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B. Traven

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B. Traven
Ret Marut mug shot taken in London (1923); Marut is the most popular candidate for Traven's true identity.
Ret Marut mug shot taken in London (1923); Marut is the most popular candidate for Traven's true identity.
Notable works
ChildrenRosa Elena Montés de Oca Luján (economist), María Eugenia Montes de Oca Luján[1]

B. Traven (German: [ˈbeː ˈtʁaːvn̩]; Bruno Traven in some accounts) was the pen name of a novelist, presumed to be German, whose real name, nationality, date and place of birth and details of biography are all subject to dispute. It has been claimed that it wold be the pseudonym af one Frans Blom, an explorer of Mayan culture. One certainty about Traven's life is that he lived for years in Mexico, where the majority of his fiction is also set—including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), the film adaptation of which won three Academy Awards in 1949.


Virtually every detail of Traven's life has been disputed and hotly debated. There were many hypotheses on the true identity of B. Traven, some of them wildly fantastic. The other name most commonly identified with Traven is Ret Marut, a German stage actor and anarchist, who had edited an anarchist newspaper in Germany called Der Ziegelbrenner (The Brick Burner).[2][3] Traven's widow Rosa Elena Luján accepted that her husband and Marut were one and the same in a statement after his death in 1969.[4] Marut was a pseudonym and probably derived from Hindu mythology. His career as an actor and later pamphleteer has been traced from 1907 by Rolf Recknagel and in detail by Jan-Christophe Hauschild.[5][6]

Of all the names given for the author only one has ever been traceable to a documented birth. This was Hermann Albert Otto Maximilian Feige, born in Schwiebus in Brandenburg on 23 February 1882. This name and date was given by Marut to the British police in London in 1923 when arrested as an unregistered alien. [7]

Traven's novels and short stories became very popular as early as the interwar period and retained this popularity after the Second World War; they were also translated into many languages. Most of B. Traven's books were published in German first, with their English editions appearing later; nevertheless, the author always claimed that the English versions were the original ones and that the German versions were only their translations. This claim is mostly treated by Traven scholars as a diversion or a joke, although there are those who accept it.[8]


Vorwärts daily, in which B. Traven's first short story and his first novel were published (front page of the first issue of the newspaper from 1876)

The writer with the pen name B. Traven appeared on the German literary scene in 1925, when the Berlin daily Vorwärts, the organ of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, published the first short story signed with this pseudonym on February 28. Soon, it published Traven's first novel, Die Baumwollpflücker (The Cotton-Pickers), which appeared in installments in June and July of the same year. The expanded book edition was published in 1926 by the Berlin-based Buchmeister publishing house, which was owned by the left-leaning trade-unions-affiliated book sales club Büchergilde Gutenberg. The title of the first book edition was Der Wobbly, a common name for members of the anarcho-syndicalist trade union Industrial Workers of the World; in later editions the original title Die Baumwollpflücker was restored. In the book, Traven introduced for the first time the figure of Gerald Gales (in Traven's other works his name is Gale, or Gerard Gales), an American sailor who looks for a job in different occupations in Mexico, often consorting with suspicious characters and witnessing capitalistic exploitation, nevertheless not losing his will to fight and striving to draw joy from life.[9]

In the same year (1926), the book club Büchergilde Gutenberg, which was Traven's publishing house until 1939, published his second novel Das Totenschiff (The Death Ship). The main character of the novel is again Gerard Gales, a sailor who, having lost his documents, virtually forfeits his identity, the right to normal life and home country and, consequently, is forced to work as a stoker's helper in extremely difficult conditions on board a "death ship" (meaning a coffin ship), which sails on suspicious voyages around the European and African coasts. The novel is an accusation of the greed of capitalist employers and bureaucracy of officials who deport Gale from the countries where he is seeking refuge. In the light of findings of Traven's biographers, The Death Ship may be regarded as a novel with autobiographical elements. Assuming that B. Traven is identical with the revolutionary Ret Marut, there is a clear parallel between the fate of Gale and the life of the writer himself, devoid of his home country, who might have been forced to work in a boiler room of a steamer on a voyage from Europe to Mexico.[9][10]

Traven's best known novel, apart from The Death Ship, was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, published first in German in 1927 as Der Schatz der Sierra Madre. The action of the book is again set in Mexico, and its main characters are a group of American adventurers and gold seekers. In 1948 the book was filmed under the same title (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) by the Hollywood director John Huston. The film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston, was a great commercial success, and in 1949 it won three Academy Awards.[9]

The figure of Gerald Gales returned in Traven's next book, The Bridge in the Jungle (Die Brücke im Dschungel), which was serialized in Vorwärts in 1927 and published in an extended book form in 1929. In the novel, Traven first dealt in detail with the question of the First Nations in South and North America and the conflicting values and traditions between white settler cultures and indigenous cultures throughout the Americas; these themes detailing the problems of colonization dominated the Jungle Novels published in the 1930s.[9][10]

The 1930s are mainly the period in which Traven wrote and published the so-called Jungle Novels – a series of six novels consisting of The Carreta (Der Karren, 1931), Government (Regierung, 1931), March to the Monteria (Der Marsch ins Reich der Caoba, 1933), Trozas (Die Troza, 1936), The Rebellion of the Hanged (Die Rebellion der Gehenkten, 1936), and General from the Jungle (Ein General kommt aus dem Dschungel, with a Swedish translation published in 1939 and the German original in 1940). The novels describe the life of indigenous Mexicans in the state of Chiapas in the early 20th century who are forced to work under inhumane conditions at clearing mahogany in labour camps (monterias) in the jungle; the working and living conditions lead to a rebellion and the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.[9][10]

Traven's last novel, published in 1960, was Aslan Norval, the story of an American millionairess who is married to an aging businessman and at the same time in love with a young man; she intends to build a canal running across the United States as an alternative for the nuclear arms race and space exploration programs. The subject and the language of the novel, which were completely different from the writer's other works, resulted in its rejection for a long time by publishers who doubted Traven's authorship; the novel was accused of being "trivial" and "pornographic". The book was only accepted after its thorough stylistic editing by Johannes Schönherr who adapted its language to the "Traven style". Doubts about Aslan Norval remain and exacerbate the problems of the writer's identity and the true authorship of his books.[9][11]

Apart from his twelve novels, B. Traven also authored many short stories, some of which remain unpublished. Besides the already mentioned Macario, the writer adapted the Mexican legend about The Creation of the Sun and the Moon (Sonnen-Schöpfung, with a Czech translation published in 1934 and the German original in 1936). The first collection of Traven's short stories, entitled Der Busch, appeared in 1928; its second, enlarged edition was published in 1930. From the 1940s onwards many of his short stories also appeared in magazines and anthologies in different languages.[9]


B. Traven's major writings are classified as adventure novels[12] with proletarian themes.[13][14]

Instead, an anarchist element of rebellion often lies at the centre of the novel's action. The hero's rejection of his degrading living conditions frequently serves as motive and broad emphasis is placed upon the efforts of the oppressed to liberate themselves. Apart from that, there are virtually no political programmes in Traven's books; his clearest manifesto may be the general anarchist demand "¡Tierra y Libertad!" in the Jungle Novels. Professional politicians, including ones who sympathize with the left, are usually shown in a negative light, if shown at all. Despite this, Traven's books are par excellence political works. Although the author does not offer any positive programme, he always indicates the cause of suffering of his heroes. This source of suffering, deprivation, poverty and death is for him capitalism, personified in the deliberations of the hero of The Death Ship as Caesar Augustus Capitalismus.[15]

In his presentation of oppression and exploitation, Traven did not limit himself to the criticism of capitalism; in the centre of his interest there were rather racial persecutions of Mexican Indians. These motifs, which are mainly visible in the Jungle Novels, were a complete novelty in the 1930s. Most leftist intellectuals, despite their negative attitude to European and American imperialism, did not know about or were not interested in persecution of natives in Africa, Asia or South America. It has been argued that Traven deserves credit for drawing public attention to these questions, long before anti-colonial movements and struggle for civil rights of black people in the United States.[10]


Supposed portrait of B. Traven (Traven Torsvan, 1926)

Traven submitted his works himself or through his representatives for publication from Mexico to Europe by post and gave a Mexican post office box as his return address. The copyright holder named in his books was "B. Traven, Tamaulipas, Mexico". Neither the European nor the American publishers of the writer ever met him personally or, at least, the people with whom they negotiated the publication and later also the filming of his books always maintained they were only Traven's literary agents; the identity of the writer himself was to be kept secret. This reluctance to offer any biographical information was explained by B. Traven in words which were to become one of his best-known quotations: "The creative person should have no other biography than his works."[16][17]

The non-vanity and non-ambition claimed by Traven was no humble gesture, Jan-Christoph Hauschild writes:

By deleting his former names Feige and Marut, he extinguished his hitherto existences and created a new one, including a suitable story of personal descent. Traven knew that values like credibility and authenticity were effective criteria in the literary matters he dealt with and that he needed to consider them. Above all, his performance was self-fulfilment, and after that the creation of an artist. Even as Ret Marut he played parts on stage but also in the stalls and in real life, so he equipped and coloured them with adequate and fascinating stories of personal descent till they became a spleeny mixture of self-discovery, self-invention, performance and masquerade. It seems indisputable that Traven's hide-and-seek manners became progressively obsessive; although we have to consider that self-presentation is irrevocable. This turned into a trap because he was no longer able to expose his true vita without appearing as a show-off.[18]

The German Brockhaus Enzyklopädie devoted an article to him as early as 1934.[19]

List of works[edit]

Federico Canessi at work on a bust of B. Traven in 1929 in Mexico City
Artist Federico Canessi at work on a bust of B. Traven in 1929 in Mexico City

Stand-alone works[edit]

  • The Cotton-Pickers (1926; retitled from The Wobbly) ISBN 1-56663-075-4
  • The 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 pub 1979) ISBN 0-85031-370-8
  • The Night Visitor and Other Stories (English pub. 1967) ISBN 1-56663-039-8[20]
  • The Bridge in the Jungle (1929; first English pub. 1938) ISBN 1-56663-063-0
  • Land des Frühlings (1928) – travel book – untranslated
  • Aslan Norval (1960) ISBN 978-3-257-05016-5[21] (English translation published as ebook 2020 ISBN 9780374722135)
  • Stories by the Man Nobody Knows (1961)
  • The Kidnapped Saint and Other Stories (1975)
  • The Creation of the Sun and the Moon (1968)

The Jungle Novels[edit]

Collected stories[edit]

  • Canasta de cuentos mexicanos (or Canasta of Mexican Stories, 1956, Mexico City, translated from the English by Rosa Elena Luján) ISBN 968-403-320-6

Films based on works[edit]

Notable illustrations of works[edit]

  • Dödsskeppet (The Death Ship), Atlantis, Stockholm 1978, and Het dodenschip, Meulenhoff, Amsterdam 1978. Inkdrawings by the Swedish artist Torsten Billman. Unpublished in English.

Works by Ret Marut[edit]



  1. ^ Interview with Rosa Elena Montes de Oca Luján (published Dec 11, 2019, retrieved Aug 9, 2022)
  2. ^ James Goldwasser (1993), "Ret Marut: the Early B. Traven" in The Germanic Review, Volume 63, 1993 – Issue 3, reprinted Libcom.org https://libcom.org/history/ret-marut-early-b-traven-james-goldwasser
  3. ^ Jesse Pearson (2009) "The Mystery Of B. Traven", Vice.com, accessed January 25, 2017.
  4. ^ Novedades de México, 25 March 1969
  5. ^ "Guide to the Ret Marut and Der Ziegelbrenner collection". www.oac.cdlib.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  6. ^ Traven, B.; Marut, Ret (January 1976). Der Ziegelbrenner (in German). Berlin: Guhl Klaus. ISBN 9783882200003.
  7. ^ BBC documentary film B.Traven:A Mystery Solved 1978 and The Man Who Was B.Traven by Will Wyatt. J.Cape 1980
  8. ^ Baumann, Michael L. (1987). "The Question of Idioms in B. Traven's Writings". The German Quarterly. 60 (2): 171–192. doi:10.2307/407249. JSTOR 407249.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g "B. Traven's works". Archived from the original on August 19, 2010. Retrieved July 10, 2010.
  10. ^ a b c d Rolf Cantzen. "Die Revolution findet im Roman statt. Der politische Schriftsteller B. Traven (SWR Radio broadcast and its transcript)". Archived from the original on December 21, 2009. Retrieved July 10, 2010.
  11. ^ "Lexikon der Anarchie". Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved July 10, 2010.
  12. ^ Schürer & Jenkins 1987, p. 83.
  13. ^ Guthke 1991, p. 71.
  14. ^ Kley, Martin (2012). "Mexico and Weimar's Anti-Authoritarian Socialist Imagination: Storytelling, Working, and 'Unworking' in B. Traven". Modern Language Studies. 41 (2): 16. ISSN 0047-7729. JSTOR 41445163.
  15. ^ B. Traven, The Death Ship, p. 119, quoted from: Richard E. Mezo, A study of B. Traven's fiction: the journey to Solipaz, Mellen Research University Press, San Francisco, 1993, p. 20.
  16. ^ "B. Traven's works". Archived from the original on August 19, 2010. Retrieved July 10, 2010.
  17. ^ The writer also expressed this thought in another famous quotation: "If one cannot get to know the human through his works, then either the human is worthless, or his works are worthless." (Wenn der Mensch in seinen Werken nicht zu erkennen ist, dann ist entweder der Mensch nichts wert oder seine Werke sind nichts wert.) Quotation from: Günter Dammann (ed.), B. Travens Erzählwerk in der Konstellation von Sprache und Kulturen, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2005, p. 311.
  18. ^ Jan-Christoph Hauschild, B. Traven – die unbekannten Jahre, Zürich: Edition Voldemeer, 2012.
  19. ^ Helen, Tapio. "B. Traven's Identity Revisited". Archived from the original on December 5, 2011. Retrieved January 18, 2008.
  20. ^ "Review of LE VISITEUR DU SOIR". Revue des Deux Mondes (1829-1971): 320. 1967. ISSN 0035-1962. JSTOR 44593294.
  21. ^ Jannach, Hubert (1961). "Review of Aslan Norval". Books Abroad. 35 (1): 59. doi:10.2307/40115388. ISSN 0006-7431. JSTOR 40115388.


  • Baumann, Michael L. B. Traven: An introduction, ISBN 978-0-8263-0409-4
  • Baumann, Michael L. Mr. Traven, I Presume?, AuthorHouse, online 1997, ISBN 1-58500-141-4
  • Chankin, Donald O. Anonymity and Death: The Fiction of B. Traven, ISBN 978-0-271-01190-5
  • Czechanowsky, Thorsten. '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.
  • Czechanowsky, Thorsten. Die Irrfahrt als Grenzerfahrung. Überlegungen zur Metaphorik der Grenze in B. Travens Roman 'Das Totenschiff' in: mauerschau 1/2008, pp. 47–58.
  • Dammann, Günter (ed.), B. Travens Erzählwerk in der Konstellation von Sprache und Kulturen, Würzburg, Königshausen & Neumann, 2005; ISBN 3-8260-3080-X
  • Giacopini, Vittorio. L'arte dell'inganno, Fandango libri 2001 (in Italian) ISBN 978-88-6044-191-1
  • Guthke, Karl Siegfried (1991). B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends. Translation of: B. Traven. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. ISBN 978-1-55652-132-4. OCLC 22906396.
  • Guthke, Karl S. B. Traven. Biografie eines Rätsels, Frankfurt am Main, Büchergilde Gutenberg, 1987, ISBN 3-7632-3268-0
  • Guthke, Karl S. "Das Geheimnis um B. Traven entdeckt" – und rätselvoller denn je, Frankfurt am Main, Büchergilde Gutenberg, 1984, ISBN 3-7632-2877-2
  • Hauschild, Jan-Christoph: B. Traven – Die unbekannten Jahre. Edition Voldemeer, Zürich / Springer, Wien, New York 2012, ISBN 978-3-7091-1154-3.
  • Hauschild, Jan-Christof: Das Phantom: Die fünf Leben des B. Traven. Edition Tiamat 2018
  • Heidemann, Gerd. Postlagernd Tampico. Die abenteuerliche Suche nach B. Traven, München, Blanvalet, 1977, ISBN 3-7645-0591-5
  • Mezo, Richar Eugene. A study of B. Traven's fiction – the journey to Solipaz, San Francisco, Mellen Research University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-7734-9838-9
  • Pateman, Roy. The Man Nobody Knows: The Life and Legacy of B. Traven, 2005, ISBN 978-0-7618-2973-7
  • Raskin, Jonah, My Search for B. Traven, ISBN 978-0-416-00741-1
  • Recknagel, Rolf. B. Traven. Beiträge zur Biografie, Köln, Röderberg Verlag, 1991, ISBN 978-3-87682-478-9
  • Schürer, Ernst; Jenkins, Philip (1987). B. Traven: Life and Work. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 978-0-271-00382-5.
  • Stone, Judy, The Mystery of B. Traven, ISBN 978-0-595-19729-3.
  • 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
  • Wyatt, Will. The Secret of the Sierra Madre: The Man who was B. Traven, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985, ISBN 978-0-15-679999-7

External links[edit]