American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE DEATH SHIP (Das Totenschiff 1926; Eng. trans. 1934). Ascribed to B. Traven (1882? 1890?-1969), The Death Ship was first published in Germany in 1926 and translated into English in 1934. A scathing indictment of bureaucracy, privilege, and social class, The Death Ship follows the life of a fictional American sailor named Gerard Gales. Distracted by a night of drinking and a newfound female companion, he misses the departure of his ship. With neither passport nor sailor’s card to prove his identity, European authorities pass him from country to country. While the rich and powerful quickly navigate the bureaucratic morass established after World War I, Gales, a common sailor, is shuffled between consulates and police stations.

Failing after considerable effort to identify himself legally, he settles for a berth on the Yorikke, an illegal steamship involved in smuggling arms to various revolutionary groups. Gales is a coal-drag, hauling coal from the bunkers to the firemen stoking the boilers, the lowest position on the ship. He endures horrid working conditions: brutes for officers, an agonizing watch schedule, and nearly catastrophic equipment failure. Working in the boiler room, Gales is perpetually burned, scalded, and scorched by hot coals, leaking steam, and the grate-bars that fall from the furnace.

The Yorikke appears to be the “death ship” of the novel’s title in both physical condition and mission. On board, Gales gives up the identity that he has tried so hard to establish and becomes known as Pippip. Nonetheless, he comes to love the old Yorikke just as he is shanghaied* on the Empress of Madagascar, a supposedly “civilized” British vessel. This vessel is about to be scuttled for the insurance money, and it is the real “death ship.” Gales and his companion come to a frantic end, delirious and hallucinating, as the ship finally sinks. How Gales apparently survives to tell the tale remains a mystery.

Identity is a theme relevant to both the work and its author. Traven admits that Gales, who tries to prove his identity before accepting the anonymity of a tramp sailor, is his closest biographical character. Likewise, Traven’s personal identity is enigmatic. He was deliberate in his attempts to mislead investigators, reporters, and researchers and was known to have used over twenty-five aliases crossing seven nationalities. For his trouble, he succeeded in drawing even more attention to himself, creating one of the greatest literary mysteries of the twentieth century.

Researchers have hotly debated whether “B. Traven” was Rex Marut, actor, author, revolutionary, and alleged illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, born 25 February 1882, in San Francisco, or Otto Feige, born 23 February 1882, in Schwiebus, Germany. Once Traven began publishing from post office boxes in Tampico, Mexico, records and references to Marut and Feige disappear. His identity was then traced to one Traven Torsvan, born 5 March 1890, in Chicago. Traven’s claims to being an American seemed confirmed, but there is no birth record for Torsvan in Chicago. A final alias, Hal Croves, the writer’s “agent,” appears late in the author’s life. In his will, Traven states that all the names are indeed his. Perhaps the only certainty is that the author known as B. Traven died 26 March 1969.

FURTHER READING: Chankin, Donald O. Anonymity and Death: The Fiction of B. Traven. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1975; Guthke, Karl S. B. Traven: The Life behind the Legends. Frankfurt am Main: Buchergilde Gutenberg, 1987, Eng. trans. Brooklyn, NY: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991; Stone, Judy. The Mystery of B. Traven. Los Altos, CA: William Kaufmann, 1977; Wyatt, Will. The Man Who Was B. Traven. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980.

Glenn Grasso