B.Traven’s and Our Struggle to Be Human

B. Traven with gear for another extended stay in Chiapas. Circa late 1940’s?

There were some years in the 1930’s when B. Traven was the most widely read fiction writer in the world.  Today, his many novels and collections of stories have exceeded 25 million in sales and been translated into more than 30 languages.  In spite of his huge legion of readers, his biography and even his name continue to be debated.  After his death, in his late 70’s? or late 80’s?, in 1969, his first and only wife Rosa Elena Lujan, suggested “He believed that individual stories are not important until they flow into the collective life”.  She elaborated that he was “very much in love with communal life and communal thinking”.

Lujan, translator of many of his books into English, also revealed that Traven had indeed been the German revolutionary Ret Marut.  Condemned to death by firing squad in 1919 in Munich, the former communications officer of the Bavarian Socialist Republic escaped from his captors and sought refuge on a freighter that took him, an undocumented man claiming to be born in the U.S., around the world.  We know for certain that for more than five years, he was a man without a country. 

In 1925 he chose life on land in México and jumped ship in the northern port of Tampico.  Two novels that he had likely written while at sea were published a year later in Germany by the author B. Traven.  The Death Ship tells of an undocumented sailor and his mates exploited ruthlessly by the captain and owners of a global freighter.  Gerald Gales, the sailor, is also the protagonist of The Cotton Pickers, first titled The Wobbly, who tells his fellow farmworkers that he identifies with the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World).  Wobbly publications and artifacts remained stored among his personal items to his death.

Not surprising that many literary critics as well as readers have described Traven as a proletarian writer.  This is true to a limited degree but there is a larger view of the man’s work and his life as a whole.  I prefer thinking of him as an internationalist with exceptional compassion for people of all nationalities, tribes, and cultures.  And a man with an unsurpassed talent for expressing that compassion through tales set in the highly diverse environments of México, his adopted country.  A foremost example of what I see as his “internationalist” affiliation is found in his dedication of The Bridge in the Jungle:

         “To the mothers

            of every nation

            of every people

            of every race

            of every color

            of every creed

            of all animals and birds

            of all creatures alive

                                   on earth

This begins the story of a mother’s and her Chiapas villagers’ anguished search for her exuberant pre-teen son.  The same “internationalist” devotion can be found in most of Traven’s fiction. While exploitation of the workers by the man with capital is present in his best known book in the U.S., The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, other non-proletarian specific themes prevail. The grizzled old prospector cures an Indian on the way to the “treasure” and finds his place among his patient’s people.  Thompson renounces the pursuit of great wealth for the envisioned peace with a loving wife and small farm in the Midwest.  And Dobbsie, who resembles Traven the most, is tamed through the grueling pilgrimage to more knowledge of himself.

The passion of celebrating the worth and dignity of every human being  drives Traven’s creativity.  The writer’s utopian dream was of a world where the work of the typesetter, the secretary in the publisher’s office, the mailroom clerk, and the writer were all equally valued.  What sets Traven apart from other modern writers in the hundred years since his fiction first appeared is his embrace and affirmation of all peoples and cultures. While his focus continued to be on the surviving Mayan cultures and people of Chiapas, southern México, he didn’t romanticize or set them apart from other “pre-modern” cultures or our own today.  Traven lived off and on in Chiapas for a total of at least two decades and his ashes were scattered over the jungle there.

In her introduction to The Kidnapped Saint and Other Stories Mrs. Lujan wrote of his love for Chiapas. “Traven went to the Indians of Chiapas as a brother, a friend, and a comrade, not as most outsiders did, to steal from or exploit them.”  She heard from her husband how he lived among them: “At night Traven slept on the hard ground with only his serape wrapped around him.  In the morning he rose early and ate tortillas and chili with them.”  She notes that her husband had a gift for languages and could converse in several Mayan dialects.

Why B. Traven spurned the great wealth and fame that would have come from his life work he explained in 1929.  Writing a German professor who lectured on his books, Traven wanted it understood that “I do not want to give up my life as an ordinary human being”.  To do so would have undermined his aim to “do my part to get rid of all authorities and the veneration of authorities so that every man can feel stronger in the knowledge that he is absolutely as indispensable and important for the rest of humanity as every other person no matter what they do.”  Our duty as human beings was to “serve humanity according to our understanding and capacity,  to lift up the lives of others, bring them more happiness and direct their thoughts to meaningful goals of life.”  Forty years later, at his death, Traven could look back on a lifetime of remaining faithful to this goal. B. Traven, presente!

About erasingborders

This blog is dedicated to the conviction that love is stronger than hate, that trained non violent resistance is stronger than weapons of violence and that as human beings we rise and we fall as one people.

Posted on September 20, 2022, in Interfaith Relations and Politics, Solidarity, Community and Citizenship, Theology and Mission, U.S. Immigration and Refugee Policies. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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