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|B. Traven (1882?-1969) - names associated with Traven: Ret Marut, Hal Croves, Traven Torsvan, Bruno Traven, Arnold, Barker, Feige, Kraus, Lainger, Wienecke and Ziegelbrenner - Traven Torsvan, born in Chicago on May 3, 1890 - Hermann Albert Otto Maximilian Feige? - birth date perhaps February 23, 1882?, in some sources May 3, 1890 and March 5, 1890|
B. Traven is one of the most mysterious figures in the 20th-century literature. His exact identity is still subject to much doubt. Although Traven claimed to be an American, his most important works were first published in Germany during the 1920's and 1930's, before some of them appeared in translation in England. Nothing definitive is known about Traven's origin. However, Traven's novels have been translated into more than 30 languages, sold more than 25 million copies, and they have been required reading in Mexican schools.
"Dobbs had nothing. It may safely be said that he had less than nothing, for he was not even adequately or completely clothed, and clothing, to those in need, is a modest start toward capital." (from The Treasure of Sierra Madre, 1927)
Some investigators believe that B. Traven was the pen name of Otto Feige, the son of a German pottery worker from Schwiebus (now Swiebodzin, Poland), who traveled widely and worked variously as a manual laborer, actor, and the editor of an anarchist journal. He was also rumored to be the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Traven's widow revealed already in 1969 that he had been Ret Marut, a left-wing revolutionary in Germany during World War I. According to one theory, Traven was born Traven Torsvan in Chicago on May 3, 1890, of Norwegian-English parentage, spent his youth in Germany, and settled in Mexico in the 1920's. And it has been suggested, that Traven was a pseudonym adopted by Jack London or Ambrose Bierce or Adolfo Lopez Mateos, a former President of Mexico.
In his study The Secret of Sierra Madre (1980) Will Wyatt argues, that Traven was born in 1882 in Schwiebus, Pomerania, and christened Herman Albert Otto Maximilian Wienecke. He was the illegitimate son of Hormina Wienecke and Adolf Rudolf Feige. After his parents married Traven became Otto Feige. In 1896 he was apprenticed to a locksmith and in 1902-04 he served in the army. In about 1904 Feige disappeared.
Karl S. Guthke has presented in his work B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends (1991) some evidence, that between the years 1904 and 1907 Traven could have been a seaman. In 1907 a young actor and director joined the Essen Municipal Theatre under the name Ret Marut, which sounds like a pseudonym – and this person became Traven. Ret Marut played in various theatres and in 1915 he went to Munich to start his career as a writer. He lived in an apartment house at 84 Clemens Strasse, where he had his manuscripts and favorite books (many in English) scattered around the room.
In 1916 Marut published a novella, To the Honourable Miss S..., and started to write for the anarchist-pacifist magazine Der Ziegelbrenner (The Brickburner). His collaborator was Irene Mermet. Marut was very secretive about his past, "not even his girl friend [Mermet] was said to have been told." (Mina C. and H. Arthur Klein in The Kidnapped Saint & Other Stories, 1975) Der Ziegelbrenner appeared between 1917 and 1922. Marut attacked in it the military, capitalism, Jewish newspaper owners, but also wrote admiringly about Gustav Landauer, an anarchist and a Jew.
Marut was possibly involved in the uprising in Munich in 1919 which led to that city's short-lived Räterepublik. Landauer was murdered by soldiers, and on May 1 of that year White Guard soldiers, according to Marut's own later account in Der Ziegelbrenner, arrested him. He escaped before he became the victim of summarily executions. Between 1915 and 1924 he tried in vain to obtain American papers, and in 1923 Marut escaped to England, where he stayed for some time.
On Mexican Government immigration documents dating to the 1930's, Traven claimed to have entered Mexico for the first time at Ciudad Juarez in 1914. After arriving in Mexico, Traven spent in his new home country for the bulk of his remaining years. First he settled in the oil town of Tampico, writing letters to German publishers, and publishing stories under the name B. Traven. His earliest texts under the name of Traven came out in 1925. Irene Mermet, whom he had met in Germany, assisted him with the manuscripts for some years. Later Mermet married an American lawyer.
"I am freer than anybody else. I am free to choose the parents I want, the country I want, the age I want." (Traven according to Mrs Lujan, New York Times, June 25, 1990)
Traven sent from Mexico manuscripts to German periodicals Das Totenschiff (The Death Ship), which was published in 1926, was an immediate success. According to a story, Albert Einstein named it as the book he would take with him to a desert island. The protagonist is an American sailor, Gerard Gales, who is stranded in Antwerp, Belgium, in the 1920s. He has no identity papers and is kicked from country to country by the authorities. Finally he ends up shoveling coal in hellish conditions on the Yorikke, a gunrunner destined to go to the bottom of the sea for insurance money. In Africa Gales and Stanislav, his fellow coal stoker, leave Yorikke but find themselves aboard the Empress of Madagascar, heading for a shipwreck. Gales appeared also in Der Wobbly (1926, The Cotton Pickers) and Die Brücke im Dschungel (1928, The Bridge in the Jungle), which all have autobiographical feel. The name of the American adventurer comes close to Linn A.E. Gale, the editor of Gale's International Monhtly for Revolutionary Communism. When IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) started its activities in Mexico in 1918, Gale became one of its leading figures. The Galen-Traven character feels solidarity with the poor and exploited, but he is also an outsider, who is disillusioned with civilization.
The Death Ship was followed by Der Schatz der Sierra Madre (1927, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Der Busch (1928), and Die Weisse Rose (1929, The White Rose). Traven wrote about serious issues of social justice, cruelty, and greed while employing a taut, suspenseful style. His early works,n written mainly for a German audience, dealt with tramps either looking for work or having found it temporarily, and in this process being caught in a worldwide exploitative system. In Regierung (1931, Government), a depiction of political corruption and the exploitation of the poor, Traven showed how a brutal regime works, but also gave information of rural Mexico. The book was part of a cycle of novels about the Mexican revolution of 1910-12. Historian Heidi Zogbaum has argued that this tale was intended for German readership during the rise of Nazims, to show the possibilities of grassroot activism.
"In spite of their sufferings and humiliations, they nevertheless had within themselves a glimmering of an understanding as to their bitter situation. Seeing the birds of the jungle, and even the millions of insects which all, in freedom and joy of living, came and went at will, they never lost the sense of a longing for freedom." (from General from the Jungle, 1940, translated by Desmond Vesey)
Traven's stories spread in many languages, although they were not translated before the 1930's into English, which he insisted was his native tongue. In the United States, he had a small but avid readership. It is said, that Traven himself spoke eight languages. He used English words and syntax in the German texts, but he was also familiar with American mainstream writers. Some critics have concluded, that Marut, who did not know English well, translated into German manuscripts originally written by an American in English, and added his own philosophy in the text. For these critics, Traven's works are thus the product of a collaboration. But then – what happened to the unknown American?
Michael L. Baumann presented in Mr. Traven, I Presume? (1997) the most plausible theory of the writer behind Traven's books. According to Baumann, who was a B. Traven scholar for more than 30 years and a emeritus professor of American Literature, Marut-Torsvan-Croves was not the creator of the original B. Traven manuscripts. Baumann contrasts the bitter and anti-Semitic tones in Marut's texts to Traven's humanism and a sense of humor, points out that Ret Marut had two handwritings, European and American, and Traven's books published in Germany are full of American expressions. The conclusion is that Traven was "most certainly American, to judge by his language alone and the hundreds of Americanisms that appear in the German Traven texts, either untranslated, badly translated, or transliterated." But who was this mysterious person? Baumann didn't give a definitive answer but some candidates, among them the person behind Mr. Sleight, a central character from The Bridge in the Jungle (1938). Another path leads to Marut's own relatives and Albert Otto Max Wienecke, an alias Marut had used – Wienecke could be his cousin.
In Mexico Traven labored at many jobs. It is said, that he studied Mayan arhaeology and knew Edward Weston, who worked in Mexico from 1922 to 1926. In 1930 Traven moved into a small house, El Parque Cachu, outside Acapulco, where he lived for twenty-five years. Esperanza Lopez Mateos, whose brother Adolfo was later to become president of Mexico, was his agent, translator, and secretary. She committed suicide in 1931.
Due to Traven's political beliefs, his works were banned in Nazi Germany. Traven saw himself not so much as a novelist but as an agitator. When he agreed to let his books to be published in the USA, he stipulated that they should be advertised only in "liberal" weeklies. Between the years 1931 and 1940 he published six interrelated novels of the Mahogany or jungle cycle, starting from Der Karren (The Carreta). The series forms an epic history of the events in southern Mexico, leading up to the revolution of 1910. From the mid-1930's, Traven's books were translated into English, but it was not until 1948 when he gained fame with the John Huston's film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927) "I know what gold does to men's souls." The bitter fable is set in Mexico. Three down-and-out Americans, Fred C. Dobbs, old Howard, and young Curtin, find gold dust from the mountain. They carry it down but during the journey these more or less decent human beings are transformed into jackals by greed and machismo. Dobbs escapes with all the gold but is ambushed by thieves and killed. The thieves, believing that Dobbs was carrying only sand with him, let the gold dust blow away. In the film version Humphrey Bogart had one of his finest roles as Fred C. Dobbs, a loser who becomes increasingly paranoid that his partners want to kill him and steal his gold. As a study of greed, the picture ranks behind only Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1925). John Huston won Oscars for his direction and his script adaptation of Traven's novel. Walter Huston in the role of an old prospector, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The famous title of the book (and the film) has been used in many connections. In Finland, where the state budget showed luckily some surplus in 2000, the prime minister Paavo Lipponen commented that it has become to some people like a 'Treasure of Sierra Madre' which should be shared as soon as possible.
Huston met Hal Croves in Mexico City. He had sent a copy of the script to Traven, and arranged a meeting with him. Traven did not show up. A week later Croves appeared – "a small, thin man with a long nose" – with a letter, in which Traven explained that he was ill and unable to come, but Croves could answer all questions. "Croves had a slight accent. It didn't sound German to me, but certainly European. I thought he might very well be Traven, but out of delicacy I didn't ask. On the other hand, Croves gave an impression quite unlike the one I had formed of Traven from reading his scripts and correspondence. Croves was very tight and guarded in his manner of speaking. He was nothing at all as I had imagined Traven, and after two meetings I decided that this surely was not he." (John Huston in An Open Book, 1981)
After 1940 Traven wrote little. In the mid-1950's, Traven acquired a Mexican passport under the name Traven Torsvan, born in Chicago on May 3, 1890. Since 1934, Torsvan had possesed a safe deposit box in a bank in Mexico City. The Mexican novelist Luis Spota claimed that Traven was Berick Traven Torsvan, and tracked him down to his home in Acapulco. Traven / Torsvan claimed that the real Traven was in a sanatorium in Switzwerland.
In 1957 Traven married in his translator Rosa Elena Luján, who was some 30 years his junior and had two daughters from her first marriage. According to one source, she had first met him at a party for the violinist Jascha Heifetz in the 1930s. Luján has said, that she met Traven through some archeologist friends. A decade later Lujan was hired to help him translate a movie script into Spanish.
In Mexico City Traven lived in the Calle Mississippi. He had a three-story house, where me met a fairly wide circle of friends. The third floor was strictly prohibited to everyone. There Traven had his studio, library, and bedroom. "He is the only writer I have met who never mentioned the miseries and discontents of the writer's life," recalled the Traven expert William Weber Johnson in The Los Angeles Times after Traven's death. "He was a sentimentalist about animals and continually fed his two dogs. a white poodle named Gigi and a lovable mongrel named Tabasco, from his own plate at the table." Traven at wrote night and drank in the afternoon. "He would mix everything and it never went to his head," has Luján said. "Even that last day, the day that he died, he had taken some beer." Traven's favorite writers included Halldór Kiljan Laxness, an Icelandic Nobel prize winning author. Both Laxness and the Swedish Nobel laureate Eyvind Johnson were admirers of Traven.
Traven died on March 26, 1969 in Mexico City. His ashes were flown to Chipas and scattered over Río Jataté. Traven's will stated that he was Traven Torsvan Croves, born in Chicago in 1890 and naturalized as a Mexican citizen in 1951. However, Traven's widow, Mrs. Luján, stated in an interview: ''He told me that once he died, I could say that he had been Ret Marut, but not before. He was afraid he would be extradited. So I always had to lie, because I had to save my husband.'' (The New York Times, June 25, 1990)