Cup of Gold
Author: John Steinbeck
There’s a lot of authors I really enjoy, but when pressed for who is the best author I’ve read I default to John Steinbeck. I’ve read about a dozen of his books, and am sure I’ll get to the rest of them at some point and there’s no time like the present. I picked up Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold and was surprised immediately by one thing and surprised again about 50 pages in.
My first surprise was that Steinbeck’s first novel was a pirate romance adventure. My copy of the book refers to itself as “a lusty buccaneer adventure.” The front cover further states “he sacked Panama for a woman’s kisses” and features a busty damsel in shock at the oncoming kiss by the pirate captain. The book begins with some very melodramatic dialogue between a father and mother who are worried because their son wants to leave home to go lay siege to cities as a pirate. The dad sends him to speak to Merlin, the old man in town, in hopes that he’ll talk young Henry Morgan out of his adventure. The dialogue in this part of the book seemed like Steinbeck trying to write in an old English, and mixed with the ridiculousness of Henry’s quest it took me awhile to get invested in the story.
Once Henry sets off on his adventure things go really well. He gets a ride on a ship across the ocean, however upon arrival he is sold into slavery as an indentured servant for a period of five years (OK, that’s probably not how he wanted his adventure to begin). Fortunately for Henry, his master really enjoys Henry’s company, lets him read his books, make his business decisions and have sex with his most attractive slave woman. Henry takes advantage of his situation by placing himself in a position to gain the skills he needs for his goal and also stealing enough on the side that he can afford his mission once he is no longer in servitude. At that point he gets his ship and sets off as Captain Morgan.
At that moment I was surprised for the second time as I placed the word Captain next to our protagonist’s last name. Some quick Wikipedia-ing led to my realization that 1) this book is about Captain Morgan 2) Captain Morgan was a real guy. When Steinbeck wrote this book, the popular rum was not yet being produced, and Captain Morgan was a popular historical figure due to his exploits as a privateer. If you were aware of Captain Morgan’s historical origins or that John Steinbeck wrote a book about him already than you were ahead of me.
After Henry Morgan leaves home, I really enjoyed this book. All of the talk about lusty adventures or romance were likely added to sell books, because it’s not at all representative of the book. Henry has some interesting relationships with the ladies in his life. His mother is pretty much an emotional wreck, always crying or pleading with Henry or his father. His neighbor Elizabeth is very beautiful and Henry appears to love her, but the two never interact in this story. The woman he has a relationship with during his servitude is very conniving toward Henry, but Henry has no attachment to her whatsoever. The reason for his eventual travels to Panama is very interesting in her interacting with Henry, but there’s no romance here.
Instead we get some very interesting internal conflict as he goes from a shallow young man who thinks he knows everything he wants to an older man who has to learn that he has no idea what makes him happy. The book is short (my copy was 191 pages) and covers Morgan’s teenage years until his death. The result is that everything moves very quickly. Aside from the first section of the book, Steinbeck’s use of language was as to be expected (damn fine). There are definitely the seeds of what would eventually become one of the greatest writers of all time. This is not the first book I’d recommend to a Steinbeck new reader however, due to the slow beginning and some very hokey instant declarations of love. New readers are better off starting with books like Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley or even his last book, The Winter of Our Discontent.