B. Traven: Wikis

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"Traven Torsvan", believed to be the writer known as B. Traven, 1926.

B. Traven (dates unknown, possibly 1890-1969) was the pen name of an enigmatic twentieth century novelist whose most famous work is the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, filmed by John Huston in 1948. The name B. Traven appeared as author of many other novels, including The Death Ship and the epic Jungle Novel series, which is a description of government corruption and an Indian uprising set at the birth of the Mexican Revolution. His writing portrays a bleak and violent world and is notable for anti-capitalist and pro-anarchist sympathies.

While his identity has been the subject of much speculation, the current consensus is that the writer who used the name B. Traven was a man known for different periods of his life as Ret Marut (1907-1924), Traven Torsvan (1925-1951) and Hal Croves (1952-1969). There is however, no general agreement about his original identity; one theory is that he was born in Chicago in 1890, name unknown. Another is that he was born in 1882 a member of the German working-class called Herman Albert Otto Maximilian Feige, this being a name given by Ret Marut in 1923 which has since been confirmed as that of a real individual whose biography dovetails with that of Marut.

Contents

Literary output

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General

Work published under the name B. Traven started to appear in print in February 1925[1] when the first part of The Cotton Pickers appeared in serial form in the German newspaper Vorwärts. Later that year he produced the manuscripts of two more major works, The Death Ship and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as well as several short stories, all of which were to be printed in the decade. During the 1930’s the six Jungle novels appeared, establishing B. Traven’s reputation as a champion of Indian rights in the context of capitalistic exploitation in Southern Mexico.[1] By 1939, B. Traven’s output had all but stopped. While new editions on the existing oeuvre continued to appear, new works were limited to a few short stories and one novel (Aslan Norval, 1960), which was refused by several publishers because they felt it did not read like B. Traven.[1]

Originally, all of these works appeared in German, albeit a form of German that includes a great many usages seemingly of American-English origin. During 1933 English manuscripts of three novels (The Death Ship, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Bridge in the Jungle) were sent to the American publishing house Alfred A Knopf; an accompanying letter from B. Traven said that these were the original versions of the works in question and that the already-published German versions were translations. This conflicts with recollections of Bernard Smith, the editor of these books at Knopf, who has stated that the texts appeared to be literal translations from the German that required much work to render into acceptable English.[2] To add to the problematic nature of these texts, there were major differences between the content of the English and German versions, a difficulty later compounded by revisions made to later editions.

The Cotton Pickers

A collection of stories set in poverty-stricken Mexico during the 1920s. The central character and narrator Gales, is an itinerant worker who leaves behind him a trail of opposition to oppression. Gales was later to appear as narrator of The Death Ship, Night Visitor and Bridge in the Jungle.

The text is organized into two books, originally published separately; the first book, also called The Cotton Pickers, was published in 1925. The complete book was published in 1926, named initially The Wobbly, the title refers to a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a US-based revolutionary industrial union that had a presence in Mexico and elsewhere.

The Death Ship

Cover of Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, his most well-known book.

Set immediately after World War I, The Death Ship describes the predicament of a merchant seaman who cannot find legal residence or employment in any nation because he lacks the proper documentation.

The White Rose

The White Rose (La Rosa Blanca), published in 1929, centers on the ruthless efforts of the Condor Oil Company (fictional but modeled on real-life corporations) to take over oil-rich Indian land in Mexico. To the present it continues to be quoted and referenced by radical activists condemning what they regard as the brutality of American imperialism, particularly with regard to oil [3].

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Two penurious Americans in 1920s Mexico join with an aged prospector and discover a rich source of gold; the novel describes the effects of greed on the men's relationship.

The book was adapted successfully into a film by John Huston in 1948.

The Jungle Novels

The Jungle Novels appeared during the 1930s and consist of Government, The Carreta, March to the Monteria, Trozas, The Rebellion of the Hanged, and The General from the Jungle. These texts deal with the development of the social forces that result eventually in the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and are therefore historical novels. They reflect on the two decades years after the Revolution commenting also on the Mexico of Traven's time and the failures of the Revolution to alter the poverty of its peasants and workers.

Identity

Identity and life – 1907-1969

Much of the writing and examination of B. Traven’s life and works has concentrated on establishing his identity. The central problem is that no individual has ever claimed publicly to be B. Traven. Investigation into the background of Traven has led to the discovery of a number of figures, now generally believed to be the same person using different identities.

Hal Croves

The person most associated with Traven is his supposed agent, Hal Croves, whose story seemingly begins with the filming of Treasure of Sierra Madre during 1947 which he attended, ostensibly, as B. Traven’s representative. Director John Huston showed particular interest in this individual and believed that he may have been B. Traven himself. Croves disappeared after the filming, making it impossible to obtain further information.[1]

During the early 1950’s Hal Croves reappeared living in Mexico City and even giving occasional interviews. He had traveled widely in Mexico. His archive contains records of numerous trips. People who knew Croves say that he had a German accent, which is substantiated by a recording of his voice.[4][1]

Croves married his secretary, Rosa Elena Lujan, in 1957 and continued to deny that he was Traven, claiming to merely be his translator. Nevertheless, he did claim to be a writer and produced many film scripts, though none ever reached the screen.[1] His wife believed him to be Traven, though she has never been able to produce definitive evidence. Croves died on 26 March 1969 and was cremated. His death was registered by his widow under the name of Traven Torsvan Croves, born Chicago 3 May 1890. No record of the birth of such an individual has ever been traced.[1]

Amongst his legacies to his widow was the copyright of Traven’s works. Rosa Lujan gave an interview to The New York Times in 1990,[5] in which she reiterated her conviction, based on many conversations, that her late husband was B. Traven.

Traven Torsvan

Croves’ previous identity is universally accepted to be Traven Torsvan. This persona was uncovered by the investigations of Mexican journalist Luis Spota, who discovered a bank account in Acapulco in the name of B. Traven, operated by an innkeeper locally known as Traven Torsvan, nicknamed El Gringo. His history was traced to 1925 when he first emerges in Mexico; like Croves, he was a member of a number of archaeological expeditions and he had shown great concern with the welfare of the Indian population. Furthermore, photographs of the two individuals corresponded closely, so it seems very likely they were the same person.[2]

Spota was convinced that Torsvan and B. Traven were one and the same and published his findings in 1948. Torsvan was angered by this invasion of his privacy and disappeared for good, presumably to re-emerge as Croves.[2]

Meanwhile, B. Traven communicated through correspondence with his literary managers, who themselves published newsletters, essentially designed to generate interest in the books. Traven insisted that all his written correspondence be returned to him. However, his editor, Bernard Smith, kept ten letters that he offered for sale after Traven's death. Via these newsletters an official biography emerged which stated that Traven was a mid-West American, born around 1900 who had moved to Mexico at an early age. It was said that the books were initially written in English and translated into German as that was the only way to achieve publication.

Ret Marut

Shortly after Croves’ death, his widow made a further announcement, confirming rumours that earlier in his life Croves/Traven had lived in Germany and had been a politician with the name Ret Marut.[6] This identification had been first suggested in the 1920s by Erich Mühsam, a revolutionary commander in Munich.[1] Ret Marut too was involved in leftist politics and was a colleague of Mühsam, who recognised similarities in the work of Traven and the ideas of his former associate. Marut was a publicist and his main activity was editor of the radical magazine, Der Ziegelbrenner (The Brickburner). Copies of this publication were found in Croves’s archive.

Research into Marut’s life has revealed that he was an actor from 1907 to 1915 before becoming a political activist. He was taken prisoner and sentenced to death in 1922 for his involvement in the Bavarian Soviet Republic but escaped to London, sending a postcard to his old comrades stating that he had left Germany for good.[6] He spent time in prison at Brixton on issues connected with his papers. He eventually left England in 1924 working as fireman on a ship, like the hero of The Death Ship, and then disappears from history.

Film director Mike Nichols states in a New York Times interview in 2009 that his grandfather, Gustav Landauer, was a close friend and political associate of B. Traven in Germany. Both men were involved in violent chaos after the end of the Empire. Landauer died in custody after his arrest in 1919 while the man later known as B. Traven escaped to Mexico.[7]

Summary

A general consensus has developed identifying Croves, Torsvan and Marut as one and the same person who is also B. Traven (see, e.g., Pateman, The Man Nobody Knows, a recent full-length study). The timeline of his life as follows:

  • 1907 – Appears as Ret Marut in Germany.
  • 1922 – Left Germany for England, arrested in 1923.
  • 1924 – Arrived Mexico, lived as Traven Torsvan in Acapulco.
  • 1947 – Appeared as Hal Croves on the set of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
  • 1948 – Traven Torsvan disappears following publicity.
  • 1952 – Hal Croves emerges in Mexico City.
  • 1957 – Married.
  • 1969 – Died.

Nevertheless, the matter is not free from doubt due to a scarcity of evidence about the actual writing of the books and several unanswered questions which remain.

Origins

Chicago theory

Hal Croves' will stated that he was born Traven Torsvan Croves in Chicago in 1890. Although no record of his birth has ever been traced, this account is considered to be possible by many scholars as they consider that an American upbringing would explain the Americanisms that appear in the German texts. According to this theory he would have travelled to Germany as a teenager for reasons unknown.[1]

Otto Feige theory

During the late 1970s, Will Wyatt and Robert Robinson of BBC TV made a documentary about B. Traven and wrote a book based on their research.[8] They traced Marut to London in the period 1923-4 where he was arrested as an illegal alien. Otto Feige was one of several names Marut had offered to police while being questioned in London in 1923, prior to leaving for Mexico. Wyatt had searched files and records for these names and traced an Otto Feige to the small town of Schwiebus. The town was originally in Germany but as a result of WWII became part of Poland, renamed Świebodzin. The evidence Marut had provided to the UK authorities – names, occupations etc. - tallied exactly with the facts of the family background of Otto Feige.[4]

Wyatt found the elderly brother and sister of Otto, who confirmed from family knowledge and photographs that Marut/Croves was their brother, born 23 February 1882 and disappeared around 1905; he was well known locally for his involvement in radical politics.[4] It was also confirmed that Otto Feige’s father had worked in a factory that made coal briquettes for use as fuel – a possible source for the name of Ret Marut’s anarchist paper, Der Ziegelbrenner.[4]

A major item of supporting evidence was a line-up of four photographs of Croves in all his supposed identities.[9] This theory had the appeal of providing a mostly continuous narrative for the life of B. Traven without overlapping periods between the various identities. It is the only identity for which there is documentary confirmation.

The Feige theory is not popular amongst B. Traven scholars, mostly because it undermines any possibility that Americanisms in the texts could have been introduced by Marut, having been picked up during an American childhood. For instance, one biographer, K. S. Guthke pointed out that Wyatt has not proved his case definitely and that it is possible that Marut could simply have borrowed Feige’s identity.[10]

Concerns and other theories

Unanswered questions

The mainstream theory involving Croves, Torsvan, Marut and possibly Feige leaves many unanswered questions about Traven’s biography. These include the following

  • The Cotton Pickers was sent to the publishers during 1925. Given that Marut would only have arrived in Mexico early that year, is it possible that he could have absorbed the degree of knowledge of Mexican culture displayed in that book?
  • Another concern is that B. Traven work all but ended by 1940, whereas Croves continued to live for a further 29 years. Why was he not capable of further work?
  • Many readers have noted the use of Americanisms in the text; how can this be reconciled with evidence that the books were written originally in German?
  • Who translated the books between German and English and how is the uneven quality of both languages explained?
  • Why was the identity of B. Traven concealed so carefully?
  • Who was the author of Aslan Norval and why does it not read like B. Traven?

Shared authorship

Some critics have proposed that the authorship was shared and indeed, this is what Croves himself stated. Marut/Croves may himself have been one of the contributors with input from another figure providing background material and possibly plots. The complex nature of the texts lends credence to the joint authorship hypothesis. Many of the texts exist in several forms which are irreconcilably different; manuscripts and published version, German and English editions and first and revised editions have all been observed to contain up to 25% different material.[1]

This theory, often referred to as the Erlebnisträger (experience-carrier) theory, was first proposed during 1964 by Max Schmid, who speculated that the character Gerard Gales who narrates four of the early novels, is based on a real person who provided much of the material for those texts[1].

Michael L. Baumann has presented a variation on the Erlebnisträger theory in Mr. Traven, I Presume? (1997). Baumann contrasts the bitter and anti-Semitic tones in Marut's texts with Traven's humanism and sense of humour and suggests that Crove / Torsvan / Marut was not the creator of the original manuscripts. Baumann is not able to identify any individual as author, but some candidates emerge from his work, among them, the person behind Mr. Sleight, a central character from The Bridge in the Jungle (1938).[1]

Other pseudonyms

In addition to the names recorded above, researchers have come across numerous other pseudonyms used. These include Arnolds, Barker, Traves Torsvan, Richard Maurhut, Albert Otto Max Wienecke, Kraus, Martinez, Fred Gaudet, Goetz Ohly, Lainger, Anton Räderscheidt, Robert Bek-Gran, Hugo Kronthal, Wilhelm Scheider, and Heinrich Otto Becker.[11]

K. S. Guthke (see his two German sources under secondary sources below) located a variety of placenames in Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany, such as Travemünde, Traventhal and the estate of Marutenhof (near Achterwehr), around the city of Lübeck and all situated by or near the river Trave, which all shared similarities to Traven's aka Marut's various pseudonyms.

Other proposed identities

Various possible identities have been suggested,[11] largely without evidence. These include:

Works

B. Traven – Stand-alone works

  • The Cotton Pickers (1927; retitled from The Wobbly) ISBN 1-56663-075-4
  • Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927; first English pub. 1935) ISBN 0-8090-0160-8
  • The Death Ship: the Story of an American Sailor (1926; first English pub. 1934) ISBN 1-55652-110-3
  • The White Rose (1929; first full English publication 1979) ISBN 0-85031-370-8
  • The Night Visitor and Other Stories ISBN 1-56663-039-8
  • The Bridge in the Jungle (1929; first English pub. 1938) ISBN 1-56663-063-0
  • Land of Springtime (1928) – travel book - untranslated
  • Aslan Norval (1960) ISBN 978-3257050165 - untranslated

B. Traven – The Jungle Novels

  • Government (1931) ISBN 1-56663-038-X
  • The Carreta (1931) ISBN 1-56663-045-2
  • March to the Monteria (1933) ISBN 1-56663-046-0
  • Trozas (1936) ISBN 1-56663-219-6
  • The Rebellion of the Hanged (1936; first English pub. 1952) ISBN 1-56663-064-9
  • A General from the Jungle (1940) ISBN 1-56663-076-2

Works by Ret Marut

  • To the Honorable Miss S... and other stories (1915-19; English publication 1981) ISBN 0-88208-131-4
  • Die Fackel des Fürsten - Novel (Nottingham: Edition Refugium 2009) ISBN 0-9506476-2-4;ISBN 978-0-9506476-2-3
  • Der Mann Site und die grünglitzernde Frau - Novel (Nottingham: Edition Refugium 2009) ISBN 0-9506476-3-2; ISBN 978-0-9506476-3-0

References

Bibliography

  • Baumann, Michael L. B. Traven: An introduction ISBN 978-0826304094
  • Baumann, Michael L. Mr. Traven, I Presume? ISBN 978-1585001415
  • Chankin, Donald O. Anonymity and Death: The Fiction of B.Traven ISBN 978-0271011905
  • Goldwasser, James. “Ret Marut: the early B. Traven” in The Germanic Review June 1993
  • Guthke, Karl S. B.Traven: The Life Behind the Legends ISBN 978-1556521324
  • Guthke, Karl S. B. Traven. Biografie eines Rätsels. Büchergilde Gutenberg, Frankfurt am Main 1987, ISBN 3-7632-3268-0; 2nd edition: Diogenes Verlag, Zürich 1998, ISBN 3-257-21922-9
  • Guthke, Karl S. „Das Geheimnis um B. Traven entdeckt“ – und rätselvoller denn je. Büchergilde Gutenberg, Frankfurt am Main 1984, ISBN 3-7632-2877-2
  • Mezo, Richard E. A Study of B. Traven's Fiction: The Journey to Solipaz ISBN 0773498389
  • Pateman, Roy. The Man Nobody Knows: The Life and Legacy of B. Traven ISBN 978-0761829737
  • Raskin, Jonah. My Search for B. Traven ISBN 978-0416007411
  • Schürer, Ernst, & P. Jenkins. B. Traven: Life and Work ISBN 978-0271003825
  • Stone, Judy. The Mystery of B. Traven ISBN 978-0595197293
  • Wyatt, Will. The Man Who Was B. Traven ISBN 978-0224017206
  • Thunecke, Jörg (ed.): B. Traven the Writer / Der Schriftsteller B. Traven, Edition Refugium: Nottingham 2003, ISBN 0-9542612-0-8, ISBN 0-9506476-5-9, ISBN 978-0-9506476-5-4
  • Thorsten Czechanowsky: 'Ich bin ein freier Amerikaner, ich werde mich beschweren'. Zur Destruktion des American Dream in B. Travens Roman 'Das Totenschiff' ' , in: Jochen Vogt/Alexander Stephan (Hg.): Das Amerika der Autoren, München: Fink 2006.
  • Thorsten Czechanowsky: Die Irrfahrt als Grenzerfahrung. Überlegungen zur Metaphorik der Grenze in B. Travens Roman 'Das Totenschiff' in: mauerschau 1/2008, pp.47-58 (ignores all recent Traven scholarship).
  • Thunecke, Jörg (ed.) Der Schriftsteller Ret Marut, Nottingham: Edition Refugium 2009, ISBN 0-9506476-4-0, ISBN 978-0-9506476-4-7

Notes

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "B. Traven's Identity Revisited". Tapio Helen. http://www.helsinki.fi/hum/hist/yhd/julk/traven01/traven.html. Retrieved 2008-01-20.  
  2. ^ a b c Robert Robinson, Skip All That, ISBN 0712675396, pp199-207.
  3. ^ Quoted in Adam Federman, "All that Matters is Oil", in Counterpunch, September 17, 2002[1]
  4. ^ a b c d "B. Traven: A Mystery Solved". Wyatt and Robinson. http://www.brightcove.tv/title.jsp?title=1119131104&channel=219646953. Retrieved 2008-01-20.  
  5. ^ New York Times article 25 June 1990
  6. ^ a b "International B. Traven Society". http://www.btraven.com/english/frameenglish.html. Retrieved 2008-01-20.  
  7. ^ New York Times article - 13 April 2009
  8. ^ Will Wyatt, The Man Who Was B. Traven, ISBN 2024017209
  9. ^ Photographs of Feige/Marut/Torsvan/Croves – from Wyatt, Will. The Man Who Was B. Traven ISBN 978-0224017206
  10. ^ Guthke, Karl S. B. Traven: the Life Behind the Legends ISBN 1556521316
  11. ^ a b "B. Traven's page from The Anarchist Encyclopedia". http://recollectionbooks.com/bleed/Encyclopedia/TravenPage1.htm. Retrieved 2008-01-20.  
  12. ^ a b Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 237. ISBN 086576008X

External links

Primary material

Secondary material


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