This article is from the May 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
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B. Traven: Man of Mystery Behind The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

by Jeanine Kitchel 

In 1990, Jeanine Kitchel bought land and built a house in Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo, where she founded a bookstore in 1997. Her book, Where the Sky is Born: From Beach to Bookstore in Maya Mexico, will be published this fall. Email: casamaya@yahoo.com  

B. Traven was long a cult figure by the time I stumbled onto his legendary adventure novels about Mexico while traveling the gringo trail in the ‘70s. It seemed everyone on the road had a copy of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre stuffed into their backpack.

Why were B. Traven’s books required reading for anyone traveling south? First of all, most of Traven’s fourteen novels, written between 1926 to 1952, were set in Mexico. His themes paralleled what was happening in that country during those traumatic, revolutionary times. Traven’s tales were part adventure, part historical fact – couched in fiction – all taking place south of the border in a land very different from what we’ve grown accustomed to up north. Secondly, his Mexico was a place where abandoned gold mines, bandits and lawlessness still existed. His Mexico was peppered with anarchy and rebellion. His Mexico had spice.

Best known to American audiences because of the 1948 film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Traven most likely would have remained unknown to Americans if John Huston hadn’t turned this novel about greed and gold into a silver screen classic starring Humphrey Bogart as down-on-his-luck prospector Fred C. Dobbs. The film’s most memorable scene also contains one of cinema’s immortal lines, “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” shouted out by Mexican bandits on horseback imitating federales, who are trying to con Bogart and Walter Huston into surrendering their position and their gold.

Truth be known, by the 1930's, Traven’s work was published everywhere else in the world but England and the States, in dozens of languages, but not a word was printed in English until New York publisher Alfred Knopf republished The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1935. This novel was originally published in German in 1927. Not until the 1960's was the body of Traven’s work  published in the U.S. Today, Traven’s books have been translated into 30 languages, sold more than 25 million copies, and are required reading in Mexico’s schools.

Traven’s work evokes the grit and reality of Mexico because he spent 35 years of his life there, watching his adopted country adjust to a string of dictators, presidents and revolutions. His tales dish out depth and emotion, with a sizeable serving of the oppression of the lower classes thrown in.

His epics read as though inspired by true life stories he may have heard while sitting at some outback cantina in a dusty, little pueblo anywhere in Mexico; or maybe he drew on his own Mexican experience, slices of his own life, that occurred while living there until his death in 1969. Or his supposed death....

At this point, I must explain that B. Traven was just as much a character as those he created in his novels. The jury is still out on his true identity, as B. Traven was only a pen name. As recently as ten years ago, at an international conference on the author at Penn State, scholars still debated what the “B” stood for, and if he was German, English or American.

Traven’s biographers consider several possible identities: Either he was born in Chicago, March 5, 1890, to Swedish parents, and spent his youth in Germany where he started writing anarchist literature under the pen name Ret Marut, moving to Mexico in the ‘20's. Or he was Otto Feige, son of a German pottery worker, who traveled widely in his youth, worked as a manual laborer and actor, and then edited an anarchist journal in Germany before heading off to Mexico. In the most bizarre scenario, presented by author and professor Michael L.L. Baumann, Traven was neither Marut nor Feige. Baumann suggests, in his 1997 book, Mr. Traven, I Presume, that “Traven” could have usurped the real Traven’s identity, and continued on with this man’s work, as the books published in Germany were written in two distinct handwritings and full of “Americanisms.” Baumann also asserts that given what background was known of Traven, he should have been a much older man than the corpse claimed to be his after his 1969 death in Mexico.

John Huston, in his biography, adds a question mark to the Traven identity search, also. While filming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Huston invited the author to come to the set, but the author declined, sending instead a man named Hal Croves, his agent.

Croves was “a small, thin man with a long nose” and carried a letter for Huston explaining that Traven could not show up, but Croves would answer all pertinent questions.

"Croves had a slight accent,” Huston wrote. “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.” It wasn’t until after Traven’s death in 1969, when pictures of the author were published, that Huston confirmed Croves was, in fact, B. Traven.

On Mexican government immigration documents from the 1930s, Traven claimed to have  entered Mexico through Ciudad Juarez in 1914. He settled first in either Tampico or Chiapas –  there are mixed accounts on this – writing stories he sent to German publishers under the name B. Traven. His first published book was The Death Ship, a story of an American sailor who loses his birth certificate and, with it, his identity – and is forced to take a job shoveling coal on a ship destined to go down for insurance money.

According to one biography, Traven wrote about serious issues of social justice, cruelty, and greed from the very beginning. In the 1930's he moved near Acapulco where he lived for 25 years. Around this time his books were banned by the Nazis. Between 1931 and 1940 he published six  of his Mahogany, or Jungle, Series, which included: The Carreta (1931), Government (1931),  March to Monteria (1933), Trozas (1936), The Rebellion of the Hanged (1936), and General from the Jungle (1940). These books chronicled the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1912, and lamented the plight of the indigenous Indians of Chiapas who worked like slaves in the mahogany forests. In Rebellion of the Hanged, he tells how one Indian is duped into working in the monteria, where mahogany is harvested, when his wife becomes ill and money is needed to pay for a doctor. Before it’s all over, the Indian’s wife has died, but the Indian has signed a contract with the mahogany mill, akin to a deal with the devil. His struggle to stay alive in hellish conditions is duly recorded in Traven’s prose.

Upon Traven’s death in 1969, his ashes were scattered over Rio Jatate in Chiapas, and his widow, Rosa Elena Lujan, was instructed to reveal that B. Traven was in fact Traven Torsvan Croves, born in Chicago in 1890 and naturalized as a Mexican citizen in 1951.

However, in a later interview with The New York Times in 1990, his widow, Lujan, stated Traven told her he had been Ret Marut, but she could tell no one until after his death as he feared extradition to Germany for his anarchist leanings.

Traven’s true identity is not important. He said so himself. But in reading his novels about a very real Mexico, truths are uncovered through his gripping adventure tales.

Who was B. Traven? According to Lujan, his widow, he said, “My life belongs to me – only my books belong to the public.... I am freer than anyone else, free to choose the parents I want, the country I want, the age I want.”

No matter who the real B. Traven was, his works –  still relevant decades after publication – speak for the man behind the mystery.