Born: c. 1890
Location of death: Mexico City, Mexico
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Cremated (ashes scattered over Río Jataté, Chiapas, Mexico)
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Death Ship was novelist B. Traven's first and perhaps finest novel, telling the alternately hilarious and horrific story of a sailor whose passport is stolen, making him a man without a country, and dealing with the "crime" of lacking official papers and his hellish work aboard a ship full of other unwanted men. Down-and-out people seeking freedom, security, or wealth were a recurring theme of Traven's works, including his best-known novel, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, about three roaming Americans seeking gold in Mexico. An immigrant to Mexico himself, Traven lived among the Chiapas Indians and wrote several novels set amidst their lives as virtual slaves, including The General From the Jungle and Rebellion of the Hanged. The author's anarchist sympathies were never hidden in his works, but never threatened to overpower the plot or annoy the reader (see Ayn Rand). In 1939, a reporter asked Albert Einstein what one book he would want if marooned on a desert island, and Einstein replied that which book would not matter, so long as it was written by B. Traven.
Little is known with certainty of Traven's life. He refused to answer questions about his past, or offered details that conflicted with what he shared at other times. He never gave interviews, and mailed his manuscripts with return addresses that led only to post office boxes. His novels frequently featured American protagonists, and Traven is often erroneously assumed to be an American. He claimed to have been born in Chicago or San Francisco in 1890, but wrote in German and spoke English as a second language, with a thick East European accent. He sometimes said that he had narrowly escaped execution as an anarchist in World War I Germany, in keeping with the theory that he was really Ret Marut, a journalist born in Germany in 1882. There has been speculation that Traven was Arthur Cravan, a boxer and poet born in Switzerland in 1887, who disappeared in Mexico in 1918. A late-1970s BBC documentary concluded that Traven had been Otto Feige, a potter's son born in what is now Poland in 1882. He also used the surnames Kraus, Lainger, Wienecke, and Ziegelbrenner, all with a variety of first names. As his books became famous, Traven was suspected of being a pen name for Jack London or Ambrose Bierce, and others claimed he was the bastard son of Kaiser Wilhelm II -- a theory bolstered after Traven's death, when his belongings were found to include a trove of news clippings about the Kaiser.
During the filming of John Huston's 1948 adaptation of Traven's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the author's agent "Hal Croves" acted as an on-set adviser on details of Mexican life. Years later, when news of Traven's death appeared in newspapers, Huston said that he recognized Traven's photo as Croves. According to his widow, he once told her, "Nobody should ask anyone else about anything, because questions only oblige one to lie". On his passport he was Traven Torsvan, and his will named him as Traven Torsvan Croves. He is the subject of several biographies, which reach differing conclusions about who he was. Usually credited as B. Traven, there is even disagreement as to what the "B" stood for -- sometimes it was Bernard, other times it was Bruno or Berick. He wrote prolifically until the late 1930s, when his output slowed to a trickle. A last novel by B. Traven, Aslan Norval, was published in 1960, but received poor reviews and was never translated into English, amid speculation that it was written by an impostor.
Wife: Rosa Elena Lujan (b. 1916, m. 1957)
Naturalized Mexican Citizen 1951
Author of books:
Das Totenschiff (The Death Ship) (1926)
Der Wobbly (The Cotton-Pickers) (1926)
Der Schatz der Sierra Madre (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) (1927)
Die Brücke im Dschungel (The Bridge in the Jungle) (1928)
Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose) (1929)
Der Karren (The Carreta) (1931)
Die Rebellion der Gehenkten (Rebellion of the Hanged) (1936)
Regierung (The Government) (1931)
Der Marsch ins Reich der Caoba (The March to Monteria) (1933)
Ein General Kommt aus dem Dschunge (The General from the Jungle) (1940)
Aslan Norval (1960, authorship disputed)
The Night Visitor and Other Stories (1966, short stories)
To the Honorable Miss S (1981, short stories; as Ret Marut)
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