As journalist John Chamberlain was a prominent figure on the libertarian right, and novelist B. Traven an important writer of the libertarian left, it’s of some interest to see what the former thought of the latter. Hence this excerpt from Chamberlain’s 1935 review of Traven’s novels The Death Ship and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre:
“The Death Ship,” a sea story that came not from a Conradian aristocrat of the deep but from the depths of the forecastle …. was shot through with the corrosive and bitter cynicism that is the surest sign of an underlying affection for a humanity which alternately betrays itself and permits itself to be betrayed. B. Traven is, at heart, a philosophical anarchist; he would approve of Professor Giddings’s definition of the origin of government, as quoted recently by Charles A. Beard: “Government originated with the first successful getaway.” One of the most wryly hilarious parts of “The Death Ship” was a comedy of the man who, after being shunted across border after border, began to doubt his own identity and even his existence. No more devastating arraignment of Red Tape and legal interference with the freedom of personality and movement has ever been written. …
“The Treasure [of the Sierra Madre]” proves to be a philosophical anarchist’s commentary on greed for possessions. … Until they find the gold, Dobbs and Curtin have the cynical wisdom of the uncorrupted underdog, the straight vision of men who, having nothing to defend, no property, no traditional conception of themselves, are not bought by their own money. …
Unlike most thrillers, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” has its social and political inferences. … When the Indians and mestizos of the story turn bandit … Traven always manages to have a character on hand with a deep sense of poetic justice to point the moral …. that a man who has been taught to expect violence and injustice will not scruple to use his opponent’s choice of weapons.
Underneath it all there beats the outraged heart of a man who cannot believe the evidence of his senses that the human race is only human when it can afford to be. B. Traven’s sense of outrage, which is rigidly controlled in the interests of formal story-telling, is what gives “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” its fine moral power.
(John Chamberlain, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, 11 June 1935.)
Is Chamberlain making a pun on “betrays … betrayed … B. Traven” in the first paragraph?
I certainly did not know that the author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre was anarchist, despite knowing about a lot of anarchist artists. In fact, that inspired me to make a list of the anarchist artists I have heard of before (limited roughly to those who are more well known for art than for political stuff, and who are not mainly known for political themes in art):
Edward Abbey, William Blake, John Cage, Ba Jin, Alfred Levitt, Dwight Macdonald, Alan Moore, Camille Pissarro, Man Ray, Herbert Read, Kenneth Rexroth, Percy Shelley, Paul Signac, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Jean Vigo, Oscar Wilde
The Traven novel I’d like to see a right-libertarian take on is “The Wobbly”, given the animosity towards the IWW in the fiction of some right-libertarian authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Garet Garrett. (Or maybe that would just be pointless.) Also, there’s a Traven review in the NYT archives by James Herndon, one of the group of 1960s/1970s education critics that included the likes of John Holt, Paul Goodman and George Dennison, and known as the author of “How to Survive in Your Native Land” and “The Way it Spozed to Be”.
For a long time I was under the impression that The Wobbly hadn’t been translated into English. In fact it has been, but under the name The Cotton Pickers. I haven’t read that one yet.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether George Lucas has read Traven’s Jungle Novels. The Mexican peasant’s line from Young Indiana Jones, “Revolutions come and go, presidents come and go, and each one steals your chickens” always reminded me of the Jungle Novels.
I wish someone would also translate Traven/Marut’s early Stirnerite journal The Brickburner.