Book Review: Cup of Gold – John Steinbeck

Book:  Cup of Gold : A life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History

Author: John Steinbeck

Year Published: 1929

Rating: ☻☻☻☺☺ (3 of 5)

In the last of my old reviews, I briefly examine John Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold. The novel is a fictional take on the life of the famed privateer Henry Morgan, and takes several broad but well-researched liberties with the history of the region presented.

Pirates have always been a mainstay of the imaginary worlds of young boys growing up, and now, with the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and related media, the fictional side of that era in history is more visible than ever – perhaps too blindingly visible.

Keeping that in mind, I approached Steinbeck’s only historical fiction novel as truth – an approach I feel is expected by any author of the genre. If I were to write a historical fiction novel, even an alternate history novel, I would write it with the expectation that the reader would take a seat in the area of the auditorium marked “Reserved for Blank Sheets of Paper” – but we all know you can’t expect readers to follow the desires of the writer ALL the time. So I did my best to feign ignorance and allow Steinbeck to fill the pages for me. What I took out of the novel, without even knowing the true – or at least accepted – history of the region, was that it presents more symbolism than historical content. Researching the actual history after completing the novel, I have verified that this is mostly true. Steinbeck at least knew the material well enough that the broad strokes used to paint the picture did not fall too far out of the boundaries of truth. Picture a paint-by-number set where they give you the outline of the image and the correct colors to use, but no demand that the end product match the finished picture on the box.

That being said, underneath the pretty historical scenery we have one truth that is constant throughout the book: (my use of the masculine nouns here is reflective of the story – feel free to replace man with woman or asexual entity) Every man reaches a point in his life where he begins the process of dying. That point, barring the accidental tragedies unpredictable, is the day the man surrenders to adulthood.

The beginning of the novel drops us into the life of a younger Morgan, imprisoned by tradition and family in the land of his forefathers. The Morgan family is visited by an old acquaintance, recently returned home from adventures in the Caribbean. His tales inspire the young Morgan and fan the flames of a desire that the boy already felt within him. His goal becomes to leave his family and become a buccaneer and eventually sack a Spanish city with an army of pirates at his command – historically this ends up being his capture of Panama, the Cup of Gold that gives the novel its name. This he does, with a fierce determination only found in the blissfully young, and shows us that to be successful is to strive after a dream doggedly with conviction and never once stray from that goal – to fail is to lose sight of that goal in favor of other pursuits and accept that it is unattainable. Steinbeck is showing us through Morgan that the youthful spirit present in all of us at the beginning of our lives is a powerful force that can be used to defy the odds and bring us closer to our dreams. To mature and lose that “tunnel vision” for your goal, whether due to exhaustion of resources (time, money, support) or distraction is to practically surrender to a declining life.

Morgan is presented, underneath the fierce exterior of the successful privateer, as a boy who is very human. He lies to save face, like a child would to bolster his image on the playground. He suffers jealousies and failures that lead him to childlike tantrums and irrational self-torture, just like any of us might have in our lives. This “human” Morgan is what makes this book acceptable, if not enjoyable to me. While I see myself and my petty grievances against humanity mirrored  in the “immaturity” of the successful pirate, it inspires me to continue to hold on to that irrational drive to succeed in my own pursuits, regardless of the health, feelings, and safety of others – not because I don’t care about those around me, but because I respect the urges that are resident in the human individual that I am. His ascent from adversity as an indentured servant to one of the greatest privateers of the age in the short span of this novel shows that determination through life’s pitfalls only stops moving you towards your goals when you let go of hope.

Sometimes the things we strive for are best left mirages always retreating before us, always just out of reach but pulling us forward through time towards our demise – green lights forever on the horizon. Morgan discovers the grim reality of legend versus truth in his pursuit of La Santa Roja, the woman that becomes his fatal obsession. At that climax, when finally his hands grip the handle of the Cup of Gold and his eyes fall upon the true face of all his most passionate desires, Morgan becomes an adult – defeated by simplistic idiocy of the tragedy of randomness in life. Life as it is outside of his personal fantasies presses upon him quickly and without remorse, in a few short spasms of resistance he stumbles over the precipice of the pinnacle of his life and begins to descend down into the ground which will be his final resting place.

And so the Steinbeck I know finally appears. There is hope, and there is disaster. There are conquests, and there are complete routs. There is a moment in all our lives we could have just stayed home and not risked the failure or the ridicule. Cup of Gold is saying that to live is to hold on to that youthful spirit for as long as you can, but it is also saying that nothing is certain in your pursuit of happiness, or fortune, or glory – not success, not recognition or support, and not failure. The novel asserts you must realize this and be able to say “So be it.”

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