Traven, B. (Vol. 8)
Traven, B. 1890–1969
An American-born short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter, Traven wrote in both German and English. Interest in Traven has been piqued by the deliberate screen of mystery that he set up about his background. However, in recent years the facts of Traven's identity have begun to emerge. According to his will, Traven was born in Chicago, but spent his youth in Germany. For his revolutionary activities in Bavaria, Traven was sentenced to death but managed a last minute escape. Signing on as a seaman, he jumped ship at Tampico, Mexico. He died in Mexico City. Traven was a trenchant critic of modern bureaucracy and a compelling storyteller. His Death Ship will certainly endure, as will his well-known classic, The Treasure of Sierre Madre. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
The Death Ship (1926) depicts a voyage which takes the protagonist, Gerard Gales, away from civilization and leaves him on a raft in the middle of the ocean. He is alienated from a society which first denies him an identity because he has neither job nor papers, and then threatens to destory him by condemning him to work on an illicit tramp steamer. The climactic wreck of this death ship represents the severing of the protagonist's last bonds with society and, ironically, with reality. Alone on a raft in a mounting storm, the sole survivor of the shipwreck, Gales, has hallucinations of a haven for his drowned comrade. Thus the basic theme of Traven's works appears: a romantic journey of escape from corrupt, modern industrial civilization, and paradoxically, the disintegration of the ego in the absence of civilization.
The three books that comprise the novel deal with the shore civilization, the death ship itself, and the escape…. Perhaps the first book is a wild comedy rather than a "humorous satire." It deals with the adventures of Gales, who is stranded in Antwerp without documents or money by the premature departure of his ship, the Tuscaloosa. (p. 16)
Gales uses humor against the bureaucracy which is denying his existence. The nightmarish situation may recall Kafka, but the treatment is wildly comic, suggesting the silent film comedians, particularly Chaplin as the "little tramp." Gales is the little man at whom the policeman pokes his thumb, evicting him from hotel room, park bench, and train compartment. His involuntary hobo's tour of Europe, with its constant and purposeless movement, recalls Chaplin's journeys. Both men confront a world of mechanism and bureaucracy with stoicism and small gestures of defiance. (p. 17)
[The] impasse remains: with neither documentary proof of identity nor a job, Gales's sense of identity as American or sailor does not suffice. The indispensable recognition of identity by society is lacking, and Gales, beneath his comic exuberance, feels the lack. (p. 18)
The ultimate cause of [Gales's] predicament … is his illegitimacy. Behind the agressiveness of Gales's retorts and possibly behind all his humor lies uneasiness and shame at having his illegitimacy revealed. (p. 19)
Gales finds himself [aboard the deathship Yorikke] in a Dantean inferno, whose motto is, "He who enters here will no longer have existence!"… Tormented by memories of their former lives and by the knowledge that they can never return to them, the men of the death ship have "vanished from the living"…. The "inscription over the crew's quarters" that forms the epigraph to the second books reads, in part:
Who enters here
Will no longer have existence;
His name and soul have vanished
And are gone for ever.
Of him there is not left a breath
In all the vast world.
He can never return …
Dante's characters are tortured for the evil deeds they committed on earth, but Traven's outcasts are innocent victims. As members of the "black gang," Gales and his fellow stoker, Stanislav, must create their own hell by feeding the nine fires of the Yorikke's furnaces. They are in the inner ring of Traven's inferno, the ninth circle reserved not for traitors to their countries, but for men who have been betrayed by their countries. (pp. 22-3)
The grotesque journey ends abruptly when Gales and Stanislav are shanghaied to serve as stokers aboard the Empress. From a nightmare of living death on the Yorikke the men are transported into a dreamlike state as rulers of the wrecked Empress. (p. 25)
The Death Ship shows Gales's continuous retreat from society. He escapes from the shore society of the first book as a member of the crew of the Yorikke and the "black gang" of the stokehold. Gales achieves semi-solitude with Stanislav on the Empress but he must become completely isolated from men to be fully reborn as Pippip, the orphaned castaway. (p. 26)
The novel has become a pure fantasy in [the] last book of dreamlike wrecks and hallucinations. The only alternative to the mazes of bureaucracy and the tortures of the death ship is regression to an infantile state. Gales's final vision suggests that only in death is escape possible. In a hallucination prompted by weariness, Gales imagines that the drowned Stanislav has signed on for a long voyage without papers…. The Death Ship ends with [a] glimpse of a sailor's Paradise that balances the infernal image of the death ships. But rest has come only for Stanislav who, in death, is reunited with the Great Skipper, or father. Gales … must continue to search for the answer to his paternity. As the names "Gales" and "Pippip" imply, he is destined to survive the stormy seas only to remain an orphan. (pp. 27-8)
On the level of social criticism the death ship itself, rather than the shore bureaucracy, is the central symbol. It stands as a powerful, radical symbol of the betrayal and exploitation of anonymous workers, as well as representing a cross section of society. (p. 29)
Traven's social and political analysis is simplistic in its exaggeration and failure to draw distinctions; his ideas are secondary to the power of his symbols and narrative. (p. 30)
Traven is class-conscious, but he is hardly a Marxist…. Traven is a romantic yearning for preindustrial times, a kind of anarchist. The essence of his radicalism is expressed in the powerful central image of the book: nameless workers stroking the engines of the modern industrial economy. His power derives from his vision of life at the bottom of the stokehold….
A comparison between Traven's sea story and Conrad's work is inevitable. Although both are writing in the same nebulous genre, their viewpoints are directly opposed: Traven sees life from the bottom of the stokehold; Conrad's point of view is generally from the bridge. There is an explicit allusion to Conrad as "that heavenly, that highly praised, that greatest sea-story writer of all time [who] knew how to write well only about brave skippers, dishonored lords, unearthly gentlemen of the sea, and of the ports, the islands, and the sea-coasts; but the crew is always cowardly, always near mutiny, lazy, rotten, stinking, without any higher ideals or fine ambitions"…. Traven's distortion of Conrad nearly cancels out his praise of him; Traven suggests that his own narrative is somehow more balanced and realistic. (p. 31)
Traven's use of expressionism to heighten the story of a stoker's exploitation and betrayal shows his indebtedness to O'Neill's Hairy Ape. The extent of the debt may be reflected in the violence of his attack on a work in which expressionist distortion plays such a vital part. A basic problem in the critical treatment of expressionism is to determine whether the distortion is induced by the author for expressive purposes, or whether it is supposed to be a reflection of the protagonist's disturbed mind. Neither alternative precludes the other, of course, but in The Death Ship most of the distortion originates in the mind of the narrator. The progression from expressionism lightened by wild comedy, through the grim inferno of the stokehold, to the final apocalyptic fantasy reflects the changing emotions of Gales. The very distortion stems from Gales's projection of his feelings as an illegitimate child onto society and the death ships. (p. 34)
Traven's self-consciousness may be reflected in the abundance of his literary allusions. In addition to his debt to Conrad and O'Neill, there are allusions to Dante, Melville, and Shakespeare, and there are echoes of Kafka. Melville's influence pervades this "Moby-Dick of the stokehold" in which the narrator alone has escaped to tell the story. Both the Pequod and the Yorikke are microcosms of society; their voyages are romances of the sea filled with naturalistic details. A primary parallel is the first-person narrative of Gales, who, like Ishmael, boasts in rich colloquial tones of never going to sea as an officer. Gales: "I second mate? No, sir. I was not mate on this can, not even bos'n. I was just a plain sailor. Deckhand you may say. You see, sir, to tell you the truth, full-fledged sailors aren't needed now" …; and Ishmael: "No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head." Both men engage the reader in a kind of dialogue. Gales's colloquial American English echoes that of his equally direct Yankee predecessor. Gales, like Ishmael, insists upon his rank, which separates him from much of the crew. (pp. 34-5)
Both Gales and Ishmael narrate stories which begin with a wild farce that contrasts sharply with the ensuing journey into blackness. In both, the comic beginnings may be a cover-up for the narrators' anxieties over their uncertain identities and roles. "Gales" may not have been the narrator's legal name, and Ishmael's real name is never revealed. Disguises are prominent in The Death Ship in which the entire crew signs on with aliases. On Traven's ship, as on Melville's Fidèle in The Confidence-Man, "rarely if ever did anybody reveal his real name"…. Disguises are a necessary defense against a society that shows its lack of charity in refusing to recognize its orphaned underdogs. Ishmael tells nothing of his family background except for an episode involving a punishing stepmother, and Gales seems strangely uncertain about his own mother…. (p. 35)
Wit, particularly phallic wit, serve both Ishmael and Gales as defenses and gestures of defiance…. [Gales] and Ishmael intend their hyperbole, gibes, and puns as rejections of the values of civilization. The ultimate defenses of these two orphans might be the very stories they tell in which the entire civilization is condemned to annihilation. Traven may have seen Moby-Dick as a fantasy of the type he himself was to write: a fantasy of a rejected outcast who avenges himself on society first by loosening his bonds to it, then by symbolically destroying it. (pp. 36-7)
That The Death Ship has a fresh and unique quality, despite its wealth of literary allusions, is due in large part to the original language Traven creates for Gales…. Just as the Yorikke has its own lingua franca, so Gales has his own idiom. (p. 38)
Gales's language is a weapon. The verbs "swallow," "plunge," "kick," "sock," and "spit" show him to be nearly choking with hostility…. Gales's personification of the death ship as "pest Yorikke" and his own suicidal impulses as the "beast" … reduces vague terrors to the level of the familiar. Gales's language is Traven's substitute for the active self that in Melville controls the direction of the voyage, if not its outcome. Like Ahab, Gales is "up again" after being knocked down. But while the captain can say "Naught's an angle to the iron way!", Gales can only tell himself: "Now back into your bunk." (p. 39)
Ultimately, the Yorikke is a symbol of the grim joke that death has become in Western civilization. In The Death Ship the greatest "Joke is on Death itself."
Although the novel deals with betrayal and flight, its tone is one of triumph. Gales survives against all odds; the coal-drag, having seen life from the bottom of the stokehold, is still undefeated: "I won't give up and I won't give in. Not yet. Not to the ground port" … Although Gales, despite his resolve, almost yields to his death wishes, the story itself, told in the "barbaric yawp of an underdog," expresses defiance and a will to live. A major theme of the novel is the disintegration of the ego, but the technique, with its fusing of literary allusions and colloquial narrative and its carefully modulated change from satire to expressionistic nightmare to sea fantasy, represents integration and control. (pp. 40-1)
In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927) Traven deals directly with the disintegrative effects of greed and fear on the individual psyche. For this modern exemplum on the text Radix Malorum, he employs the ancient theme of the three companions whose search for gold ends in death. The novel is also an exciting adventure narrative of the quest for fabled treasure in the wilderness of the Mexican Sierra Madre, as well as an acute psychological study of the paranoid breakdown of a personality. (p. 42)
The center of interest is in the psychological element, not … in the social commentary of a proletarian author. (p. 45)
In this sardonic tale, the three companions [Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard], in their differing attitudes toward gold, represent three aspects of personality. All are motivated by a desire for gold, for it represents freedom from constant need and an escape from their low status. But it is Howard who makes the crucial decisions of the search, and only he knows how to recognize the gold…. Howard represents a strong sense of self. Curtin, whose name suggests a shadowy presence, is less individually characterized than the other two men…. [He] is opposed to depriving another of the results of his labor. A spokesman for the dignity of labor and the rights of the worker, he speaks for the moral conscience; he tries to prevent Dobbs from stealing Howard's gold and is unable to murder Dobbs even when it is clear that if he does not, Dobbs will murder him. Dobbs lacks both Curtin's moral sense and Howard's sense of self. If Howard is the character we wish to emulate, Dobbs is the one we fear we might become. Dobbs represents more than the unrestrained lust for gold; he represents the forbidden wishes and impulses that we cannot think of without experiencing guilt and fearing punishment. (p. 49)
Traven may have written a modern exemplum analogous to Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale," but Traven's tale has another moral that is found in the epigraph:
The treasure which you think not worth taking trouble and pains to find, this one alone is the real treasure you are longing for all your life. The glittering treasure you are hunting for day and night lies buried on the other side of that hill yonder….
The "real treasure" is the self, to be found in a real goal such as healing the Indians. Perhaps Howard's adopting the profession of "medicine man" is an implausible ending, but it is a symbolic alternative to the perpetual hunt for illusory treasure. (p. 50)
The severe penalty paid by Dobbs is the loss of self. His beheading by the thieves is a punishment that fits the offense: he literally loses his head after having lost it from fear. Like Gales at the end of The Death Ship, Dobbs loses control over his actions and loses contact with reality; he becomes the victim of his fears…. The fear of disappearance or loss of self lies behind both the paranoid breakdown described in this book and the strange state of living death described in The Death Ship. (p. 51)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre may be characterized as an adventure narrative whose psychological depth distinguishes it from other books of the genre. The voice of the author is cool and sardonic, his narrative ironic and controlled. Although the unstable Dobbs is the focus of narration, there is none of the distortion of The Death Ship. Traven eschews the expressionism and literary allusions of that novel to suit the genre of pulp fiction which he is using quite consciously. (p. 59)
The first page of the novel illustrates Traven's method of narration, which alternates between glimpses into Dobbs's mind, comments by the author, and, later, extensive dialogue. Traven begins by commenting that "the bench on which Dobbs was sitting was not so good. One of the slats was broken; the one next to it was bent so that to have to sit on it was a sort of punishment"…. Dobbs, however, does not notice the condition of the bench, for he "was too much occupied with other thoughts to take any account of how he was sitting"…. The terse, ironic tone that pervades the author's comments and the protagonist's mind is suited perfectly to the action of the novel. (pp. 59-60)
Dobbs's disintegration, at least in the dramatic moments leading up the shooting of Curtin, is described for the most part in dialogue. The reader deduces Dobbs's paranoia from his words and his laughter, comparing his distorted interpretation of the events with Curtin's and Traven's relatively objective viewpoints. (p. 60)
In the absence of Curtin, the glimpses into Dobbs's mind necessarily become more frequent; his fears and continuing projections are now central to the book. These insights are deeper and more frequent in the short period of time elapsing between his encounter with the three thieves and his murder. Traven is building up the identification with the protagonist to intensify the shock of his death. (p. 61)
The … chapter [after Dobbs's murder] begins with a witty speculation of the minds of burros, again in Traven's terse, ironic tone: "Dogs often show a real interest in what men do, even when the men in question are not their masters. Dogs even like to meddle in the affairs of men. Burros are less interested in men's personal doings; they mind their own business. That's the reason why donkeys are thought to have a definite leaning toward philosophy"…. The tension arising from Dobbs's murder is thus reduced; the narrative voice directs attention to the murderer, the burros, the capture and execution of the thieves, and finally to Curtin and Howard. The narrative becomes objective again and the point of view is that of a detached and omniscient author. (p. 62)
When Howard says "gold is always very expensive, no matter how you get it or where you get it" …, he means that the price is paid not only in hard work but also in fear and possibly in death. Howard, having previously made and lost fortunes in gold, has always known that the goal is unattainable, that the "glittering treasure … lies buried on the other side of that hill yonder"…. Traven suggests that no amount of work can make gold valuable, any more than the alchemists could make precious metals out of dross. Only an irrational civilization values what is, paradoxically, false or fool's gold, and work aimed at amassing wealth is doomed to result in self-alienation. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre suggests that the lust for gold is a disguised death instinct, an archetypal theme that gives Traven's adventure story its universality. (p. 63)
The Bridge in the Jungle (1929), in which Gales [of The Death Ship] becomes involved with a primitive settlement of Mexican Indians, can be seen as another chapter in Traven's continuing fantasy of escape from Western civilization….
As in The Death Ship, Gales is the narrator, but he is observer rather than protagonist; that role falls to "inexorable fate" and to Señora Garcia, the bereaved mother of the little boy [drowned in a tropical river]. (p. 64)
The mother, conspicuously absent in the other novels, is here the central focus of the narrative. Yet through her symbolic presence Señora Garcia becomes more than a mere human being. The Bridge in the Jungle is the culmination of the major works of the motif of descent into the womb. The death ship Yorikke and the Mexican wilderness of the Sierra Madre, the womb symbols of the other works, are replaced by a more direct symbol—the mother herself. Since Carlos makes the journey rather than Gales himself, the latter's role is largely passive. Half of the book consists of Gales's close observation of the mother's fears and sorrows, and her reactions to the child's death. But Gales is more than an observer; he shares the intuitions and feelings of the primitive woman. (p. 66)
Gales's sense of isolation and susceptibility to "hallucinations" foreshadow the nearly uncontrollable fear he suffers during the climatic recovery of the body…. Traven emphasizes not the superstitiousness of the Indians, which Gales uses to justify his fears, but rather the fears themselves. Death by drowning, anonymous death, and betrayal are the obsessions of all of Traven's protagonists. The rising action of the book, leading to the discovery of the body, is directly related to the intensification of Gales's feelings about the boy. As the discovery of the body draws nearer, Gales's sense of guilt and fear of retribution are increasing. His reactions to it will determine whether he, like Dobbs, will yield to his paranoia and fall victim to "terror almost to madness." (p. 68)
Although Traven thought of The Bridge in the Jungle as his best novel, it is inferior to The Death Ship and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Since Gales plays a passive role in this drama, the psychological impact is lessened. Traven is at his best when the potential victim of his compulsive fears is his persona, Gales, or an alter ego such as Dobbs. The interest in the novel declines sharply after the body is found, because Gales has little left to do but comment on the natural grace, honesty, and decency of the Indian community. Traven himself may have thought of his novel primarily as a study of primitivism. (p. 74)
Traven makes it appear that Gales's catharsis comes at the same time as that of the community. If the novel were primarily a study of primitivism, the climax would be the funeral scene in which the sympathetic Westerner becomes a member of the community by mourning the death of one of its members. But The Bridge in the Jungle is of particular interest only when viewed in the context of Traven's obsession with identity and fear of disintegration. The true climax, then, comes halfway through the book with the recovery of the body and the reunion of the child with his mother. After that, Gales is a superfluous character; Traven may have found that he could best describe Indian life without a narrator, as he did later in the series of Jungle Novels. (pp. 77-8)
Government is a comic masterpiece which echoes the first book of The Death Ship. The bureaucratic society is moved to Mexico; expressionism with comic overtones is replaced by comic fantasy. The later novel is a satire on government in which all the laws are for the benefit of the Ladinos and to the detriment of the Indians. (pp. 94-5)
[Government] breaks all the accepted canons of novel writing: there is no focus on a central character, no sustained narrative line. It is a book without a protagonist, since Don Gabriel, far from determining the action, is only an agent of the system. The Indians here, unlike the protagonists of the other novels in the series, are anonymous; the people of Pebvil are the heroes. It is perhaps the absence of a sympathetic central character that creates the comic lack of affect which enables this book to succeed where the others in the series of Jungle Novels fail. In the other novels, Traven is outraged at the treatment of Andrés, Candido, Celso, and the other Indians uprooted from land and family. Yet he does not seem to feel close enough to his Indian protagonists to project himself and the reader into their psyches. When they have their revenge, the bloodshed and brutality become the focus of his interest. Without a character through whose mind the experiences can be filtered, that is, without a Gales or a Dobbs representing Traven himself, the brutal action fails to become psychological terror. Traven succeeds as a writer when the central character is his persona, as in The Death Ship; when that character represents some aspect of his personality, as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; or when, on the other hand, he is writing a comic fantasy in which there is no question of identification with the characters. (p. 95)
From The Death Ship to [the short story] "Macario," Traven's works display a fear of death and a pervasive anxiety which originate in this fear. They also reveal a deep-seated fear of betrayal, connected with paranoia and loss of identity. (p. 107)
Traven never quite solved the problem of form. The structures of his best books are adaptations from other writers. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an updating of Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale" combined with an adventure narrative. "Macario" also has an archetypal motif; the Grimm tale "Godfather Death," which is its source, has many analogues in folklore and myth. The Death Ship borrows theme and structure from Moby-Dick and the Inferno. Government is the one completely successful work in which Traven relies on his own invention to supply the structure; but since Government is a short novel centering around one important incident, the revolt of the Indians of Pebvil, the problem of form is not crucial. The rest of the Jungle Novels fail largely because they lack the form that would act as a restraint on Traven's political digressions and gratuitous violence. (p. 115)
Donald O. Chankin, in his Anonymity and Death: The Fiction of B. Traven (copyright © 1975 by The Pennsylvania State University), The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 1975.
The Death Ship is … an attack on two institutions: nationalism and capitalism. Nationalism creates boundary lines and confers citizenship on lucky middle-class people; but woe to the workingman who finds himself abroad in the early 1920s without the papers that establish his right to walk through foreign streets. If, like Gales, he should commit the additional crime of being penniless (because his ship has sailed away not only with his seaman's papers, but with the money due him), he will forfeit his very right to live—he will become a nameless being, a creature "without existence"…. As such, he is shunted across one European border after another, in the dark of night, by the minions of law and order, until he winds up, quite inevitably and as if by a law of mutual attraction, in the only refuge of stateless, homeless, and nameless men: in the limbo of a death ship. Here he finds a home at last among outcasts like himself; they are members of a crew that does not legally exist. The death ship itself is the embodiment of predatory capitalism, of the Moloch that feeds on helpless humans, that enslaves men, uses them up, and lets them die—with no one the wiser, nor anyone the sadder. (pp. 38-9)
The Death Ship's open, urgent, and still pertinent attack on nationalism and capitalism does not, however, make it a proletarian novel, if we use this term arbitrarily—there being no critical agreement on its meaning—to designate a novel that protests against the conditions that a capitalist society imposes on its workingmen. If Traven were a socialist or a communist there would be no question as to his position in the class struggle, but … he is neither, and he does not regard the worker's struggle as a class struggle…. Superficially at least, Traven's political orientation in The Death Ship is obvious and needs no exegesis. The author's continual and personal sense of outrage at justice betrayed is the impulse behind The Death Ship's attack on capitalism and nationalism, as it is the impulse behind all of Traven's writings. But there are aspects of the novel that are less obvious…. For beneath Traven's fury at institutions like nationalism and capitalism lies a tolerant attitude toward human weaknesses, a sympathy for erring man. There is an undercurrent in the book of acceptance of human beings as they are that runs counter to its protest against the conditions human beings have created. Things ought to be better, the book asserts accusingly; they won't be, it appears to reply, until human beings are better. And so its Promethean author continues to beat his heels against the rocks while the disparity between his desire for the betterment of the human lot—particularly the workingman's, the homeless stray's, the exploited underdog's—and his unconfessed recognition of that lot's very fixity vibrates inside the story and vitalizes its narrative drive. (pp. 39-40)
The author's sense of the human condition is manifested, first of all, in the seemingly inconsequential act that becomes fateful—and whose consequences are stoically accepted by the hero. (With Traven's Indians in later novels, this stoicism is a way of life.) Twice in the course of the novel Gales does something he need not do; twice he takes the initiative, becomes active instead of remaining passive; twice he makes a decision—really against his better judgment—and both times it turns out to have been the wrong decision, a decision that has totally unforeseen and terrible consequences. But after his initial disappointment, Gales wastes no more time regretting the actions that landed him in his predicament. (p. 40)
The irony is that both acts, leaving the Tuscaloosa and boarding the Yorikke, though unnecessary, are perfectly normal acts and would be, outside of a Traven novel, perfectly inconsequential. No ethical gravity attaches to them; they involve no one but Gales himself…. [In] a Traven novel, any act, even a morally neutral one, may lead to unforeseen events, because the world of Traven's novels is one of accidents that follow essentially innocent acts. In the end, of course, it may come to the same thing, namely, that the gods plague and even kill us for their sport, no matter how innocent we are…. [In] Traven the characters accept accidents as a matter of course, even if accidents mean the expulsion from Eden—with death imminent. (Gales has been in Eden on the Tuscaloosa, and he knows it. "What a ship the Tuscaloosa was!" he tells us on the first page…. [Gales's] impulse to leave the Tuscaloosa, at least for a stroll, is perfectly normal. Gales is, after all, only one of us. An ordinary person who happens to be an able-bodied seaman, with no particular ambitions and no unusual traits, he is not a man of extraordinary abilities or perceptions, and, though an articulate observer, no hero—not an Odysseus after all, Odyssey motifs in The Death Ship notwithstanding. (pp. 40-1)
The Death Ship, insofar as it is an exposé of two evils—the cynical practice of sending ships to the bottom of the sea for their insurance money and the unbelievably bad conditions that existed on some merchant ships in the early part of the twentieth century—may have been written with the intention of bringing about changes in the law…. But … The Death Ship is more than a protest novel, and although Gerard Gales is not a tragic hero, a tragic attitude is implicit in the book. Gales is not exclusively the victim of capitalist inhumanity; he is also … the victim of his own acts and of the impulses behind those acts…. What happens to Gales as a result of his being human is outside his control. If the world were a better place to live in than it is, his adventures would be more pleasant…. It is unjust, however, regardless of the economic system operating in it. An innocent act in a Traven novel would have unforeseen and terrible consequences under communism as well as under capitalism. For Traven, communism is as bad as capitalism, and it may be even worse. But if capitalism is bad for the workingman, Traven would appear to be asking in The Death Ship whether the workingman deserves a more beneficent system. For Traven is perfectly realistic about the workingman, and The Death Ship is filled with observations on his baseness and perfidy. (pp. 44-5)
Brotherly love and charity are what Traven misses in all white men; this is a theme that runs through the entire Traven canon. It is not stated as such in this novel, though one can hardly overlook it. Another unstated theme in Traven's works is one that forms part of his tragic view, for it explains why men will probably never be better off than they are now. It is the recognition of man's ability to get used to almost anything. Not only will human beings get used to almost any kind of hell, so long as they do not actually die there, but they will often come to like it. (pp. 46-7)
So far, then, two very diverse elements undermine the classification of The Death Ship as a proletarian novel of protest. They are, first, the fatefulness of innocent acts and, second, the fact that men become used to bad situations. Neither is caused by nationalism or capitalism, even if the fate of Gerard Gales is shaped by those two institutions, since Gales happens to be living in a world where nationalism and capitalism operate. A third item must be added to the list as well. Traven mentions it explicitly in The Death Ship, and it may be considered part of Traven's tragic out-look. It too is an aspect of human nature, which, for Traven, remains constant: it is the fact that men hope. (p. 50)
Traven is saying that the sailors of the Yorikke and, by logical extension, oppressed workers everywhere can always be their own masters, can always take their fate into their own hands by jumping overboard and committing suicide, if such a "fate" seems preferable to being "used" as slaves. If the sailors of the Yorikke hadn't "abandoned their souls," Traven further implies, they would have jumped overboard. It is an indictment of most of mankind, since most men prefer living on almost any terms to dying…. (p. 51)
What Traven is saying is that once the workingman sees that the odds are overwhelmingly against him and that he would probably lose his life in a struggle for his own rights (for that is what it boils down to), he would do better to take his own life instead, not only for his soul's sake, for his self's sake, for his dignity's sake, but in order to defeat the oppressor and exploiter, the imperator Capitalism. For if the worker did away with himself and thus removed himself from the scene, who would do the work? It would obviously never get done. Where, then, would capitalism be?
But since Traven evidently feels that the worker will do the work (and suffer), that he will neither do away with himself nor take up arms against the capitalist oppressor because he hopes—and because he gets used to his wretched lot and sometimes even comes to like it—Traven's protest against institutions is somewhat self-defeating. Or, to put it another way, Traven is protesting not merely institutions but immutable conditions, those that blind human beings and induce them to endure. Traven's protest is thus less against social injustice than against a higher form of injustice: it is a protest against the gods for making man what he is, a protest against man's own nature. And as such, it lifts The Death Ship out of the category of proletarian fiction. (pp. 51-2)
The Death Ship … while it does protest against institutions, protests more vehemently—and impotently—against the human condition itself. If the book protests against institutions with political passion, which, for Traven, is always personal, it protests against man's fate with what might be called humanist passion, which, for Traven, is equally personal. The distinction is not significant, but it should allow me to emphasize that, for Traven, the human being quite clearly comes before the political being. (pp. 56-7)
It is the state which anarchist Traven cannot accept because it stands in the way of freedom—because it stamps out freedom with it bureaucracy. Traven does not see the state as protecting the freedom of the individual to develop his own personality, his freedom to do the things he wants to do, to move about like an insect. For Traven, the state signifies the end of all such freedoms. Significantly, the protagonists of his early novels never see the state do anything for them. Nor does the state, or its embodiment, government, do anything for the enslaved, disenfranchised Mexican Indians of Traven's later novels. (p. 58)
Traven's anarchism, so far, is still fairly "classical": opposition to the state and disbelief in institutions and authority. Implicit in Traven's attack on the state is the conviction that in nature man is free. (p. 60)
Traven's white protagonists do tend to stay away from civilization (the question is hardly posed for his Mexican Indians) in order to remain outside society; they are loners either by choice (disgust with bourgeois society) of because society has cast them out—as it has cast Gales out. (p. 61)
There may be inconsistencies … in Traven's Land des Frühlings. This fascinating oddity of a book, bristling with opinions and ideas, presents a number of theses. One has to do with man's nature. Traven actually posits two natures: the white man's and the Indian's. The white man, according to Traven's thesis, is driven by ambition, greed, and lust for power, while the Indian is driven by a communal sense of feeling—Traven admits being unable to define this trait with enough precision for the white man to understand. The implication, however, is clear: the white man is bad, the Indian good. Rapprochement between the two is difficult, though their union may be desirable. In Land, Traven also rants against the individualism of the white man—it is individual ambition that drives him. But Traven seems to mean the individualism of free enterprise, the individualism that says I must have—and I shall take at the cost of the poor! (pp. 77-8)
In his fiction … Traven is astonishingly consistent, if not always in the logic of his philosophic position, at least in his emotional attitude. Toward the end of his life, Hal Croves expressed that sense of consistency. "See," he said to Judy Stone in 1966, "how, among all of Traven's books, there goes one thought like a red thread from the first line of his book to the last line of his last book."…
Traven's "one thought" might be formulated as follows: "No man should be coerced into being or doing anything against his will." For the fear of coercion, we know, is the primal instinct of the anarchist…. Traven's concern for the happiness of all and his wish to hurt no one is the red thread that runs through all of his books from first line to last. (pp. 78-9)
Traven habitually employed English and American expressions in his German prose. Yet 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. (p. 84)
Traven did not … have sufficient command of American English to write in that language. This is so obvious that one wonders how he could have deluded himself into trying. He tried … in several novels: The Death Ship (1934), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1935), The Bridge in the Jungle (1938), and March to the Monteria (1964). (p. 85)
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, or literal translations. The third kind predominates. (p. 86)
Traven, finally, is guilty of a fourth kind of malapropism in English: he structures sentences according to German syntax. One example should be enough to show what I mean: "Here nobody pushes down your throat your nationality." (p. 87)
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 of a novel like The Death Ship, from its narrative drive, or from its emotional impact. (p. 88)
We know today that Traven was not at all "unlettered"; as the author of Der Ziegelbrenner he was perfectly literate. As for his "expert literary technique," we must not forget that, as Ret Marut, he had already written a number of effective short stories and novellas…. [Traven] exhibits an easy, professional erudition, the kind of erudition we would expect a European journalist or intellectual to have. (p. 91)
Readers of The Death Ship must be struck by a singular dichotomy: the narrator Gerard Gales claims to be an uneducated American sailor, yet his prose is full of allusions to other writers, and he even quotes in Latin…. [Traven] attempts to confound author and narrator in the reader's mind. Since author and narrator are not one and the same, the attempt fails and Traven, at least in this respect, sounds false.
A novelist's education, particularly when his protagonist-narrator is supposedly uneducated, need not show. But Traven's education, however hard he may try to conceal it or pretend it doesn't exist, does show in The Death Ship, in allusions to other writers, in echoes of famous lines, even in Latin quotations. Yet the pretense itself is of interest, and it reveals itself best, I think, whenever Traven-Gales, in his pose as antihighbrow sailor, feels he must make a comment on the falsity of the culture produced for "opera-audiences, movie-goers, and magazine readers" who want "a happy ending"…. "The true story of the sea is anything but pleasant or romantic," Gales informs his readers, because he thinks—because Traven pretends to think with the mind of the uneducated sailor—that the reader has the wrong notion of what is "romantic." "All the romance of the sea … died long, long ago…. The life of the real heroes has always been cruel, made up of hard work…. Even the hairy apes are opera-singers looking for a piece of lingerie"…. This last is, of course, a reference to Yank, the "hairy ape" of O'Neill's play. It is, I think an unfair attack on the action of that play, or on its supposedly fake "romance."… To call the "hairy ape" an opera singer looking for a piece of lingerie is doing the grossest kind of injustice to O'Neill. In giving this line to an uneducated sailor, Traven is not speaking for himself, of course, but I think he misunderstands the sailor for whom he is speaking. (pp. 92-3)
Unless Traven wants to show an illiterate man reacts to a specific item of culture, the function of Gales's implicit attack on O'Neill's play in The Death Ship is not quite clear. For it reveals that Gales is not illiterate at all; he obviously reads serious literature. The attack on O'Neill also demonstrates Traven's continued interest in American writers, even if Traven can also put them down rather hard.
He puts a non-American writer down rather hard, too. "There is a chance, one in a hundred, maybe," Gales says at the beginning of the novel, "that at some time romance and adventure did exist for skippers, for mates, for engineers"…. This innuendo is surely aimed at Joseph Conrad—at his having written sea stories only about the elite. (pp. 93-4)
If Traven's pose as an "unlettered stoker and forecastle hand," to use Colcord's phrase, seems suspect on the face of it, it breaks down altogether when Traven-Gales makes explicit allusions to other authors. It is as if Traven himself felt guilty for making these allusions, for letting his erudition show, for allowing Gales to refer to writers that Traven suddenly remembers an illiterate worker surely has not read, so that he twists what Gales says before the words are out of Gales's mouth. Hence Gales says petty, negative things about O'Neill … such as an unlettered worker might say if he had accidentally read these authors—and if he happened also to be a little stupid. But the ruse itself, as I hope I have shown, doesn't work.
It doesn't work, needless to say, with the implicit allusions found in The Death Ship either. Authors explicitly referred to may demonstrate Traven's need to keep up—or catch up, if prolonged periods of travel or residence in the jungle outposts of Chiapas, for example, have kept him out of touch. O'Neill may have been a contemporary author Traven caught up with and subsequently introduced into the American version of The Death Ship in 1934, though The Hairy Ape had been published in 1922—four years before Das Totenschiff appeared in Germany. Authors explicitly referred to, at any rate, are less likely to have "influenced" Traven's own style or Traven's ideas than authors implicitly referred to or echoed in some of his lines, if only because Traven seems almost too conscious of the O'Neills and the Conrads when he refers to them. Explicit references, finally sound awkward even when they do not criticize. At one point Gales talks about "old man Faust" who knew "devils" "personally" and who therefore knew that they would need more "culture and civilization" than the Yorikke could provide…. The one "devil" who might need more culture and whom Faust knew "personally" is, of course, Mephistopheles. But to hear Mephistopheles referred to as "devils" and Faust as "old man Faust," as if both of these figures were comic strip characters a sailor might casually, banteringly mention to a buddy, sounds absurd.
But if the explicit allusions force us to take note of Traven's pose as an illiterate American sailor-workingman, the implicit allusions at least allow us to go along with that pose. The explicit allusions, particularly those meant to show the falsity of the "romance" associated with the sea in literature, make us conscious of Traven's pose, while the implicit allusions do not impel us to ask whether or not the author is also the narrator. We don't care whose the erudition is so long as it doesn't call attention to itself….
We don't worry about where he got his Latin—or how Dante or Blake can have slipped into this or that line—as long as the narrator doesn't awkwardly step out of his role by appearing to flaunt his learning. (pp. 95-6)
"When the last glimpse of Spain had been veiled from my eyes," says Gales in the American version of The Death Ship, after the Yorikke has left the harbor of Cadiz, "I felt that I had entered that big gate over which are written the solemn words: he who enters here will no longer have existence."…. Apparently this gate is in every reader's cultural domain. Is it the gate to Dante's hell? No, the gate turns out to be one we cannot really know, for it leads to the crew's quarters of the death ship Yorikke. The words above it are the beginning of a long inscription, but they do remind us of the words above the gate to Dante's hell. (pp. 96-7)
Perhaps it does not … matter whether we call Traven an American writer or a writer who exhibits certain American characteristics. The evidence is not yet conclusive: the similarities between his works and the works of … American writers … do not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that those writers "influenced" Traven. (p. 113)
[Traven] was a man possessed. One feels in Traven's Empörung, in his indignation, a "calling." And his calling seems once again to be peculiarly American, for it is really the fundamentalist's, the revivalist's calling….
Driven by the inner compulsion of the American fundamentalist to cry out the word, but refusing to be preacher or prophet—here lies the explanation of Traven's vocation as novelist. Perhaps the language question is related to the sense of a fundamentalist's calling: if the attraction to the word is deeply American in nature, how better to hide that Americanness (and hence deny the calling's religious quality) than by writing in a second language, German? (p. 114)
Michael L. Baumann, in his B. Traven: An Introduction (© 1976 by the University of New Mexico Press), University of New Mexico Press, 1976.