Twenty Writers: B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

My hunch is that “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is more famous than its writer, the movie, even the novel itself. By that I mean the swashbuckling title has become a kind of meme evoking high adventure in the Sonoran desert, the kind of tale serialized in Boys’ Life and later adapted into a 1960s Disney live-action movie starring Dean Jones. In fact, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a superb and weighty novel of Social Realism and human nature. It’s about labor and management, price versus worth, the cost of sweat and the value of human life. It could easily be placed on a reading list beside The Grapes of Wrath as a prime example of Depression-era literature. I doubt it ever will, though, as long as its dominant image is one of high adventure. That’s unfortunate. Yet the book remains in print and remains read, and so it must be doing something right.

To discuss Treasure you must discuss its author, B. Traven. Unlike writers like Hemingway and Twain, whose personas impose themselves onto the readers’ receipt of the work itself, Traven is a shadow, an outline, a jigsaw puzzle barely out of the box and still being sorted by literary sleuths. Even the biographical notes Traven wrote for his own books are questioned. Researching B. Traven, you begin to suspect he never really existed.

The most definitive attempt I’ve located at digging out B. Traven’s identity is Michael L. Baumann’s B. Traven: An Introduction (University of New Mexico Press, 1976). It opens with these rather direct and unambiguous statements:

[B. Traven] wrote principally in German; he claimed to be American; he lived in Mexico. For inspiration he drew most heavily on the people and literatures of Germany, the United States, and Mexico.

These assertions don’t abut well with the particulars of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a novel written in 1920s American vernacular about three American prospectors in Mexico. Where, in all of that, does Germany come into play? How could this book, an American classic, be written by a German who wrote principally in German?

Hal Croves (1947, LIFE magazine)

Hal Croves, 1947. Taken while on the set of John Huston’s adaptation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Traven was notoriously private and shunned publicity. He dealt with his publishers entirely through correspondence addressed from post office boxes in Mexico. Throughout his career figures have appeared and disappeared claiming to be his literary representative. In 1946 a man named Hal Croves introduced himself to John Huston in Mexico City while the director was preparing to film the movie adaptation of Treasure. Croves arrived with Traven’s power of attorney, but speculation abounded that the man was Traven himself. Around this time Hal Croves met screen actress Ruth Ford and began wooing her through correspondence. Ford believed Croves was B. Traven. John Huston initially did as well, but later retracted it in his autobiography. When Humphrey Bogart was shown one of the few extant photos of B. Traven taken in 1926, the actor remarked, “I’d know him anywhere. I worked with him for ten weeks in Mexico. He just looks a little younger, that’s all.”

For some time Hal Croves and B. Traven were assumed to be one and the same. Then a Mexican reporter claimed to have confirmed Traven’s real identity as one Berick Traven Torsvan, but this time the reporter had documentation that supposedly sealed the connection. The matter was thought put to rest, leading Time-Life to write in their 1963 introduction to Treasure:

After four years of investigation [the reporter] tracked Traven down, dug up his American passport and other documents, and proved beyond all reasonable doubt that he was Berick Traven Torsvan, a native of Chicago, the son of Norwegian immigrants. Torsvan had moved to Mexico as a young man and had worked in the oilfields and at various other odd jobs, traveling all over the republic. For obscure reasons of his own, in the 1930s, he retreated to Acapulco and anonymity to write his stories.

Unfortunately, the Torsvan theory has its own holes, leading Traven authority Baumann in 1976 to shatter Time-Life’s tidy summation:

About B. Traven’s identity we know—nothing. All statements and reports to the contrary notwithstanding, the question of who B. Traven really was remains unanswered.

B. Traven

The dominant barebones theory of B. Traven’s identity goes something like this:

A German-speaking native of a Germanic region, the man later known as B. Traven fled Europe between the wars, taking various transient professions (ones that conveniently required little documentation) as he crossed the Atlantic and resettled in the New World. In the process he assumed a variety of pseudonyms (including “B. Traven”) before reaching Mexico. While residing there he gathered further experiences that he harvested into novels suffused with pointed and absurdist criticisms of nationalism, institutional power, capitalism, imperialism, and the human condition.

There’s a dozen variants of the above paragraph, each taking issue with every clause: his native tongue, his nationality, his politics, his pseudonyms. Even Traven’s bibliography is under debate. His 1960 novel Aslan Norval (published only in German) is regarded as oddly un-Travenian with a plot redolent of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It’s almost as if Traven was publishing entire books to throw literary detectives off his trail.

Everyone seems to agree B. Traven lived in Mexico for an extended time. That may be the only point of agreement in the debate over his identity. JFK assassination theories are elegant and robust in comparison.

Ret Marut (London, 1923). This arrest photo was taken when Marut attempted to leave Europe via London after the Bavarian Soviet Republic collapsed.

Ret Marut (London, 1923). This arrest photo was taken when Marut attempted to exit Europe via London after the Bavarian Soviet Republic collapsed.

Early on, Travenphiles descended upon Ret Marut as the prime candidate for authorship. A German actor, anarchist, publisher, and revolutionary, Marut participated in the bloodless Communist revolution that led to the creation of the brief Bavarian Soviet Republic. When the fledgling state collapsed under the boot of the German Freikorps, Marut fled his homeland. Traven appeared in Mexico soon after. So did Berick Traven Torsvan, an engineer and photographer who accompanied an expedition in the south of Mexico. Hal Croves would only appear in the 1940s to monitor Huston’s filming.

The identities don’t end there. In 1978, two years after Baumann declared “about B. Traven’s identity we know—nothing”, two BBC journalists announced evidence Ret Marut was a pseudonym for Otto Feige, a German national born in what is today Poland. An extension of the Feige theory has Feige/Marut as an illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, hence the need to flee Germany.

And then there’s the Gales/Gale connection. A recurring protagonist in Traven’s work is Gerard (or Gerald) Gales, a pseudonym Marut is suspected of using while travelling to the New World. The name has been noted as similar to Linn A. E. Gale, an American leader in the Mexican Communist Party and publisher of Gale’s Journal (also referenced as Gale’s Magazine, Gale’s Weekly, and Gale’s International Monthly for Revolutionary Communism). The glaring problem with this potential connection is that Gale was deported to the United States in 1921, well before Traven’s first book was published, well before Marut left Europe. While in American custody on desertion charges, Gale renounced his radicalism and gave state’s evidence against other American socialists and anarchists in exchange for clemency. If Gerard Gales was named after Linn Gale, I have to wonder if Traven meant it as some kind of satire or warning to readers.

There are even more names. Casual speculation of B. Traven’s identity includes Ambrose Bierce and Jack London. One obscure theory is that Swiss performance artist Arthur Cravan did not die off the coast of Mexico in 1918, but survived the boating accident (or faked it) and transformed himself into B. Traven. Cravan’s self-involved Surrealist and Dada performances centered on crafting new identities for himself, which seems in character with what we know of Traven, but they also bartered in the kind of shameless publicity that Traven carefully avoided.

As if this dizzying list of names, pseudonyms, and origins was not enough, it all came full circle in 1990 when Traven’s wife announced he was, after all, Ret Marut. He’d sworn her to secrecy out of fear of being deported back to Germany, only allowing her to reveal his secret posthumously. (Traven died in 1969.) She also explained the origin of the Torsvan and Croves identities as his own constructs.

Twenty-five years after this revelation, B. Traven’s identity remains stamped Unknown by most academics, amateurs, and references, although the Marut theory clearly holds the most sway. It’s funny. It’s almost as if we don’t want to know the answer. Perhaps the author and his books seem so much more vital and timeless with an empty history and a question mark hovering over his face.

Carrier of the Experiences

B. Traven, 1926. The most famous photo of Traven. “T. Torsvan” was documented as a Norwegian engineer and photographer for an archaeological expedition in Chiapas, Mexico. This photo was snapped during that trip without his knowledge and surfaced later.

Although discovering Traven’s identity may seem like a parlor game, the research has led to some interesting speculation of more literary concerns. For example, how did Traven, almost certainly a German native, come to write so intimately and with so much authority about the country he is most identified with, Mexico?

In 1964, Swiss writer Max Schmid posited Traven obtained the knowledge he would need to write some (or all) of his books from another person, a willing or unwilling transference of stories from an “authentic” source. Known as the Erlebnisträger hypothesis (“carrier of the experiences”), this theory attempts to explain how Traven could have written as expertly as he did about itinerant life in Mexico within his first year in the country.

The carrier hypothesis gives the Traven authorship question a rugged mystique. Envision Traven in a Mexican desert town encountering a grizzled American prospector. Over glasses of tequila the American regales Traven with wild tales of gold, grit, and the Sonoran sun. How well could these orally transmitted stories translate to the page where Traven’s expertise on a variety of details—technical (mining, Mexican law) and cultural (Native Mexican society and language)—seems absolute? Thus the Erlebnisträger theory has been expanded to Traven accepting (or stealing) manuscripts from the experience-carrier, and perhaps events more sinister. (Baumann suggested in 1997 that Croves/Torsvan was the experience-carrier, cooperating with Marut as a contributor rather than the rooked tramp Schmid proposed.)

This is one of the oddest aspects of researching B. Traven’s past, and in particular the Marut theory. To entertain the possibility that a man who survived World War I, fomented a Communist revolution and became a member of its Soviet, survived a bloody dissolution of that state, stood charged with treason and marked for execution, eluded arrest and prison, made an Atlantic crossing by ship under various assumed names, then completely reestablished his identity on a separate continent—that such a man would have to rely on another for experiences to write a novel. If it’s true.

The carrier theory also explains one of the more puzzling aspects of B. Traven’s writing which is easily lost on readers (and I include myself): The German versions of Traven’s work are in a distinct German argot infused with clunky translations of Americanisms, while his English versions are written in an American style with translations of Germanisms peculiar to Bavaria, that is, language tics a German-American would probably not possess. (Traven insisted he translated his own work, claiming to be an American who’d lived in Germany at points in his life as way of explanation.)

Some of his novels were even published in German first, although he maintained he always penned his novels in English and translated from there. Some of his books are only published in German, although there was certainly a market in America for them. It simply seems incredible that Traven could be an American, but it also seems incredible that a German living in Mexico for less than a year could have acquired enough American slang and knowledge of Mexico to publish a novel (Der Wobbly, 1926) featuring both. If Traven worked alone, then—barring additional revelations—it’s unlikely Traven was Ret Marut, or any Germanic émigré.

An American academic fluent in German, Baumann makes a strong case that Traven’s so-called American vernacular is actually a German-speaker’s poor attempts to make his characters “sound” American, fooling American readers who assume the coarse and butchered language is authentic of the lower classes. Traven’s characters order “another cock well iced” at a bar. They tell someone to “shut your grub-hold.” Baumann theorizes these came from German approximations of American slang clumsily translated back to English, much like the unintentional hilarity provided by English As She Is Spoke. As Baumann says, “Whatever the final explanation may be, the Erlebnisträger hypothesis would appear to force itself on us as soon as we reflect upon Traven’s particular use of the English language.”

In correspondence with a German editor, B. Traven seemed to predict the fascination with uncovering his identity:

I would like to state very clearly: the biography of a creative person is absolutely unimportant. If that person is not recognizable in his works, than either he is worth nothing, or the works are worth nothing. The creative person should therefore have no other biography than his works.

(Emphasis mine.) On one hand, Traven is warning against this entire endeavor, that is, the search for his identity. And yet he’s also advising in favor of finding his identity in the work itself. Contradictions and dead-ends are everywhere when searching for B. Traven, but he does seem to be encouraging us to look in his novels to understand him.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Maybe it’s criminal to include a book in a “Top Twenty” where the dominant theory of its authorship is bolstered by the writer’s poor grasp of street English and stealing his source material from an unsuspecting itinerant laborer. Don’t let that (or high-brow critical analysis) overwhelm the plain truth that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a powerful, well-rounded, and carefully constructed novel. It’s a big book in terms of its explications on value and money, but at its core is a tale of adventure, back-breaking work, and greed. Published in America in 1935 (in Germany, 1927), its language choices are as much products of its time as the author’s native language, and it shows right from the first paragraph:

The bench on which Dobbs was sitting was not so good. One of the slats was broken; the one next to it was bent so that to have to sit on it was a sort of punishment. If Dobbs deserved punishment, or if this punishment was being inflicted upon him unjustly, as most punishments are, such a thought did not enter his head at this moment. He would have noticed that he was sitting uncomfortably only if somebody had asked him if he was comfortable. Nobody, of course, bothered to question him.

The paragraph after the next describes Dobb’s financial situation. It jumps to the heart of the novel’s material matters:

If you already have some money, then it is easier to make more, because you can invest the little you have in some sort of business that looks promising. Without a cent to call yours, it is difficult to make money at all.

Neither of these passages are sterling prose, but they are efficient in conveying Dobbs’ situation as well as foreshadowing much to come. The malapropisms Baumann identifies are not present here, although “The bench on which Dobbs was sitting was not so good” seems a clumsy construction for the first sentence of any novel. But look again: the passive voice and unadorned language plays into Dobbs’ bleak finances and uncertain future. Where malapropisms do pop up in Treasure, they feel more like inventive language and not bad translations, much like the vivid banter in the Coen Brother’s Miller’s Crossing.

Der Schatz der Sierra Madre. Early German edition of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Der Schatz der Sierra Madre. Early German edition of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

The novel starts with this bare introduction on the street bench and carefully winds up to grander purposes. Dobbs searches Tampico and its environs fruitlessly for a way to better his lot in life. Panhandling, lottery tickets, setting up oil camps in the Mexican jungle (one of the best sequences in the early part of the book), and everything in-between are explored by Dobbs and the buddies he picks up along the way. Unlike The Grapes of Wrath or Lao She’s Rickshaw, the men are not guileless innocents pummeled and tumbled about by societal forces. They talk back to authority. They smell a con as soon as it develops. They earn a few pesos here and there, and though facing swindles left and right, they manage to scrape together enough money to ever-so-tenderly improve their situation. Traven’s politics are nuanced enough not to keep throwing the men under the bus wheels and then deploring their situation to the reader.

Eventually Dobbs and cohort Curtin meet up with a weathered but cheery prospector named Howard who leads them into the hills in search of gold. Chapters detailing the days’ work leave the reader as exhausted as the men (in a good way). Howard’s fine fireside storytelling and concise observations on gold and greed balance against the grind:

Every day their respect for old Howard grew greater and greater. That old fellow never complained, never whined, never felt too tired to lend here a pull and there a push. He appeared to become younger and more active with every mile that the little train made toward its goal. He climbed steep rocks like a cat and trotted for long, dreary hours across arid stretches without even mentioning a drink of water.

“Never fail to understand the reason why gold is so precious,” he said occasionally when the boys were all in. “Perhaps you know now why one ounce of gold costs more than a ton of cast iron. Everything in this world has its true price. Nothing is ever given away.”

Baumann calls Traven a “humanistic anarchist,” which seems about right to me. There are no cries for taking up guns and igniting a revolution, no sense that the proletariat assuming power would somehow improve the world. Note here how the men go from slaves of one sort to another, gradually:

With every ounce more of gold possessed by them they left the proletarian class and neared that of the property-holders, the well-to-do middle class. … They had become members of the minority of mankind.

Those who up to this time had been considered by them as their proletarian brethren were not enemies against whom they had to protect themselves. As long as they owned nothing of value, they had been slaves of their hungry bellies, slaves to those who had the means to fill their bellies. All this was changed now.

They had reached the first step by which man becomes the slave of his property.

I normally don’t have much taste for this sort of sermonizing, but these pronouncements are an organic component of the novel, as much as the exegesis of whaling in Moby Dick. Remove these passages and Treasure loses its spine. This is one reason why it’s so much more than a sensational novel of adventure and gunplay. Storytelling and lore shared between the characters are key focal points in the novel. In a tale so absorbed with avarice, there’s a surprising amount of cooperation and amiability, usually promoted by nothing more than sharing stories. Some of the negotiations are businesslike, even courteous, although handguns are always within reach.

Howard is a welcome foil to the dour Dobbs and everyman Curtin. He is more than the wise old man leading the two “boys” through the quest, he provides real sagacity in his stories and advice. He does more than prepare them for what they will face in the desert and the hard work to come, Howard prepares them for becoming rich knowing full well it will test them. He predicts how the other two will hide their share of the treasure and the nature of the sparks that will lead to infighting, and perhaps murder. Dobbs is the principal character but Howard is always the center of attention whenever in scene. Dobbs is suspicion, fear, and shortsightedness; Howard is light and humor and insight. He’s easily the best character in Treasure.

The final fifth of Treasure gives Traven the opportunity to speak out for the native peoples of Mexico, subject matter he will embrace wholeheartedly later in his six-part Caoba (mahogany) cycle of novels. The Indians and their lucid way of life are the counterpoint to the salty thirst for money that drives just about every page preceding. The book toys with the trio ditching their riches and settling into native life. It would’ve made this humanist-anarchist novel a utopian fable, a resolution Traven does not settle for.

“No other biography than his works”

Der Ziegelbrenner

Der Ziegelbrenner. This edition was published on November 9th, 1918, two days after Kurt Eisner made a speech demanding workers’ reforms to 60,000 Bavarians. The Bavarian Soviet Republic formed five months later.

If Ret Marut is B. Traven, something seems to have cooled his politics by the time he published Treasure. In Germany Ret Marut published an anarcho-revolutionary periodical called Der Ziegelbrenner (“The Brick Burner”). According to Baumann, the paper was rife with firebrand and anti-Semitism. Nothing like that is to be found in Treasure, whose humor is gentle but with an edge, and whose politics seem more philosophical than urgent. This is another reason Baumann believes Marut worked with a Croves/Torsvan collaborator rather than adapted the experience-carrier’s material solo. Perhaps time, maturity, or the experience of fleeing into exile tempered Marut’s views. Maybe Croves/Torsvan taught Marut the possibilities of a more balanced view of the world. Certainly it didn’t make financial sense to strip anti-Semitism from one’s novels when half of your income could be derived from publication in 1930s Germany. Maybe life in Tampico and Acapulco transformed Marut more quickly than we believe possible.

I have to wonder if Marut is represented by the ever-suspicious Dobbs and the experience-carrier is the sage Howard. Little about Dobbs’ history is offered, but it is suggested he’s a man running from a past and a place he cannot return to. Howard, on the other hand, has so acclimated to Mexico he’s more comfortable around the aboriginal peoples than other Americans. If the Erlebnisträger theory has any weight, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that Marut would blend in his own creative impulses (and his past) into Croves/Torsvan’s ur-story. Both Dobbs and Howard are integral to Treasure; it’s difficult to see how Dobbs or Howard could’ve been bolted onto an already-existing novel without rewriting the entire manuscript. What if Treasure was written like a movie script during Hollywood’s star system, two writers locked in a room with a typewriter and bouncing ideas back and forth, polishing each others’ drafts, and so forth? Marut had his reasons for anonymity, and perhaps the experience-carrier did too, and so a combined pseudonym was born. I wouldn’t be surprised if the partner died before Marut, hence the shift in subject matter in Traven’s later work.

Unfortunately, Treasure loses its way as it enters the final stretch. Gold in tow and the troop traversing the Mexican countryside, it feels that Traven is literally searching for how to wrap things up until the conclusion when cosmic fate rears up and resets everything the men had worked toward. Watching hard work toward a better life swept away in a moment’s notice would have rung familiar to Ret Marut, a man who fought a workers’ revolution and fled after it crumbled under a bloody attack by the army of his own country.

If the novel’s ending seems too pat, revisit the question Traven asked in the opening paragraph: Does Dobbs deserve his punishment? The complexities of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are that I feel a touch of sympathy and plenty of revulsion for a man who, three hundred pages earlier, was searching the streets of Tampico for ten centavos to buy himself a hot lunch.

Twenty Writers, Twenty Books: Introduction

See the “Twenty Writers” home page for the current list of “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books”

The Treasure of the Sierra MadreEvery so often an Internet-age chain letter makes the rounds on the social networks that asks the recipient to list their top ten books. Most people are game because it’s fun to make these lists. Sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy have built media empires on list-making. David Letterman and “Top 10” are synonymous. We like lists. They’re oddly cozy.

Generally my friends’ lists of books are a little of the familiar, a little of the unfamiliar, and a bit of the unexpected. Lists are a kind of self-expression. For lists of works like books or music, we’ve even adopted strategies that are similar to the strategies used to make those works in the first place. There’s a tension between highbrow and lowbrow, a fear of being too obvious, a la producing a mix CD of nothing but #1 Top 40 hits, or too obscure, a la a mix CD of Central European filk music. No one wants to put a The Da Vinci Code or The Great Santini at the top of their list of books, even if you love either dearly. If you include that book that doesn’t use the letter e, you should probably add something more accessible, like The Great Gatsby, and maybe even feel clever that both have a similar family name in their title.

When I considered my own top ten books, I realized three things. (Yes, another list.) First, I knew I couldn’t keep my list down to ten, and I certainly didn’t want to number them. A linear ranking just isn’t an accurate diagram for great books. I don’t want to make a catalog of the best to not-the-best, I want to make a “web” of book titles that together represents something larger.

Second, if I was going to make a list of books, I wanted to write about each of them rather than simply present their titles. Some of my motivation here is that I’ve read about these authors and thought a lot about their books, probably more than I sanely should. Writing forces me to make my own decisions and dig a little deeper into the work. I have to take a stand or two, what I feel is important, where I think the work missed the mark. In turn, those decisions have an impact on my own fiction.

Third, my list of books is more driven by authors than titles. To borrow terms from computer science, I’m a depth-first rather than breadth-first reader. When I find an author I like, I tend to dig into their backlist. If an author leaves a palpable impression on on me, I start searching for biographies and book reviews. I don’t buy the notion that we should detach the author from their writing. Fiction is the product of continuous decision-making. The author’s decisions are characterizing of him or herself, just as the decisions of his or her characters accrete to form personalities on the page. I want to tangle with those authorial decisions.

One proviso: I like poetry but don’t feel conversant enough to include any in my list. I’ll just leave it at that.

So here goes, my top twenty books (not ten) and their authors, each written up as a separate entry, unnumbered to avoid creating a sense of best and not-the-best. I’m releasing these as I write them, which means it might be some time before the list is complete (assuming I finish this at all). My list begins with B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a book that surprised me in its quality and scope. When I went to learn more about the author, I discovered his name represented one of the great literary mysteries of the 20th Century.

In some ways, I’m writing these entries for myself. I hope they’re informative or enjoyable for you. If you get anything out of them, please leave a comment and share with your friends.

See the “Twenty Writers” home page for the current list of “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books”.