(dates unknown, possibly 1890-1969) was the nom de plume
of an enigmatic Twentieth Century novelist
whose most famous work is the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
by John Huston
. 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
His identity is the subject of much speculation. There is important evidence that B. Traven was an individual variously known for different period of his life as Hal Croves, Traven Torsvan and Ret Marut. No one theory of his origins has received general acceptance; one theory is that he was born in Chicago in 1890, name unknown, another that he was born in 1882, a member of the German working-class called Otto Feige.
The works of B. Traven started to appear in print in February 1925 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 further major works, The Death Ship
and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
as well as several short stories, all of which were to appear in print later in the decade. In the 1930’s the six Jungle novels appeared, establishing B. Traven’s reputation as a champion of Indian rights in the face of capitalistic exploitation in Southern Mexico. By 1939, B. Traven’s output 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 turned down by several publishers on the basis that it did not read like B. Traven.
Originally, all of these works appeared in German, albeit a form of German that include a great many usages seemingly of American English origin. In 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 which required a lot of work to render them in acceptable English. 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 in 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 organised 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, initially called The Wobbly, the title meaning 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
Set immediately after World War I
, The Death Ship describes the predicament of a merchant seaman who lacks documentation of citizenship and cannot find legal residence or employment in any nation.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
A novel in which two American down-and-outs in 1920s Mexico join with an aged prospector and discover a rich source of gold; the novel explores the way in which greed corrodes their relations.
The book was successfully adapted into a film by John Huston in 1948.
The Jungle Novels
The Jungle Novels appeared in the 1930s and consist of Government
, The Carreta
, March to the Monteria
, The Rebellion of the Hanged
, and The General from the Jungle
. These texts deal with the development of the social forces that eventually lead to the outbreak of 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 his time and the failures of the Revolution to alter the continued poverty of its peasants and workers.
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 come forward and publicly claimed to be B. Traven, hence the widespread assumption that this was an alias designed to preserve his anonymity. 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, and who is responsible for the works of B. Traven.
The person most associated with Traven is his supposed agent, Hal Croves, whose story seemingly begins with the filming of Treasure of Sierra Madre
in 1947 which he attended, ostensibly as B. Traven’s representative. Director John Huston
showed particular interest in this individual, and believed it possible he may have been B. Traven himself. Croves disappeared after the filming, making it impossible to obtain further information.
In the early 1950’s Hal Croves reappeared, living in Mexico City, and even giving occasional interviews. He had travelled widely in Mexico, his archive containing records of numerous trips. People who knew Croves say that he had a German accent, which is substantiated by a recording of his voice.
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. 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 being 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.
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, in which she reiterated her conviction, based on many conversations, that her late husband was B. Traven.
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, photos of the two individuals corresponded closely, so it seems very likely they were the same person.
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.
Meanwhile, B. Traven communicated through correspondence with his literary managers, who themselves published newsletters, essentially designed to generate interest on the books. Via this source an official biography emerged which stated that Traven was a mid-West American, born around 1900 who has 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.
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 political figure going by the name of Ret Marut. This identification had been first suggested in the 1920s by Erich Mühsam
, a revolutionary leader in Munich
. 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 underground 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 soon escaped and sent a postcard to his old comrades stating that he had left Germany for good. He eventually left England in 1924 working as fireman on a ship, like the hero of The Death Ship, and then disappears from history.
A broad consensus has developed identifying Croves,Torsvan and Marut as one and the same person who is also B. Traven (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.
- 1948 – Disappeared following publicity
- 1952 – Emerged as Hal Croves 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.
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 Americanism that appear in the German texts. According to this theory he would have travelled to Germany as a teenager for reasons unknown.
Otto Feige theory
In 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. 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 Swiebodzin.The evidence Marut had provided to the UK authorities – names, occupations etc. - tallied exactly with the facts of the family background of Otto Feige.
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. 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.
A key item of supporting evidence was a line-up of four photographs of Croves in all his supposed identities. This theory had the appeal of providing a mostly continuous narrative for the life of B. Traven without overlapping periods between the various identities.
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 definitely proved his case and that it is possible that Marut could simply have borrowed Feige’s identity.
Concerns and other theories
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 in 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 dried up 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 originally written 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?
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.
This theory, often referred to as the Erlebnisträger (experience-carrier) theory, was first proposed in 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.
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).
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.
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, largely without evidence. These include:
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
- 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
- B. Traven. A Mystery Solved, Will Wyatt and Robert Robinson. One hour long 1979 documentary, freely available on the internet; provides a wealth of material on the identity issue.
- B. Traven, from Books and Writers
- B. Traven, from the Anarchist Encyclopedia
- B. Traven, biography with pictures from libcom.org
- His Widow Reveals Much Of Who B. Traven Really Was The New York Times, June 25, 1990, p. C13
- B. Traven's Identity Revisited Detailed article by Tapio Helen
- The B. Traven website
- The University of California Riverside Libraries are home to extensive collections (over 500 cataloged titles) of works by and about B. Traven Search the libraries' catalog, as well as the world's largest publicly accessible B. Traven archives. The archives contain unique unpublished materials, correspondence, and documents pertaining to both Ret Marut and B. Traven. An online exhibition The B. Traven Collections at UC Riverside Libraries was created in 2007 to highlight some of these collections.