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Gentlemen and Scoundrels — American and English writers in Mexico… and a strange German

6 October 2004

(edited to fix formatting errors, 23 Aug 2010)

I’ve been reading the English and American writers who lived and worked here. Most of them were completely nuts.

Some, like William S. Burroughs had almost nothing to do with Mexicans, but just wanted someplace cheap to live, and, most importantly, out of US jurisdiction. Burroughs, who spoke no Spanish, liked to brag about seducing policemen and giving them narcotics. I half suspect that the policemen were using the rich gringo. I tracked down the various apartments where the author lived (one is now the Federal Prosecutor’s office – alas not the drug police, which would be all too fitting). Burroughs was out on bail after shooting his wife, when Jack Kerouac showed up on his doorstep. Kerouac (who couldn’t speak Spanish either) was a terrible houseguest: he never cleaned up after himself, holed up in Burrough’s apartment smoking marijuana, never replaced what he ate out of the fridge, drank up the liquor (whatever was left after the late Mrs. Burroughs ill-fated attempt to balance a bottle of mescal on her head – Bill claimed he was playing “William Tell” and dropped the gun) – oh, and wrote On the Road.

D.H. Lawrence holed up in the Hotel Monte Carlo to complain about the plumbing (I’ve stayed there, and it still has noisy pipes) and write The Plumed Serpent in the hotel lobby. Lawrence already had his crackpot theories about race, and –after his wealthy wife rented a limousine and hired a chauffeur – went looking for local color to make his nonsensical tale of tragic miscegenation read a little less like something written by … oh, Josef Göbbels. At least he also wrote a semi-readable travel book as well. I’m not sure of Lawrence’s academic reputation these days – still high, I imagine, but then, academics have a soft spot for pretentious caca. It’s ironic: for Lawrence, the Indians, being closer to nature, are superior to “white” people. In The Plumed Serpent , it’s the debasement of mixing with “white” people that leads to tragedy. The only excuse for this was that the author was dying of tuberculosis (which can cause mental disturbances) and he had the good grace to die before Hitler and friends joined his fan club. The book is still popular with Nazis, old and neo-.

Graham Greene set out to trash the country (he was working for a Catholic paper covering anti-clericism), and was a very bad undercover reporter. He got one hilarious travel book (The Lawless Roads) and a great novel (The Power and the Glory) out of it anyway. By the way, Greene’s novels are nearly impossible to find here, either in Spanish or English (except for The Third Man, El tercer hombre, #59 of las 100 joyas del millenio – a common list of 100 books of the last millennium available in low priced editions from any number of Spanish-language publishers). Next time anyone’s coming this way, they might want to stop at their local second hand bookshop and look for paperback Greene novels for me.

Katherine Anne Porter’s knowledge of Mexico was more intimate. She arrived in 1920, ready to join the Revolution, but instead, joined the staff at a Catholic girl’s school where she taught English and dance (“Violetta the Virgin” is based on her students). It was her dancing – or rather her shapely dancer’s legs – that brought her into the Mexican avant-garde. Roberto Turnball’s 1927 Mitad y mitad was a shocking film for the time. It’s a psychological thriller in the expressionist style about sexual obsession. In the film, a young man living in a basement apartment falls in love not with the woman who passes by his window, but with her legs. Porter, who was a sometime journalist “explained the Revolution” to the readers of intellectual magazines (she socialized with Revolutionary leaders and Mexican artists and intellectuals) and tried to mount one of the first Diego Rivera shows in the United States. The artwork was seized by customs authorities on the grounds that Rivera was a Communist – which he was, of course (which didn’t prevent him from later working for the Rockefellers and the Wall Street investment banker and U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow. Morrow was another of Porter’s wide circle of acquaintances). Until the end of her life, Porter wrote stories, poems and essays on Mexico – and, in 1964, a novel, Ship of Fools. It was not only a best-selling “Book of the Month Club” novel, but also a successful Hollywood film. This is apparently a disgrace in academic circles, and her reputation has never recovered.
Katherine Anne Porter seems to be the only English-language writer who hung out with Mexicans, and Mexican writers. B. Traven – who became a Mexican citizen – didn’t hang out with anybody.

I’m not sure Traven even counts as an English-language writer. He was born in Chicago, which makes him a gringo, but he grew up in Germany. He wrote in German, and translated himself into English. Bruno Traven Thorvald (if that was his real name) was the bastard son of either the Kaiser or the Kaiser’s brother (mamma was a Norwegian with … uh, monarchist tastes). The Imperial Family provided Travel a pension until he died in 1969. The pension gave him the independence to do what he wanted. In his case, it was a rejecting his family ties, becoming involved with socialist and revolutionary activities in Germany. In 1933, he suddenly decided to become a Mexican author (Hitler had a lot to do with it – but then, Hitler had a lot to do with a lot of Mexican art and German immigration). Hitler made Traven’s career: banning his books (specifically, a pro-anarchist seafaring yarn, The Ship of Death – writers planning to live in Mexico should never use the word “Ship” in their titles) as “un-Aryan” and publicly burning them made the minor German anarchist and socialist writer an internationally known author.

In Mexico, Traven wrote not only adventure stories like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but also novels about the effects of industrialization and the Revolution on traditional Mexico (The White Rose is both the story of a ruthless American oilman and a traditional hacienda owner). Mexicans particularly praise A Bridge in the Jungle: it’s a simple tale – an immigrant worker in the U.S., back to visit his family, gives his little brother a new pair of shoes. The little boy, not used to wearing shoes, slips crossing a foot-bridge, drowns and is buried. Traven milks the village tragedy for all its ironic worth, and, say the Mexicans, has written the best description in any language of indigenous life and customs.

Traven hated being famous. He wanted to be left alone, and would play little games like pretending he was the German translator of novels written by President Adolfo Lopez Mateos under the pseudonym “B. Traven”. What gave the story a slightly plausible ring was that everyone knew Mateos’ sister was “B. Traven’s” Spanish translator. (Intellectual presidents, by the way, used to be the norm in Mexico. Vincente Fox is unusual for having no literary or intellectual pretensions. He once referred to “the famous Mexican author, Jose Borges.” Like other Argentineans, Jorge Luis Borges had a low opinion of Mexicans).

Hollywood – in the form of John Huston – made Traven a very rich anarcho-socialist. After he married his agent, he spent the rest of his life hiding from his fans and the press. There’s a memorial plaque in Tampico, commemorating the spot where Traven (under his real name, which was his best deception) met with Humphrey Bogart. Traven may not have been the greatest of prose stylists, but “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges” (from Treasure of the Sierra Madre) ranks right up there with “To be or not to be, that is the question” for quotability.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 October 2007 10:59 pm

    Really nice site you have here. I’ve been reading for a while but this post made me want to say 2 thumbs up. Keep up the great work

  2. radh permalink
    12 December 2010 9:34 am

    B. Traven maintained he was born in San Francisco in 1882, where the earthquake of 1906 had conveniently destroyed the records. In Germany in the 1910s Traven had called himself Ret Marut, a stage actor. He had published the pacifist, anarchist magazine The Brick Burner from 1917 and taken part in the short-lived Munich Räterepublik, where he met Erich Mühsam. Arrested on May 1, 1919, Marut somehow managed not to get executed and went underground, leaving Germany in 1923. He resurfaced in Mexico in 1924 as Travan Torsvan and later presented himself as Hal Croves to John Ford. “Ret Marut” did not exist before the early 1910s. Marut probably was a certain Otto Feige, but this is still in dispute. But Traven was Marut, Erich Mühsam had recognized Marut’s ideas and his style in the massive German bestsellers. All the early Traven manuscripts were written in German. There are a number of americanisms in his texts, but many more germanisms. One critic thinks, Traven used manuscripts by unpublished American writers. The same critic has identified an American magazine from which Traven lifted some of his stories.
    Why did Marut go to Mexico? Marut knew of ”Gale’s Magazine,” in which Linn A.E.Gale advertised Mexico as a haven for foreign revolutionaries. And the hero of Traven’s first novels is called Gerard Gale.

  3. 18 January 2011 5:36 pm

    @ radh; that Marut/Traven went to Mexico due to being convinced by the country being “advertised…as a haven for foreign revolutionaries” by Linn A.E. Gale I find unlikely. In 1921 Gale was deported by the Mexican state as an undesirable alien due to his radical publishing activities. On his return to the US he was then charged with draft dodging and previously jumping bail. He then repudiated his previous radical beliefs and offered to inform on his former radical comrades. So I doubt that Gale’s pre-1921/pre-deportation writings would have been seen in the same light by 1923/24, when Traven was on his way to Mexico.

  4. bob permalink
    30 January 2011 11:10 am

    the orginal article, the parts that concern traven, seems to have been pulled from a single wrong source. its not very close. wyatt – the secret of the sierra madre, gives a pretty close modern look. its not the last word, baumann and guthke also have standard books. zogbaum. traven is considered one of the biggest literary mysteries of the last century, its been a small industry trying to figure him out. this article is not very factual. as to the question of whether traven was pulled to mexico by gale’s magazine, that is strictly speculation. exactly how traven got to mexico is one of the darker areas of the story. radh’s comments are pretty well informed.

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