Traven, B., 1890-1969

A short biography of B. Traven, German underground author, anarchist and writer of the Treasure of Sierra Madre. [This article contains several factual inaccuracies and is typical of the many myths and half truths that have circulated concerning the mysterious B. Traven. For example, the date and location of birth given here are entirely speculative. For the known facts concerning Traven and a far more accurate account, see here;]

Submitted by Steven. on September 14, 2006

B. Traven, aka Ret Marut, Hal Croves, Traven Torsvan, Bruno Traven, Arnold, Barker, Otto Feige, Kraus, Lainger, Wienecke, and Ziegelbrenner
Born 5 March 1890 - Chicago, USA, died 26 March 1969 - Mexico City, Mexico

B. Traven was born in Chicago, Illinois on March 5th, 1890 to Swedish parents. He spent his youth in Germany, where he began writing anarchist literature under the assumed name of Ret Marut, and eventually published an underground anarchist magazine, Der Ziegelbrenner, (The Brick Burner) which appeared between 1917 and 1922. Traven was forced to flee Germany under the threat of a death sentence issued by the post-World War freikorps of Bavaria.

He disappeared for a time only to reappear in a British prison (crime unknown). After vanishing from London, a man calling himself B. Traven, began sending manuscripts in German to Das Buchengild, a German publisher.

Traven's ideology is socialism and anarchism. He is passionately on the side of the ordinary man. Capitalism and bureaucracy (government, church) make decent life impossible for the ordinary man. Traven wrote about serious issues of social justice, cruelty, and greed while employing a taut, suspenseful style. His anarchist ideology is a central theme throughout his writing, illustrating the victimization of individual freedom by the crushing power of the State. His early works dealt with tramps either looking for work or having found it temporarily, and in this process being caught in a worldwide exploitative system. Traven's novels have been translated into more than 30 languages, sold more than 25 million copies, and they are required reading in Mexican schools.

In 1926 appeared his novel Das Totenschiff (The Death Ship), which was an immediate success. According to a story, Albert Einstein named it as the book he would take with him to a desert island. The protagonist is an American sailor, Gerard Gales, who is stranded in Antwerp, Belgium, in the 1920s. He has no identity papers and is kicked from country to country by the authorities. Finally he ends up shoveling coal in hellish conditions on the Yorikke, a gunrunner destined to go to the bottom of the sea for insurance money. In Africa Gales and Stanislav, his fellow coal stoker, leave Yorrikke but find themselves aboard the Empress of Madagascar, heading for a shipwreck. Gales appeared also in Der Wobbly (1926, The Cotton Pickers) and Die Brücke im Dschungel (1928, The Bridge in the Jungle), which all have autobiographical feel. The name of the American adventurer comes close to Linn A.E. Gale, the editor of Gale's International Monthly for Revolutionary Communism. When IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) started its activities in Mexico in 1918, Gale became one of its leading figures.

Shortly after the reign of dictator Porfirio Diaz, Traven settled into a small house, El Parque Cachu, outside Acapulco, Mexico where he lived for twenty-five years.

Traven's second novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was written during these first years in Mexico. The bitter fable is set in Mexico. Three down-and-out Americans, Fred C. Dobbs, old Howard, and young Curtin, find gold dust from the mountain. They carry it down but during the journey these more or less decent human beings are transformed into jackals by greed and machismo. Dobbs escapes with all the gold but is ambushed by thieves and killed. The thieves, believing that Dobbs was carrying only sand with him, let the gold dust blow away.

"I know what gold does to men's souls."

"Dobbs had nothing. It may safely be said that he had less than nothing, for he was not even adequately or completely clothed, and clothing, to those in need, is a modest start toward capital." (from The Treasure of Sierra Madre, 1927)

First published in Germany in the 1930's, it rapidly gained worldwide recognition and attention, and though his books had been published in many other languages, none had ever appeared in either England or the United States. (In 1934, both The Death Ship: The Story of an American Sailor, his first novel, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre were finally published in the United States.)

In Regierung (1931, Government), a depiction of political corruption and the exploitation of the poor, Traven showed how a brutal regime works, but also gave information of rural Mexico, of Indian. The book was part of a cycle of novels about the Mexican revolution of 1910-12.

"Don Gabriel had a good revolver and he could shoot as straight as the next man. The Indians had no revolvers and could not buy any either; they had no money and, in any case, it was strictly forbidden to sell them revolvers or rifles, apart from muzzle-loaders for game. So don Gabriel accepted the post. He would have accepted the post of watching boiling cauldrons in hell if anyone had offered it to him. He was so down on his luck that he had no choice. It was getting on to twenty years since he had sought a way out in honest work. And a job in government is far and away the best. A man has only to keep his eyes open and pounce as soon as the prey shows its nose."

Between the years 1931 and 1940 he published six interrelated novels of the Mahogany, known as his Jungle series.

Traven's sympathy for the indigenous people of the Chiapas region of Mexico caused him to learn their native Mayan dialect. Traven's writing skills shine through consistently in this Jungle series, which outlines the birth of the Mexican Revolution, by compassionately, and unsparingly describing the terrible plight of the indigenous people in the mahogany forests of Chiapas. Treated worse than slaves by greedy plantation owners who manipulated the laws of peonage (which had actually been declared illegal by the government) through the use of debt-slavery, bribery and other methods during the reign of dictator Porfirio Diaz, Traven's depiction of brutalized Indians breaking their backs and driving oxen through hazardous jungle and marsh and floating or hauling tons of mahogany to the monteria, (mahogany plantations), through thorns, mud, rain, biting blood-filled flies and ticks, whips and beatings.

The Jungle series is a social realist nightmare, but an unfortunately true accounting of an incredibly dark period of Mexico's history. The series includes the novels: The Bridge in the Jungle; Trozas (Spanish for 'tiny pieces'); March To Monteria; The Rebellion of the Hanged; The General From the Jungle; The Carreta (Spanish for 'carriage' or 'cart').

After 1940 Traven wrote little. In the mid-1950's, Traven acquired a Mexican passport under the name Traven Torsvan, born in Chicago on May 3, 1890. He married in 1957 his translator Rosa Elena Luján - she had first met him at a party for the violinist Jascha Heifetz in the 1930's. A decade later Lujan was hired to help him translate a movie script into Spanish.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre caught director John Huston's attention, but it was not until 1948, that the film was finally made.

During the filming, Huston invited Traven to visit. Traven did not show up. A week later a Hal Croves appeared - "a small, thin man with a long nose" - with a letter, in which Traven explained that he was ill and unable to come, but Croves could answer all questions. Naturally, Huston suspected that this agent was the author himself,

"Croves had a slight accent. It didn't sound German to me, but certainly European. I thought he might very well be Traven, but out of delicacy I didn't ask. On the other hand, Croves gave an impression quite unlike the one I had formed of Traven from reading his scripts and correspondence. Croves was very tight and guarded in his manner of speaking. He was nothing at all as I had imagined Traven, and after two meetings I decided that this surely was not he." (John Huston in An Open Book, 1981)

It wasn't until after Traven's death in 1969, when pictures of the reclusive man were published that John Huston confirmed Croves true identity.

The film of course, went on to become one of the greatest films of all time (American Film Institute film rank #21), with one the immortal lines of cinema:

"Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any steenkin' badges!".

Starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and Walter Huston.

Humphrey Bogart had one of his finest roles as Fred C. Dobbs, a loser who becomes increasingly paranoid that his partners want to kill him and steal his gold. As a study of greed, the picture ranks behind only Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1925). John Huston won Oscars for his direction and his script adaptation of Traven's novel. Walter Huston in the role of an old prospector, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

The film paints a not so pleasant portrait of Americans in a Depression era Mexico, which was particularly unusual in a post-World War II United States. It is perhaps, in part, the grim honesty with which the story is told that accounts for its enduring vitality.

We are slowly drawn into the lives of three men who go off into the mountains in search of gold. The story seduces the viewer with its seeming simplicity. We come to know these three men as real people and become involved with what they are doing and what happens to them.
The theme is simple: there is something more valuable than gold. But the way the theme is presented to us is the real art. Consider the scene around the campfire which is followed by the scene in the Indian village. These two simple settings present the theme without turning it into a sermon.
The plot is probably ancient. Chaucer used it in one of the CANTERBURY TALES. But the plot endures because it makes us look at why we are alive.

For those of you who enjoy trivia, the rich American who gives Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) money three times in the same day, is none other than the director, John Huston himself. - The famous title of the book (and the film) has been used in many connections. In Finland, where the state budget showed luckily some surplus in 2000, the prime minister Paavo Lipponen commented that it has become to some people like a 'Treasure of Sierra Madre' which should be shared as soon as possible.

In the 1960's, the publishers Hill and Wang began publishing the significant body of Traven's work in the United States, (including his 'Jungle' Series).

Traven died on March 26, 1969 in Mexico City. His ashes were flown to his beloved Chiapas and scattered over Río Jataté.

Traven was at times perhaps extreme in his obsession for keeping his true identity secret, but from his past experience, in both Germany and again in England, who could truly blame him.

After his death in 1969, Traven's widow, Rosa Elena Lujan, was instructed to reveal his identity as "B. Traven", "Ret Marut", "Hal Croves", et cetera. Mrs. Luján, stated in an interview: ''He told me that once he died, I could say that he had been Ret Marut, but not before. He was afraid he would be extradited. So I always had to lie, because I had to save my husband.'' (The New York Times, June 25, 1990)

Traven's will stated that he was Traven Torsvan Croves, born in Chicago in 1890 and naturalized as a Mexican citizen in 1951.

More information
B. Traven collection in libcom library

From anok+peace



13 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by i on January 18, 2011

Most writings on BT deal with the mystery around him and step all over his reluctance to authority and identity, his wanting to be just an ordinary man.
This one certainly does have some inaccuracies, but it's still the best B.Traven very brief biography I've read, since it actually captures his want, need, love, demand of privacy.
Good job!