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Traven, B. 1890–1969

Traven was an American-born short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter. He wrote in German and translated his own work into English, a method which accounts for the sometimes fragmentary and incorrect use of English in his fiction. Traven was deliberately vague about his background; however, since his death some facts have emerged. He lived in Mexico for most of his life and that country serves as the setting for most of his fiction. Because his recurring theme is the exploitation and degradation of the working classes, Traven has been linked with Marxist, socialist, and anarchist doctrines. He avoids dogmatism, however, espousing a form of humanism in the tradition of Thoreau. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Alan Cheuse

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Traven's spare but resonant narration, which harks back to the old wisdom tales of Indian-American mythology, has much in common as well with that alienated (Brecht called it "distanced") mode of presentation which we have come to associate with technologically produced works of cinematic art.

"The Kidnapped Saint" will give readers new to the Traven canon ample opportunity to discover this distinctive style at its best. The eight stories in the collection will in fact be new to all but the most intrepid Traven followers (and some will be new even to them). (p. 34)

In addition to these tales, with their remarkable fusion of deep empathy and the self-conscious distance that always prevents us from turning Indian passion to gringo pastoral, the collection contains the first seven (and most successful) chapters of a novel previously unpublished in the United States, "The White Rose," Traven's uneven satire on the American entrepreneurs who ravaged Mexico's petroleum reserves before President Cardenas nationalized them at the outbreak of World War II…. [In a previously unpublished political essay, "In the Freest State in the World,"] the young Traven, apparently writing as "Ret Marut," fiery anarchist editor of the revolutionary Munich journal "Der Ziegelbrenner," gives a stirring account of what seems to be his own capture and near-execution by right-wing police….

Traven's penchant for such disguises has made great headaches for scholars…. But, as any reader trained to keep his gaze from wandering from the screen should know quite well by now, it is the stories themselves, whether fables of the downfall of avaricious gringos or tributes to the native wisdom of peasants bereft of modern technology that remain the sites where the true Traven treasure abides. (p. 36)

Alan Cheuse, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 19, 1975.

Michael L. Baumann

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[Most] Traven scholars now agree: that Traven had been an itinerant actor and anarchist writer by the name of Ret Marut in pre-World War I Germany….

[Both] circumstantial and internal, or textual, evidence seems to confirm the identity of the two men: Ret Marut disappeared from Germany in the early 1920s (he probably left Europe in 1922 and landed in Mexico toward the end of that year); B. Traven's stories began to appear in German magazines early in 1925, their manuscripts having been sent to Germany from Mexico; Traven's novels, the manuscripts of which were likewise sent to Traven's German publishers from Mexico, started coming out in April 1926; Traven clearly expresses ideas in his novels found also in the writings of Ret Marut, and he often does so in Ret Marut's own words and style. It is difficult, in other words, to doubt that the two authors were one and the same man. (pp. 404-05)

[However] we do not know who that man was before he became...

(This entire section contains 2428 words.)

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Ret Marut, since we do not know where Marut-Traven was born or where he spent his childhood and early manhood. (p. 405)

But if we leave aside the question of Traven's origin—that is, of who Ret Marut was—for the moment because we cannot answer it, and turn to Traven's literary output, we make a curious discovery. We find that nearly half of that output deals with Americans in Mexico. Of the early Traven novels, only The Death Ship takes place in Europe—and at sea near Europe—and its protagonist is an American sailor. (All of the later novels—and all of the stories—take place on the North American continent.) Certain Germanic traits are found throughout Traven's writings, yet the peculiarly American character of the first half of Traven's literary output cannot be denied either: the laconic American humor, the pride in and love of America that underlie all of the bitter criticism of this country, the hatred of servitude, the fierce, Puritanical indignation at injustice, the many thematic and tonal resemblances to mainstream American authors…. [Where] did Red Marut, who had been deeply involved, emotionally and intellectually, in the social and political problems of Germany from 1917 to 1921 …, suddenly find his so strangely authentic American voice? For in these early novels and stories he describes the lives of American lumpenproletarians in Mexico with an intimacy that can only have been acquired over a period of years spent in Mexico, just as the knowledge of Mexico—and of the United States—that went into Traven's only nonfiction work, Land des Frühlings, must have taken a good many years to come by.

Yet three of Traven's early novels were ready for publication by 1925, two and a half years, at best, after Ret Marut had set foot on Mexican soil—according to one source, Traven's novels were ready for publication as early as 1923—and the others followed in rapid succession, so that by 1929 Traven had published five novels, a collection of short stories, and the above-mentioned nonfiction work…. Three of the early novels, as well as the more important of his short stories, are narrated by an American called Gales (or Gale), and Traven later either hinted or said outright that these novels and stories are autobiographical. Traven thus implied that he himself had been Gales. Yet it seems highly improbable that one man could have had all of the adventures described in Traven's early fiction in a matter of two and a half years and that he could have turned them into novels and stories at almost the same time. Besides, Ret Marut was living in Germany when some of those adventures were taking place in Mexico. (pp. 405-06)

Since readers generally agree that the events described in the early Traven novels are not invented but based on real experiences, the question becomes: whose experiences are they? A Swiss reader, Max Schmid, has suggested that they are those of an "Erlebnisträger," or a "carrier of the experience."… In the stories and novels narrated by Gerard Gales, Gales is evidently the Erlebnisträger, not Marut-Traven. The real Gales, then, must have been one of the many transient Americans drifting about Mexico during the 1910s and 1920s. He may well have been a Wobbly (which would explain why the original title of Die Baumwollpflücker was Der Wobbly). Marut-Traven must have met him soon after arriving in Mexico…. According to this theory, Marut-Traven recognized the literary value of the Erlebnisträger's diaries, or of that man's attempts to turn his adventures into fiction. Somehow Marut-Traven obtained those manuscripts and translated them into German. He also rewrote, as he translated, and he worked his own ideas into the texts. Then he marketed those manuscripts in Germany and became, upon the publication of Das Totenschiff, a famous author. Such is the theory; needless to say, it has not yet been proven.

That Traven wrote in German, whatever the source of his material may have been, we know today. We know that he wrote all of his works in German, even if he rewrote some of his novels and stories in English for American publishers. But both Traven's German and his English have puzzled some of his readers, and a look at how Traven uses these two languages would appear to be in order.

If we start with Traven's German prose, we find that, in some of the novels and stories told by an American and in certain other novels and stories told by an omniscient author, there seem to be an unconscionable number of Anglicisms: unaltered English or American words, American expressions or idioms worked into the German sentence, and bilingual coinages. Otherwise, Traven's German prose is clean, simple, direct, forceful, and, by and large, correct. (pp. 407-08)

Traven's Anglicisms do not necessarily violate the German language, not even when he introduces American idioms or uses words that do not exist in German…. Still, we may ask how and why these incongruities wandered into Traven's German prose. Three possible explanations have occurred to me: (1) that—on the assumption that Marut-Traven was born and raised in North America—American expressions flooded back into his consciousness as he wrote about Americans in Mexico; (2) that Marut-Traven deliberately used American expressions, either because he wanted to give his German prose an exotic flavor, or because he wanted to throw future literary bloodhounds off his track; (3) that the material which Marut-Traven used in his novels and stories was not his own but borrowed from an American, namely, from the Erlebnisträger, and that, rewriting this material in German somewhere in the Mexican bush, Marut-Traven did not have access to an English-German dictionary.

It is, of course, the third explanation that makes most sense. (It does not exclude the other two.) An American adventurer who had already been in Mexico during the 1910s and had recorded his experiences there in his own idiom would have used such expressions as I have mentioned. If that American happened, furthermore, to be a German-American, he might have recorded his experiences in a mixture of German and American English. Ret Marut would then either have translated the American Erlebnisträger's manuscripts or turned them into adequate German, leaving those American or English words for which he found no German equivalents. Or, again, if that American happened to be a German-American, he might even have recorded his experiences in German and inadvertently sprinkled American expressions into his prose. Ret Marut would then merely have corrected the style, worked his own philosophic reflections into the novels and longer short stories, and perhaps made no changes at all in the less significant anecdotes.

Such a hypothesis would explain why so many manuscripts were ready for publication in 1925: the American had written their first drafts after years spent in Mexico before 1922. Marut-Traven revised the manuscripts and, either accidentally or on purpose, let the Americanisms discussed above slip into the German prose. If he let them slip in on purpose, i.e., if Marut-Traven knew what he was doing and why he was doing it, then he certainly succeeded in giving his German prose an exotic flavor. Needless to say, Traven was no James Joyce in the matter of mixing languages, but he appears to have been able charmingly to handle a good many colloquial American expressions. (pp. 410-12)

[The Death Ship] has enough Germanic oddities in it to make us goggle-eyed.

Traven's malapropisms in English are of three kinds: (1) those that miss being full-fledged idioms, (2) those that miss being genuine colloquialisms, slang expressions, or curses, and (3) metaphrases. The third kind predominates. (p. 412)

Traven, finally, is guilty of a fourth kind of malapropism in English: he structures whole sentences according to German syntax. One such Germanic monster should be enough to show what I mean: "What you were doing, where you were sailing, and on what ships you were at that time, I have not asked you" (pp. 413-14)

[The] American version of The Death Ship suffers a sea change in transit from Germany to North America, and the problems posed by American idiomatic usage are not solved.

One explanation for the Germanic quality of Traven's English—on the assumption that Ret Marut himself actually wrote the English versions of those texts of Traven's novels and stories that were published in America as "original" English texts, such as The Death Ship—may be that Marut-Traven, after having written in German for many years, found it difficult to switch back to English. (p. 414)

Yet for all of Traven's incorrect use of American English, it seems fair to say that this linguistic weakness does not detract from the vitality, narrative drive, and emotional impact of a novel like The Death Ship. What it does lead us to suspect, however, is that the author of the novel, Marut-Traven, was not Gerard Gales, the "American sailor" whose story is told in The Death Ship, since the "Gales" of the novel is demonstrably not at home in the idioms of English. Nor can we believe that Marut-Traven can ever have been the Gerard Gales of The Cotton Pickers, The Bridge in the Jungle, "The Night Visitor," and the other stories of which Gales is the narrator or protagonist. If the adventures related in these realistic novels and stories happened in the early 1920s—in the American version of The Death Ship … we are made to believe that the year Gales misses his ship in Antwerp is 1922—and if the narrator was in truth an American sailor (and, according to other novels and stories, an American cotton picker, oil rigger, bum, etc.), he would surely have known his own language, or at least his own slang, in 1934, the year The Death Ship was published in the United States, or, more properly speaking, in 1925, the year Traven offered to rewrite, in German, his own original English-language version of that novel…. But either "Gales" was not telling his own stories because a gentleman with a heavy German accent who had recently arrived in Mexico from Germany was telling them for him, or the real Gales had never written those manuscripts in English because, as a German-American, he had written them in German. Whatever the final explanation may be, the Erlebnisträger hypothesis would appear to force itself upon us as soon as we reflect on Traven's peculiar use of the English language.

If we did not already know that Traven had been an intellectual, not an uneducated worker, when he was Ret Marut, then what we have seen of his language habits would throw the proletarian past Traven gave himself into further doubt. For a real American sailor would at least curse more pungently than Traven's sailor does. However, what we have seen of Traven's language habits may, at the same time that it recommends the Erlebnisträger interpretation, also strengthen our belief in Traven's claim that he was an American. The English or American expressions in Traven's German prose point to an American background—although not to precisely the background Traven so frequently sketched for himself. That there are many American expressions in the prose of those of Traven's novels and stories not narrated by Gales, that these American expressions, in other words, are found also in the second half of Traven's literary output, suggests that the American background is not the exclusive property of the Erlebnisträger. This is important for the evaluation of any other evidence we may have of Traven's alleged or real identity as an American, such as his interest in American drifters abroad, his fairly intimate knowledge of America itself, and his relation to earlier American writers. His use of language suggests that two Americans (perhaps both of them German-Americans) had something to do with the creation of at least the early part of B. Traven's literary output: one, an anarchist intellectual who had spent many years in Germany before arriving in Mexico, the other, an adventurer and, probably, an Industrial Worker of the World. Alone, this conclusion may not be much, but added to our other findings, it brings us significantly closer to the unriddling of the B. Traven mystery. Our object, as literary critics, is not, after all, to discover the true identity of Ret Marut (or of the Erlebnisträger), but to provide a basis for our work. If we know why Traven is more at home in German than in American English, we can stop giving the American editions of his novels and stories the kind of critical attention we ought to be giving only to the German editions, except where we have what seem to be two separate versions of one novel, as in the case of Das Totenschiff and The Death Ship. And if we know that Traven's knowledgeability about the United States in his early work is due to the experiences of a second person, namely, an American Wobbly (and perhaps also to some personal acquaintance with "den States," on the part of Ret Marut himself), then we shall be most willing, as critics, to find a place for Traven in the literature of this country, and, as fellow Americans, to acknowledge happily that he was an American, to recognize a claim he made so often and so tenaciously. That Traven was also a European, with linguistic and cultural roots in pre-World War I Germany, has already explained, and will continue to explain, those aspects of his work that his North American heritage cannot explain…. (pp. 415-17)

Michael L. Baumann, "Reflections on B. Traven's Language," in Modern Language Quarterly (© 1975 University of Washington), December, 1975, pp. 403-17.

Michael L. Baumann

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[Land des Frühlings (Land of Spring)] is a Traven source book: here we find, in the form of theory, argument, and statements of fact, Traven's principal ideas, as well as material similar to that which went into his novels and stories. Here we find Traven's fierce indignation, his anger at the inequities of a world he did not make, and his intense involvement in the fate of the underdog. Here we meet Traven the idealist and impatient philosophical anarchist, the observer of nature, the humorist, the lyrical and sentimental 19th-century Romantic, and the 20th-century ironist. And we get to know a side of the man that Traven deliberately distorts in his novels and denied vis-à-vis the biography hounds who came to Mexico to ferret out the secret of his identity: the educated, voracious, and critical reader, the intellectual whose roots go down deep into the soil of both European and American history and culture. (p. 75)

The book is specifically addressed to the German working-class reader, who cannot be expected to know much about Chiapas, or even about Mexico. Traven, a very methodical teacher, instructs this reader not only in the lore of Chiapas, but also in that of Mexico, the United States, Europe, and the world. And in so doing, he discusses literally hundreds of separate topics and ideas…. He weaves a number of arguments into his text and concludes them with prophecies and visions. In this way Land des Frühlings becomes a book about the fate of man. If Chiapas, as Traven tells us at the beginning of the book, has a climate "similar to the late spring of Central Europe," we understand, towards the end, that all of Mexico is, in Traven's eyes, the land of a new beginning for man—Traven calls it "Newland"—and that, for him, the entire North American continent is the real land of spring.

Traven gives the title of his book another dimension when he suggests that the ruins of man's first civilization may be found … underneath the jungles of Chiapas and under the rubble caused by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. He proposes, furthermore, that Chiapas may, indeed, be the cradle of mankind, that man may have originated in Chiapas and spread to the other continents from that South-Mexican state. This would make Chiapas the "land of spring" for us all. It would also make the Indian race the Urrasse, the primordial race of mankind. Traven says that the Indian race "carries in its individuals the traits of all of the other human races on earth," and he attempts to document his case with archaeological evidence. (pp. 75-6)

[Traven] prizes the Indians' communal sense above all other virtues. In his eyes, the Indians are the only genuine Christians on earth, though he does not call them that. (p. 77)

The difference between the two types of ethos, the white man's and the Mexican Indian's, is dramatically illustrated in Traven's fiction…. And in all of these works Traven makes every effort to have his white readers understand the Mexican Indians' simple demands, their human dignity—and their communal sense.

Although Traven finds it difficult to describe that communal sense, he returns to the notion of the communal sense again and again and sets it off against European and American individualism. The phrase "communal sense" becomes an almost chiliastic invocation in Land. Communal life, life organized in communes and made possible by people who are rational and generous enough not to be constantly in each other's hair, or, worse, at each other's throats, has been the dream of most philosophical anarchists, including Traven. (p. 80)

In Land, Traven violates one of the principles of anarchist thinking by breaking the sometimes spoken but more often unspoken commandment not to formulate blueprints for a better society. (In his fiction, Traven keeps this commandment almost from the first to last; he breaks it only in his very last novel in 1960, in the visionary Aslan Norval, which formulates an economic project—the building of a canal across the United States—designed to save America and the American way of life.) In Land, Traven suggests countless measures for Mexico to cure its ills, and some of his suggestions come close to being blueprints for a better society. (p. 81)

At the end of the book, the reader may have a hard time deciding which Traven, the idealist or the realist, is more persuasive, but whatever his decision, he will admire, and perhaps even love, the idealist.

There are other Travens in Land des Frühlings that should be mentioned, and among them is the observer of nature, continually awed by what he sees. (He appears in the novels, too, most prominently, perhaps, in The Cotton Pickers.) This Traven is a true follower of Thoreau. (p. 82)

Land des Frühlings is obviously basic Traven. Whatever we may be looking for, intimate contact with the author, adventures in Chiapas, the history of Mexico and of its people, an outline of hope, not only for Mexico, but for the United States and mankind, the vision of a poetic sensibility, at once European and American, or the themes of the novels and stories, we will find it in this classic Traven work. Fascinating in its own right, but useful also as a key to his fiction and personality, Land des Frühlings is, surely, the most important book Traven wrote. (p. 85)

Michael L. Baumann, "B. Traven: Realist and Prophet," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1977, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 53, No. 1 (Winter, 1977), pp. 73-85.

John M. Reilly

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The narrator's repudiation of the popular formula for success, which he repeats at length throughout [The Death Ship], links his tale with the specific demystification of many novels that are anti-bourgeois and symptomatic of the authors' estrangement from prevailing cultural ideals. On the other hand the efforts to set us straight about the real work of sailors leads to the radical core of this story of the proletarian at sea.

Presenting himself as homeless and stateless the narrator, thus, represents the common man contending with the bureaucracy of the modern nation, but cast back upon his own individual resources he, more importantly, epitomizes the proletarian in a modern, industrial society…. In telling us of the operations of the death ship, the narrator again demystifies. This time in such a way as to show that market relations dominate political relations, though it is necessary for the fact to be concealed. Here, then, is the setting in which the free proletarians labor. They are particularized by detail of life aboard the death ship, but at the same time they are representative of the more completely mystified participants in production relations ashore.

The absence of a certain name for the narrator marks him as a man without roots in any other way of life, while his attitude shows him to be without nostalgia. (pp. 112-13)

This clear-sighted narrator's repudiation of the illusions of romance not so incidentally makes reference to the literature as well as the life it represents. Working in the stokehold he observes that "there were no hairy apes around with lurking strains of philosophy for stage purposes." Similarly the chartless voyage of the death ship to nowhere in particular constitutes a rejection of the traditionally inherent symbolism of a sea voyage…. In place of [the] conventions of sea romance The Death Ship provides devices appropriate to the narrator. The Yorikke, the death ship itself, has life…. In industrial life nature seems to have been subdued and is ordinarily not perceived at all, but the machine is the focus of the work which gives rise to social life. So, too, it is the appropriate object for the imagination of the anti-romantic proletarian seaman.

One echo of prior sea literature rings positively in The Death Ship. That one is from Melville. As Ishmael called the whaler his Harvard, so the narrator of Traven's tale says no man could have a better college than the Yorikke. Beyond that there is also in Traven's novel, as in Melville's, the significance of a crew taken from all the world's continents and the sense of solidarity with them in work. And like Ishmael, Traven's narrator has a close companion lost in shipwreck. Alongside these parallels the difference between Melville's and Traven's novels stands out clearly. In The Death Ship there is no Ahab, a human embodiment of the overreaching force of American expansion. The only nexus is the production/work process. What was Ahab has become technology.

But finally the most important departure from the Melvillean pattern, as well as from other sea literature, is in Traven's narrator himself. As the Yorikke's voyage goes nowhere, so, too, the narrator goes nowhere with his thoughts and speech, because there is nothing for him to learn about life at sea. He knows it all when his tale begins. The familiar first-person narration implies development as the speaker learns from experiences and the auditor/reader interprets significance. Traven's narrator discovers no meanings in his experience. (pp. 113-14)

There are no quiet sections in The Death Ship, no passages given over to pondering. The narrator is always talking at the audience, always asserting views long held about his reality, and always inserting his humanizing presence into descriptions of events so that there is scarcely room for the audience to think independently. The narrator seizes the center of the novel and it is his hard-boiled and comic attitude that produces the book's world-view. One hardly feels the presence of an author, so completely has the voice of the narrator taken over.

This is, of course, a positive achievement. For what it means is that Traven has extended the process of demystification to literature itself. Not only has he repudiated the illusions of sea literature, the romantic content and devices, but he is also working to dispense with the illusions that are at the heart of realistic literary technique. The tendency of literary realism is toward the production of autonomous narratives on the analogy with plays performed within the proscenium arch. Events are understood to be apart from author and audience both, following a logic inherent in a world we cannot enter but only observe. The characters do not speak to us directly, and we are discouraged from possible doubts that characters or events are wrong by the supposition that the story is the author's world, private property. The Death Ship narrator works against this tendency by his strong presence and continuous awareness that he is telling a tale, making a book instead of an independent world. For all his certitude the narrator invites readers into his story or to at least engage with him in appraising events. Much of this is achieved by comic tone, a hand on the shoulder to encourage us in dropping the conventional pitying response to stores of working-class life, and much is the result of our recognition that the narrator's views grow out of practical life. (pp. 114-15)

In departing from the illusions of literary realism [Traven] created a vehicle that effectively carries the class outlook of the proletariat. The Death Ship is without the aura that envelopes "art" in our society and weakens its effect on readers' consciousness, because the narrator speaks a popular language in a popular style. Perhaps he is the child of Melville's Ishmael, but he is also the brother of Sam Spade, and like Sam he speaks as people really do when they are free of illusion. (p. 115)

John M. Reilly, "The Voice of 'The Death Ship'," in The Minnesota Review (© 1977 by The Minnesota Review), Fall, 1977, pp. 112-15.


Traven, B. (Vol. 8)