B. Traven Mystery

    B. Traven is said to have been born in the United States; Chicago to be exact. He was born around 1890.   He lived as a kind of recluse, never letting anyone know who he truly was.  He lived in Germany for years and many of the novels he wrote were first written in German and not English.  He later moved to Mexico.  Traven wrote many novels in his lifetime and also published a series of short stories. The first novel that he wrote was The Death Ship in 1926.  After that he went on to write a series of novels called "The Jungle Series" in which he portrays the harsh working conditions that the Indians had to endure on the mahogany plantations in Chiapas, Mexico.  The books in this series are: Government, The Carreta, March to the Monteria, Trozas, The Rebellion of the Hanged, and General of the Jungle. These six novels are set during the Diaz regime, which culminated in the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

    B. Traven died in 1969 and his true identity will probably never be ascertained.  But, if one explores his work, it will become clear to the reader that the author's personality comes through in the writing.  Searching for biographical information on Traven will only lead one back to his works, so why not just read the novels and forget the author?  That is certainly the way Traven would have wanted it.


Traven, like many writers addressing colonial and exploitative conditions, such as Rigoberta Menchu, Rosario Castellanos, or Chinua Achebe felt strongly about their people and about the human spirit. Menchu fought for the freedom of her people in Guatemala; a people who were tortured and killed by the government. Castellanos, in The Nine Guardians, wrote brilliantly about the Indians of Mexico and what they go through at the hands of the land owners. Chinua Achebe, in Arrow of God , wrote about the indigenous peoples of Nigeria and how they had to struggle, under pressure from the British, to keep their land and culture their own.

Traven puts himself on the side of the underdog fighting to attain his freedom. All of these authors saw something that was wrong with the world and they tried to correct it, through their writing. That is, by sitting down and reading their works, we can gain some insight as to the types of people they were and what they believed in. That seems to be the whole point of Travenís anonymity. He did not want to divulge a lot of personal information about himself; he believed that a writerís work should be a sufficient profile of the writer himself. In many ways, I agree with that sentiment. We need to get through writing in order to get to the author.


What is amazing to me is that I had not even heard of B. Traven until I took Dr. Allen Webbís Postcolonial Literature class: English 539. I am surprised by this because B. Travenís writing has the same thematic elements in it as do many of the other authors that I have read, such as: Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joseph Conrad, and many others. Individuality, problems of identity, maltreatment of laborers by land owners, all of these issues are raised in Travenís writings.

Some of the web sites that I have included below include universities in the United States that have at least one Traven novel on their syllabi. I am not sure why Traven has not gotten the recognition that he deserves in the United States. After all, he always stressed that he was born in Chicago and that he was an American. In his book Anonymity and Death: the Fiction of B. Traven (1975), Donald O. Chankin states that

    One reason for the lack of recognition accorded Traven in America has been the doubt about his nationality and the consequent omission of his works from anthologies of literatureÖhis books first appeared in Germany; and he died a Mexican citizen. But he claimed to be born in Chicago, used Americans as protagonists in his best works, and rewrote his books in English for publication in America (vii-viii).

Travenís works are not strangers to the shelves of American bookstores, still, I donít think that his work gets the recognition it deserves at the university or community college level. Why shouldnít an author who, as Chankin says, ďuses American protagonistsĒ be considered an American writer? What is the deciding factor when it comes to determining whether or not an author such as Traven is an American writer or not? All of the research that I have come across states that Traven was born in the United States. Doesnít that automatically make him a U.S. citizen? Shouldnít he then be considered an American writer?

    While Traven was a Mexican citizen when he died, it is evident to me, through his works and through the research that I have conducted, that Traven considered himself a citizen of the United States. So, why should we not include novels like The Death Ship in our anthologies? Why shouldnít we write his works into our syllabi? If we are in the business of teaching good literature, then Travenís writing must be present in our classrooms.

History 263--Mexican History    This is a syllabus from a History course at Illinois State University.  It provides a description of the course and provides some great ideas for any instructor who is looking to teach Traven.

B. Traven   This site includes some brief biographical information, but it also has a list of Traven's works and resources for works on Traven.

The Real Treasure of the Sierra Madre   This is an essay written by Charmayne McGee in August of 1997 that discusses the lives of the Huichol Indians of Mexico.

More About Traven   This site is written in German and gives a brief biographical sketch of Traven.

Excerpt From The Government   A lengthy excerpt from the first novel of The Jungle Series.


Teaching B. Traven the man is less important, Traven would say, than teaching his works. I have already discussed some approaches to teaching that I think will prove beneficial in my page on Travenís novel Trozas I would certainly explore the idea of the individual against society in Travenís novels--or in the books of the jungle series, I would focus on the laborers against those who work them. In the case of Trozas and others of the jungle series, the Indians are being forced to work under harsh conditions, many of them become ill, and some die as a result of the treatment that they receive at the hands of the bosses. In a novel such as The Death Ship, the individual really is the main focus. A sailor (Gerard Gales) has left his papers on the ship Tuscaloosa as he goes ashore and the ship ends up leaving without him. Consequently, Gales is unable to regain possession of his documents and is forced to wander Europe before finally finding a ship that will accept him. His papers are who he is according to the government. Without those papers, he cannot get back to America; he cannot even prove that he is an American citizen. So, some questions to ask about these Traven novels could include:

How is it that the owners of the monterias were able to control the Indians for as long as they did? Why did the Indians not fight back sooner?
In the novels of the jungle series, what do you think Traven is trying to say about the government and its treatment of indigenous peoples?

In his novel The Death Ship , Travenís protagonist has very little--if any--respect for those people in governmental positions. Do you think that Galesí portrayal of these officials is the same as Travenís? Why? or Why not?

What does it mean to be American? What makes a person who he or she is? What do you think Travenís beliefs are concerning these questions? What do you think?

Consider The Death Ship, and what you think Travenís stance is on issues of individuality and identity, with novels such as Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye . How are they similar? How are they different? Why? or Why not?

    When it comes to teaching Traven, one can rest assured that the only way to discover anything at all about the author himself is to explore his works. That is the way Traven would have wanted it and, considering the writing, one neednít look much further.

Chankin, Donald O.  Anonimity and Death: the Fiction of B. Traven.  Pennsylvania State UP, 1975.

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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