The Mystery Of B. Traven

B. Traven is the most shadowy figure in the history of literature. Though there are hordes of Traven theorists and stacks of books written about him, there is still no consensus on his real name, his birthplace, or his exact history.

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Dec 2 2009, 12:00am

Interview By Jesse Pearson





B. Traven is the most shadowy figure in the history of literature. We know only a few things about him for sure: that he wrote great novels like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Death Ship; that he lived, at least for a time, and died in Mexico; and that he was a politically engaged writer who cared deeply about working and common people. We’re also pretty sure he was really one of three guys: Ret Marut, Traven Torsvan, or Hal Croves. But we can’t be sure which, or when, or how. Pretty intriguing, right? If you read Roberto Bolaño’s brilliant posthumous book 2666 last year, you are probably sensing shades of Benno Archimboldi, that book’s reclusive-German-writer-who-ended-up-in-Mexico. We’re willing to bet our first-edition copy of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that Bolaño had B. Traven in mind when he created that character.


Whoever he really was, B. Traven was also a man who utterly shunned public attention. Though there are hordes of Traven theorists and stacks of books written about him, there is still no consensus on his real name, his birthplace, or his exact history. He was kind of like a ghost who wrote books.

A recent exhibition at the University of California, Riverside, shed more light on Traven and the Traven myth than ever had been done at one time before. We spoke with the exhibit’s curator, Heidi Hutchinson, to try and get a little more of a grasp on a writer who was so reclusive he made J.D. Salinger look like Jonathan Ames.

Vice: It seems that the most reliable theory on B. Traven’s true identity is that he was a German man named Ret Marut.
Heidi Hutchinson:
The Ret Marut connection was first made by the East German researcher Rolf Recknagel in his 1966 book B. Traven: Beiträge zur Biographie (Contributions to a Biography). B. Traven had offered his first novel manuscript to the Büchergilde Gutenberg (Gutenberg Book Club), a subscription service for working-class Germans, in 1926. It was called Das Totenschiff (The Death Ship, 1926), and when the Büchergilde published it, it was an instant hit. Fellow revolutionaries who had known Ret Marut thought they recognized the style as his. Thus began the guessing game as to Traven’s identity. Recknagel pursued all of the old revolutionaries he could find and interviewed them, and the evidence at the time was enough for him to assume the Marut-Traven connection.

What are some other pieces of evidence for the Marut theory?
Researcher Karl Guthke, who traveled to Mexico and was able to visit the home and “archive” of B. Traven, cites an entry in B. Traven’s diary from July 26, 1924 that reads, “Marut is dead.” And in the days following Traven’s death, interviews with his widow, Rosa Elena Lujan, revealed that he had been “Ret Marut the Bavarian anarchist.”

What was the reason behind Traven’s obscuring of his true identity?
B. Traven always insisted that his life story was irrelevant. “Forget the man! Write about his works!” he would say. Traven readers believe that his life story is told (at least partially) in his books, and that is how B. Traven would have wanted it. E.R. Hagemann, an early B. Traven bibliographer (Checklist of the Work of B. Traven, 1959) called him “a man who has seemingly courted obscurity as another might court fame and notoriety, courted oblivion with an almost pathological intensity.” That sums it up!

When, as a founding member of the revolutionary government of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic (Räterepublik), he escaped certain execution in 1919, Ret Marut disappeared completely. Many believe that going to Mexico and assuming a new identity was his way of hiding behind his pseudonym. Indeed, Ret Marut was never caught and brought to justice, so the plan worked.

B. Traven the famous writer continued to be fanatically protective of his privacy, intentionally misleading his own readers and fans and those who would pursue his identity right to the end.

We know that Marut created the German political paper the Brick Burner. What was the writing like in that magazine?
Der Ziegelbrenner appeared in 40 issues, published at irregular intervals in Munich from 1917 to 1921. Subtitled “Criticism of Conditions and Loathsome Contemporaries,” it advertised itself as a cultural magazine, promising to bring, “in its irregularly published issues, essays on politics, commercial policy, the economy, political philosophy, and sociology, as well as aesthetic contributions, book reviews, theater reviews, and marginalia on controversies of the day.” The color of the cover and the magazine’s shape were those of a brick.

The tone is indeed satiric, and much of the criticism of the government and war effort is veiled or hidden within literary criticism or even poetry. Many criticisms of the government and its war effort managed to slip through the Munich censors. Bear in mind, World War I was raging all over Europe at this time. Censorship was strict; antiwar remarks were treason. Contemporaries wondered how, in a time of extreme material shortages, this anarchist periodical was still obtaining paper, giving rise to rumors that the Ziegelbrenner (as the editor-publisher called himself) was somehow connected to Kaiser Wilhelm II.

From 1919 to 1921, the Ziegelbrenner was on the run. You could no longer find an address to which to send letters to the editor or submit books for review. But Marut continued to publish whenever and wherever he could. Left-leaning bookstores and newsstands distributed his magazine until Ret Marut disappeared completely. 




Does anyone know the origin of the pseudonym B. Traven?
This is one of those things that scholars have puzzled over since the name became known. No one has found a conclusive answer. Reporter Gerd Heidemann pursued a theory that the name was based on the river Trave, in northern Germany near Lübeck, where some believe Traven may have lived in his pre-Marut days. Some publishers of Traven’s earlier works, especially the translations, supplied a first name of Bruno. But the “B” is not an abbreviation for anything. Traven tells us so himself in a publication he and his publisher issued from Mexico in the 1950s called B.T. Mitteilungen (B.T. News).

In the 1920s, when he was traveling in Chiapas, Mexico, with an expedition as its photographer, Traven was known as Torsvan. And in his will, made out March 4, 1969, he gave his official name as Traven Torsvan Croves. The second clause of the will stated that “although his name is the one mentioned in the preceding clause, during his long literary career he has used pseudonyms, such as B. Traven and Hal Croves.” He went by the name Hal Croves for many years when he lived in Mexico City at the end of his life.

In your personal opinion, which is Traven’s best novel?
Traven wrote only 13 novels, but they sold by the millions in many languages. I am not a great fan of his writing—it is a very masculine style and has too much brutality for my taste—but I do love The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Der Schatz der Sierra Madre, 1927). This is certainly his best-known work in the English-speaking world, due to the acclaimed 1948 John Huston film based on the novel.

One of the best movies ever.
I read it in the original German and was astonished to what degree Huston’s movie script (of which UCR Libraries Special Collections & Archives is proud to own an original copy) remains true to Traven’s story. Some of the most memorable quotes, including “I don’t have to show you any stinking badges,” are straight out of Traven.

The Bridge in the Jungle (Die Brücke im Dschungel, 1929) is the only novel of his in which a woman takes a primary role, and though it is very slow moving, it is a gem. His description of the life of Mexican Indians really brings the characters to life.

I think his closeness to the Mexican people and his ability to show them in their day-to-day situations and especially in their exploitation by ranch owners, loggers, and oil companies are what made him such a big hit with German working-class readers in the 1920s and 30s. What, after all, did they know about Mexico up until then?

Can you tell me a bit about the world of B. Traven research? There are so many obsessive Traven scholars, both amateur and published.
The first and most important Traven scholar, the one who paved the way for all the others, was a man living in Leipzig in the (then) German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany. Rolf Recknagel’s book B. Traven: Beiträge zur Biographie was published in 1966, when Traven was still alive. Recknagel workedunder very difficult conditions, one of which was that it was nearly impossible to travel outside the GDR at that time, and he certainly could never have afforded to go to Mexico. Yet he was the first to establish the Traven-Marut connection, which was recognized by all the researchers who came after him. When Traven died in 1969, many of Recknagel’s theories were vindicated by information that Traven’s wife made public.

Standing on Recknagel’s shoulders was Karl Guthke, a Harvard professor who has published the most comprehensive Traven biography yet: a large, heavy tome of 840 pages titled B. Traven: Biographie eines Rätsels (1987). It was translated into English and published in 1991 under the title B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends.

Gerd Heidemann, whose massive research collection of 93 ring binders on B. Traven is here at UC Riverside Libraries, pursued the Traven identity doggedly all through the 1960s. He did go to Mexico more than once, and he tracked down Hal Croves, even successfully photographing him a few times and actually interviewing him. He also followed all possible Ret Marut leads and tried to go back in Ret Marut’s life to his origins but was unsuccessful.

The question of who Ret Marut was before about 1912 has never been solved. His birth date is guessed to be around 1880. The English writer Will Wyatt (The Man Who Was B. Traven, 1980) attempted to prove that Marut was originally a man named Otto Feige, born in Schwiebus, Germany, now Poland. This theory is not widely accepted, though. I have recently worked with a German researcher who wanted to delve deeper into this theory with the help of our collections, specifically the very early Ret Marut papers here at Special Collections & Archives.

So, back to the will Traven left under the name Traven Torsvan Croves. Does it contain any more clues, or is it subterfuge?
The will states that he was “born in Chicago, Illinois on May 3, 1890, son of Burton Torsvan and Dorothy Croves Torsvan, both deceased.” I have heard of no one who believes any of that information is true.

For more on B. Traven, visit http://library.ucr.edu/?view= collections/spcol/Traven.

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