It has been my intention, for some time now, to read (and in some cases, reread) the works of John Steinbeck. Amongst his canon there’s a varied mix of fiction, essays, and journalism and I think it would be best to read them in sequence in order to experience Steinbeck’s progression as a writer. Thus I begin withCup Of Gold (1929), Steinbeck’s first novel, and his sole piece of historical fiction, something he would later consider “an immature experiment”. By this he meant that it was the novel that had to be written by the fledgling writer in order to purge the influence of those who had gone before.
So what we have here is a Steinbeckian swashbuckler - just over two hundred pages yet epic in feel, the scope hinted at in the novel’s subtitle: A Life Of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, With Occasional Reference To History. In Cup Of Gold, Steinbeck sets out to write a fictional account of the famous pirate’s life - from boyhood to death - and, despite its faults, he delivers.
It begins, in Wales, where the fifteen year old Henry Morgan lives on the farm with his parents. One night a former farmhand - who had left years before for the Indies - returns and tells of his adventures, the excitement of which spark young Morgan to make the decision to leave home and make his fortune overseas. While his father feels he cannot stop his boy from leaving home, his mother has a hard time letting him go, for she believes him still her little boy and, as regards his notion to become a seaman, “such matters as had so obviously no connection either with the church or with the prices of things were plainly nonsense.”
Before finalising his decision to leave for the Indies, Morgan is encouraged to talk with the local Cambrian hermit, a man who borrows the name of Merlin. After a brief conversation full of cryptic wisdom and prophcies, it is decided that Morgan could be famous, as long as he remains childish in his dreams:
“You are a little boy. You want the moon to drink from as a golden cup; and so, it is very likely that you will become a great man - if only you remain a little child. All the world’s great have been little boys who wanted the moon; running and climbing, they sometimes caught a firefly. But if one grow to a man’s mind, that mind must see that it cannot have the moon and would not want it if it could - and so, it catches no fireflies.”
And so the life of Morgan continues, first to a bar in Cardiff where his first experiences of the world at large are revealed to him in the chattering of myriad languages and “the colors of faces from beef red to wind-bitten brown.” Then, through his naivete, Morgan finds himself working his passage to the Indies only to be sold into slavery when he arrives there. But, undeterred, he works his sentence, never letting his dream of being a buccaneer fade, and in this time he grows from innocent boy to ruthless man who, as Merlin predicted, wanted the moon.
The moon, in this instance, is a woman famed for her beauty, named La Santa Roja - yet it is also Panama, the ‘Cup of Gold’ of the title. After the many skirmishes at sea that have built his reputation, Morgan sets his sights upon wresting Panama from Spanish hands and gaining untold of fortune. It’s a masterplan in tactics that sees many deaths before opposing sides even clash, due to starvation and the cruel terrain. But when the city is sacked, Morgan finally finds himself in the company of La Santa Roja, and despite all of his effortless conquests she proves to be more his match, reducing him to a man that no longer wishes the moon.
As Steinbeck novels go, Cup Of Gold is an enjoyable but average romp around the Caribbean. The language that would grace later works is certainly evident but not all characters feel fully fleshed. Dialogue, also, is a little off. But, to the novel’s credit there are sections where Steinbeck eschews the narrative to give historical asides to topics such as the rise of English presence in the Indies, marking out England as ruthless and ingenious as Morgan himself:
…felons were gathered out of the prisons, and vagrants from the streets of London; beggars who stood all day before the church doors; those suspected of witchcraft or treason or leprosy or papism; and all were sent to work the plantations under orders of indenture. It was a brilliant plan; the labor needed was supplied, and the crown actually received money for the worthless bodies of those it once fed and clothed and hanged. More could be made of this.
While it’s probably a novel for Steinbeck completists, Cup Of Gold contains elements that were forever interests to him, namely piracy and Arthurian legend. It stands well on its own and its historical context ensures that it will never truly date - although it felt more like a myth than a proper history given the tracts of dialogue characters would reel off, full of experience, knowledge, and superstition. But it’s a fine meditation on money and love and of what can be achieved when the mind is determined - a minor Steinbeck treasure worth plundering.