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  • B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the Continuing Allure of "Gold Glitter" in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands Region
  • Lawrence D. Taylor (bio)

B. Traven's novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has long been recognized as a noteworthy tale of greed and adventure. John Huston's film version of 1948, with Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt in the starring roles, helped considerably to stimulate interest in the novel as well as expand its readership. Academic studies have analyzed certain aspects of the novel such as the effects of greed and fear on the soul, the character of Traven's so-called anarchist philosophy, as well as comparisons between this work and other novels of the author, particularly the caoba or "jungle" series of books set in Chiapas.1

In addition to the elements of adventure and the deeper probings into the workings of the human psyche, readers of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre have also been fascinated by the mystery surrounding Traven's life and career. Although researchers have attempted to unravel and decipher many of the details as to the author's identity and biography, the matter of his national origin, or who in fact "B. Traven" was, continues to be the subject of debate. From a study of the existing evidence as well as his works published in German, English, and Spanish, it is likely that he was an exiled journalist of German origin who immigrated to Mexico in the mid-1920s.2

I will not delve further into this question as it has already been probed by Traven specialists and continues to be part of an ongoing study and debate. Instead, my objective has been to examine The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the ways in which it encapsulates some major features or aspects of the history of the U.S.-Mexico border region, particularly its western zone. While most of the novel's action takes place in the Mexican gulf port of Tampico and the sierra region of Durango, certain [End Page 678] important background elements, in the form of stories or parables told by the old prospector Howard—one of the three principal characters in the novel—are rooted in the history of the western U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

I argue that this region is still in large part motivated by a "gold rush mentality" in its quest for new sources of wealth in order to provide jobs and sustenance for increasingly affluent lifestyles and extravagant tastes. This, in turn, has put considerable pressure on the maintenance of an equilibrium between resources and human consumption and between economic growth and the preservation of natural spaces. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with its frequent references to Mexico's colonial past and tales concerning lost gold mines in New Spain's northern borderlands, provides, perhaps more than any other novel of the modern era, the perfect dramatic synopsis of the evolution of the gold rush syndrome in North America, as well as the strains and conflicts that it has produced throughout its history.

The Corrupting Influence of Gold

Gold and the quest for it are central symbolic elements in the novel. In Tampico two casual laborers in the oil fields—Dobbs and Curtin—begin to be attracted by the metal's allure from observing a fortune in gold jewelry in one of the town's store windows. Tired of scrounging for work from one or another of the oil field companies, the two men begin to discuss the possibility of prospecting for gold in the Mexican interior. Dobbs has little trouble convincing his acquaintance Curtin, since the latter informs him that gold hunting, rather than oil field work, was his original purpose for coming to Mexico.

A short time later, while staying at the town's Oso Negro hotel, Dobbs listens in on stories told by Howard, an old American prospector who has had experience working in many of the world's gold fields, to two other boarders at the hotel. In relating his experiences, the old man warns of the corrupting influence of gold:

Gold is a very devilish sort of...


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