Cup Of Gold: A Life Of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, With Occasional Reference To History, by John Steinbeck
This is a strange book, but given that this was John Steinbeck’s first novel, it is not surprising that it should be odd. Not commonly reviewed when it was first released to very modest popular success, the novel became much more important after Steinbeck’s novels as a whole became popular, and people started to read this novel with an eye towards his future work. And as a reader of this novel, it is important not to try to read this as being some sort of harbinger of the author’s work as a whole and it is easy to see elements of this novel that were were continued in the author’s later and more successful efforts. The helpful introduction points out some of this, such as the author’s characteristic blend of a cynical realism as well as a fond taste for somewhat heavy-handed symbolism, the author’s fondness for focusing on the little people, and a certain romanticist attitude when it comes to love and the mystery of women. It should be noted as well that while the novel’s lack of realism is fairly openly obvious, that the book was treated later on as a more or less straightforward history rather than a work whose darker view of its subject in an anti-heroic work was highly biased and not strictly factual at all.
The Cup of Gold is a short novel of less than 200 pages, or about 200 pages if one includes the introductory material that sets the context of the book within the author’s writing as a whole. If this book is definitely not a famous book, it has a great deal of meaning for the author, particularly in the way that it demonstrated a love for playing with historical material as well as reflecting aspects of the author’s influences that were not fashionable at the time he started writing novels and whose unfashionability remains the case today. As far as a story goes, this book takes a chronological approach to the life of Sir Henry Morgan that only occasionally approximates the reality of his life. Morgan is portrayed as abandoning the traditional ways of his family to go thieving and finds himself to be an indentured servant with a yearning for knowledge and power whose relationships with women leave a lot to be desired. The author underplays Morgan’s genuine love match with his cousin and make the movement of Sir Henry from young and ambitious and driven man to elder statesman and British colonial official an anti-heroic journey marched by extreme violence and treachery even within the treacherous world of piracy.
Is this a novel worth reading? You can certainly do a lot worse in reading novels than in reading a lesser work in which Steinbeck was still gaining mastery over his powers. In many ways the novel sits uneasily between the boys’ own adventuring novel that its publisher tried to portray it as with its swashbuckling hero, its humorous “Welsh” dialect language, and its oddly ignorant attitude towards women as being mysterious beings and the mature blend between realistic and symbolic elements that Steinbeck would work towards over and over and over again later on in his works. There are genuine moments of humor here and those with a cynical attitude towards the English use of piracy as a means of attacking the Spanish with plausible deniability (sometimes) will find much to appreciate here, as the English come off as being on the same level as Middle Eastern terrorists or Somali pirates in their savagery and lack of respect for the property rights of others. This book is a reminder, if a reminder is necessary, that those who are property poor tend not to respect property rights, but those who are property rich change their tune in response to their changed interests, something that is as true of England or Sir Henry Morgan as it is to contemporary companies like Disney, or even to the career of John Steinbeck himself.