John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold

John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold

Penguin Classics Edition, Illustration by Mick Wiggins

I had never been much of a John Steinbeck fan, but then I had only read a couple of his novels, force fed in high school (Of Mice and Men) and after college I read Cannery Row. The only thing I remember from that book is that at some point a man (or maybe a woman) walked into a house (or maybe a shack). I just thought of Steinbeck as a serious American writer who depicted the harsh realities of early American existence. Or something like that.

So I was really surprised to stumble across the fact that Steinbeck’s first ever novel was a historical novel about the pirate Henry Morgan, called Cup of Gold. Naturally I had to read it.

I found the first half of the novel to be pretty entertaining and humorous. I just love this introduction to Henry Morgan as a young boy:

“He lay propped on one elbow and stared past the fire into his thoughts. The long gray afternoon, piercing to this mysterious night, had called up strong yearnings in him, the seeds of which were planted months before. It was a desire for a thing which he could not name. Perhaps the same force moved him which collected the birds into exploring parties and made the animals nervously sniff-up-wind for the scent of winter.

Young Henry was conscious, this night, that he had lived on for fifteen tedious years without accomplishing any single thing of importance.” And had his mother know his feeling, she would have said,

“He is growing.”

And his father would have repeated after her,

“Yes, the boy is growing.” But neither would have understood what the other meant.

The family’s old farmhand Dafydd suddenly appears on the doorstep, returned from the West Indies in a state of post-traumatic stress, and proceeds to tell Henry and his father about where he has been. It’s a harrowing tale. He rattles on for three pages about the horrors of the things he has seen and done, and the horrors of the jungle, in a real Heart of Darkness way. Dafydd is a damaged, haunted soul and what should be a cautionary tale, has the opposite effect on Henry.

“Oh, I’m tired, Robert – so very tired,” he sighed, “but there’s one thing I want to tell you before I sleep. Maybe the telling will ease me and maybe I can speak it out and then forget it for one night. I must go back to the damned place. I can never stay away from the jungle any more, because its hot breath is on me. Here, where I was born, I shiver and freeze. A month would find me dead. This valley where I played and grew and worked has cast me out for a foul, hot thing. It cleans itself of me with the cold…”

Old Robert helped him from the room with a hand under his arm, then came and sat again by the fire. He looked at the boy who lay unmoving on the floor.

“What are you thinking about now, son? he asked very softly after a time. And Henry drew his gaze back from the land beyond the blaze.

“I’m thinking I’ll be wanting to go soon, father.”

I think that it would be hard to tell the tale of this real-life pirate who terrorized the Spanish Main, and have him be a likable sympathetic character, which Steinbeck did not do. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the second half of the book quite as much as the first, but that was probably more a result of reading another entire book in between. Overall though, I’d recommend Cup of Gold.

I love looking at the amazing variety of covers that have been designed for this book since 1929, most of which have hilariously misleading illustrations depicting scenes that never really happen in the book:

1944 Book Cover. Spoiler alert: It never really happens this way.

Bantam Books Edition

Bantam Books Edition.

Corgi Books Edition. What’s with that look on his face?

John Steinbeck's Cup of Gold

Popular Library Edition

Cup of Gold, McBride Edition

~ Leslie