Jenny Farrell introduces B. Traven, a writer who stood consistently and unreservedly on the side of the working class and the oppressed. Like Robert Tressell, his novels and writings relentlessly expose and protest the exploitative nature of the capitalist system.
The writer Otto Feige, alias B. Traven, died fifty years ago. He was German, born on 23 February 1882 in Świebodzin (now Poland). He was a trained machine fitter and an active social-democratic agitator and trade union official, with sympathies for anarcho-syndicalism. Aged 25, he adopted the fictitious identity of a native Californian named Ret Marut and worked as an actor, director and writer.
From 1917 to 1921, he published the pacifist magazine “Der Ziegelbrenner” (The Brick Burner) from his one-man Munich publishing house. He was active in the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic during the German Revolution of 1918-19. He managed to escape before being court-martialled and went underground, continuing to publish his magazine. After travelling through half of Europe, he was arrested as an illegal alien in London at the end of 1923. Originally, he had hoped to emigrate from London to the United States, but his entry failed due to the lack of identity papers.
Instead, in the summer of 1924, he took the boat to Mexico, where he was to spend the rest of his life. Here, he called himself Traven, or Traven Torsvan, and did his utmost to remain as invisible as possible.
Traven farmed some land north of Tampico in the agricultural settlement Columbus (today’s Cuauhtemoc, Altamira). He also earned some money taking temporary jobs in the nearby oil field, or at the cotton harvest, learning more about the country and its people. This experience fed into Traven’s writing and gave it a sense of authenticity and truth.
In early 1925, Traven sent the German Social Democratic paper “Vorwärts” (Forward) a novel that “describes the life of cotton pickers in the tropics from personal experience”. He stated in his pencilled cover-note that he not only worked as a cotton picker, but also as an “oilman, farm worker, cocoa worker, factory worker, tomato and orange picker, jungle harvester, muleteer, hunter, and merchant” among Indians. The editors believed the manuscript to be genuine and that the unknown author was a gifted migrant labourer. Traven never revealed his identity.
His success story as the author B. Traven began with the acceptance of the novel “The Cotton-Pickers” by “Vorwärts” and soon afterwards also by the newly founded Book Guild Gutenberg, a community of readers founded by the Book Printers’ Union, as an alternative to profit-oriented book publishers. By the time of his death in 1969, Traven had written twelve novels and four volumes of short stories, which were translated into 33 languages and reached a total circulation of about 30 million copies, including “The Death Ship” (1926), “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1927), “The Bridge in the Jungle” and “The White Rose” (both 1929).
“The Death Ship” made Traven famous around the world. The novel depicts a system that sacrifices the lives of the dispossessed for profit. Traven’s sailors without passports, proletarian farm and oil field workers, bakery employees, lumberjacks and other in wage slavery are trapped by fraudulent employment contracts. The employers exploit them ruthlessly, by paying them only a small part of the value they create, while retaining most of it as profit. In contrast, Traven advocates a just, classless society whose subjects lead a self-determined life.
What made Traven such a resounding success with the workers’ press and the book guild, and then with a reading public, was his depiction of the proletarian struggle for emancipation, which was so familiar to the readers, together with his defiance, his rebelliousness and his vision of freedom, justice and cultural participation. His main theme was the suffering of the exploited in the capitalist society and their revolt against it, usually set in an exotic location. Over and over, Traven emphasises the factual reality of his texts, the purpose of which is to enlighten and uncover the truth.
Traven evaded all contact with readers, editors, later even filmmakers. There is only one authenticated photograph of him, even giving his actual name as Otto Feige. The British police took it in 1923. In this police record revealing his actual identity, Traven states his true place of birth and his parents’ occupation (textile worker and brick burner). After that, he consistently denied his German origins, claiming to be American by birth, despite his German accent.
Traven died on 26 March 1969 in Mexico City, aged 87 years. Authorised by Traven, his widow Rosa Elena confirmed that he had been an actor and writer in Germany and published the magazine “Der Ziegelbrenner” under the name Ret Marut. But even she did not know who hid behind Ret Marut.
Will Wyatt of the BBC revealed in 1978 that two living siblings both recognised their lost brother Otto on photos of Traven in Mexico, the actor Ret Marut in Düsseldorf and the prisoner in London. Wyatt also commissioned Graham Rabey, a specialist in biometric facial recognition at the University of Manchester, to compare two photos of Otto Feige and Ret Marut. Rabey came to the conclusion that they were definitely one and the same person.
Traven is one of the most widely read working-class writers of the 20th century.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.