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Reviewed by:
  • B. Traven: Life and Work
  • Donald O. Chankin
Ernst Schürer and Philip Jenkins, eds. B. Traven: Life and Work. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1987. 368 pp. $22.50.

This volume collects the papers given at the B. Traven Conference held at Pennsylvania State University in October of 1982. According to the biographies of Traven by Rolf Recknagel and Will Wyatt, Traven, under another name, of course, was born in 1882, and the conference and book represents a centenary celebration of the author best known for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Despite the book under review, or perhaps because of it, as we shall see, Lawrence Hill, Traven's publisher, is still correct when he laments that Traven as a creative writer has been overshadowed by the mystery surrounding his identity. The alleged problem that haunts so many of the contributions here is that Traven, under the name Ret Marut, arrived in Mexico in June of 1924, a bare year before Vorwärts, a German newspaper, began serial publication of The Cotton-Pickers, a novel set in Mexico and depicting the narrator, Gales, as a (probably) Wobbly agitator. By the end of 1925 the manuscripts of The Bridge in the Jungle, the stories later collected in the Night Visitor volume, and The Death Ship were completed. How then [End Page 233] did Traven find the time to live through the experience depicted in the novels, which show a good knowledge of Mexico, after only a year's stay? Not content with the simple explanation of a skilled writer undergoing a creative outburst in a new environment, some scholars posit the existence of an Erlebnisträger, a "bearer of experiences," who lived and wrote of the life portrayed in the novels. What happened to this alternate Traven we are not told.

The matter might be settled in the fashion suggested by Karl Guthke in his essay "Was There Another Man?" (His answer is given in the subtitle, "B. Traven as Author of His Own Works.") The "other man" theory requires us to believe, as Guthke whimsically suggests, that "Ret Marut, German Expressionist with first-rate literary credentials . . . , [got] off the boat in Tampico and just [strolled] into the jungle of Tamaulipas . . . to encounter . . . a seedy, down-and-out Anglo, sitting on a stack of moldy manuscripts of stirring novels about life in the Sierra Madre." Notwithstanding, Michael Baumann confesses to spending "more than twenty years in [the] hell" of the problems that he claims Traven has created for critics. The precise location of that hell would be Circle Seven, Round Three of Dante's Inferno, where we find the Violent Against Art.

Fortunately, some of the contributors do tell us about the art of Traven's fiction. Thus we now know more about how pervasive is the influence of Melville and Conrad on Traven: Pattie Cowell convincingly draws parallels between Gales's first-person narration in The Death Ship with that of Melville's narrator in White Jacket, and Peter Christensen shows how the use of legend and flashback in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is like that in Conrad's Nostromo. And a few critics, notably Jonah Raskin and Patrick Murphy, take Traven quite seriously as a radical writer whose "Jungle" novels remain the most impressive contemporary novels of revolution. This six-volume series, from The Carreta [The Cart] through A General from the Jungle, ends with a mass army of Indian workers determined to protect their revolution. This, then, is the real "other Traven." [End Page 234]

Donald O. Chankin
Queensborough Community College


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