It’s always interesting, when an author has become famous for books written later in their career, to go back to the very beginning and read their earliest work. Cup of Gold, John Steinbeck’s first novel, was published in 1929 and is my second choice for this week’s 1929 Club hosted by Simon and Karen.
I’ve previously only read two of Steinbeck’s books (East of Eden and The Pearl) and hadn’t even heard of this one until I started to look at options for 1929 Club. I was intrigued because it sounded so completely different from his other books – not the sort of plot or genre I would have associated with Steinbeck at all. It’s also a short novel (just over 200 pages) so I could easily fit it into my busy October reading schedule!
Cup of Gold opens in 17th century Wales where a fifteen-year-old boy, Henry Morgan, lives on a farm with his parents and his grandmother, Gwenliana, who claims to have second sight. Growing up in a remote part of the Welsh countryside, Henry is growing restless to leave home and see more of the world. When Dafydd, an old farmhand who left many years earlier to go to sea, returns to the farm to tell the family of his adventures, Henry becomes determined to do the same. His mother, who still considers him a child, tells him not to be ridiculous, but his father accepts that this is something his son must do and sends him off with his blessing.
Before leaving, Henry consults the wise, white-bearded poet known as Merlin, who lives alone with his red-eared dog in the hills above the Morgans’ valley. Merlin makes the following observation, words Henry will remember for the rest of his life:
“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.”
Arriving in Cardiff – the first time he has seen a large town – Henry secures passage on a ship to Barbados, where he finds himself indentured to a plantation owner. This is not what Henry had been hoping for, but he knows it will only be for a few years and then he’ll be free again to achieve his dream of becoming a buccaneer and making his fortune.
If the name Henry Morgan is familiar to you, then you’ve probably already guessed that this is the story of the notorious pirate of the Caribbean, a real historical figure (and the inspiration for Captain Morgan rum). In fact, the full title of the novel is Cup of Gold: A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History. ‘Occasional reference’ is not an exaggeration because it seems that very little of Steinbeck’s account has anything to do with historical fact – although, to be fair, there are lots of gaps in our knowledge of Morgan’s early life and career so plenty of scope for an author to use their imagination. It’s unclear whether I should even be referring to Morgan as a pirate; many sources describe him as a privateer, although the only difference I can see is that one is declared ‘legal’ by the government who stands to gain from their raiding and pillaging and the other isn’t.
The ’cup of gold’ of the title, which Merlin compares to reaching for the moon, refers to two things – Panama, which Henry sees as the ultimate prize just waiting to be captured from the Spanish, and a beautiful woman known as La Santa Roja (the Red Saint). Henry’s yearning for both of these is what drives him – and the narrative – forward. Yet I found this book to be neither the swashbuckling adventure novel nor the romance I’ve seen it described as and it’s certainly not as much fun as Georgette Heyer’s Beauvallet or Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. It’s a more serious novel than either of those and never loses sight of its central themes: the quest for happiness and the question of whether we can ever be truly content with what we have or will go on searching for something that’s always out of reach. However, I discovered that I didn’t really care about Henry’s happiness as I found it so difficult to relate to somebody who deliberately set out on a life of piracy and committed so many terrible acts! That was a bit of a problem with so much of the story told from Henry’s perspective.
This is a beautifully written novel, though, and the sections set in Wales – or Cambria, as Steinbeck usually calls it – feel mystical and dreamlike. The inclusion of Merlin in the plot is intriguing: are we supposed to believe that he is really the legendary magician, alive in the 17th century, or is he just an eccentric old man who believes he is Merlin? Either way, Arthurian legend is obviously something that interested Steinbeck and he would later go on to write The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which was posthumously published in 1976.
I wouldn’t describe this as a must-read classic, but it’s worth reading if the subject or setting appeal or if you’re interested in experiencing the work of a famous author at the very start of his career.
I’m also counting this as book #57 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.