she learned and now back in Chicago, she hopes to develop a documentary people can watch, learn from and enjoy.
The experience has helped her change her direction from performing to building a career in theater production, research, writing and developing new works.