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Authors: John Steinbeck

Cup of Gold

Table of Contents
Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, JOHN STEINBECK grew up in a fertile agricultural valley near the Pacific Coast—and both valley and coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next few years he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City and then as a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate, all the time working on his first novel,
Cup of Gold
(1929). After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he began to publish California fictions,
The Pastures of Heaven
To a God Unknown
(1933), and short stories of the working classes. Popular success and financial security came only with
Tortilla Flat
(1935), a novel about Monterey’s
. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class:
In Dubious Battle
Of Mice and Men
(1937), and the book considered by many his finest,
The Grapes of Wrath
(1939). In the forties he became an amateur marine biologist, as depicted in
Sea of Cortez
(1941), and wrote about the war in
Bombs Away
(1942) and the controversial play-novelette
The Moon Is Down
Cannery Row
The Wayward Bus
The Pearl
A Russian Journal
(1948), and
Burning Bright
(1950) preceded publication of the monumental
East of Eden
(1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history. Later books include
Sweet Thursday
The Short Reign of Pippin IV
Once There Was a War
The Winter of Our Discontent
Travels with Charley in Search of America
America and Americans
(1966), and the posthumously published
Journal of a Novel: The
East of Eden
Viva Zapata!
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
(1976), and
Working Days: The Journals of
The Grapes of Wrath (1989). The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. He died in 1968, having won a Nobel Prize in 1962.
SUSAN F. BEEGEL is editor of a scholarly journal,
The Hemingway Review
, and adjunct professor of English at the University of Idaho. Coeditor of
Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches
, she is the author of two additional books and more than fifty articles on various aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature and history. A research associate of the Williams College-Mystic Seaport Program, she has a special interest in maritime studies and literature of the sea.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in the United States of America by Robert M. McBride & Co. 1929
Published by Covici, Friede, Inc. 1936
Published by The Viking Press, Inc. 1938
Published in Penguin Books 1976
This edition with an introduction by Susan F. Beegel published 2008
Copyright John Steinbeck, 1929
Copyright renewed John Steinbeck, 1957
Introduction copyright © Susan F. Beegel, 2008
All rights reserved
eISBN : 978-1-4406-3082-8
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John Steinbeck’s
Cup of Gold
is, in the words of one early reviewer, a “rather weird” novel. Published in 1929, when Steinbeck was just twenty-seven years old, his first book rings with the clashing blades of dissonant elements.
Cup of Gold
is an historical novel, a fictive biography that follows the career of the actual Sir Henry Morgan (1635?-1688), England’s infamous “King of the Buccaneers,” with considerable fidelity. Yet the book is indebted not only to history, but to “boy’s own” adventure stories as well as to dramas of the screen and stage— to the swashbuckling romance as well as the brutal reality of the pirate tradition. And
Cup of Gold
is also a literary fantasy wherein the wizard-bard Merlin can instruct the historic Henry Morgan and the Grail quest of Arthurian legend can inform a story set largely in the seventeenth-century Caribbean.
The novel’s experimental style reflects its dueling genres. Inspired by a medieval revival fashionable in the 1920s, Steinbeck juxtaposes modernist prose and naturalistic observation with archaic speech and highly wrought figurative language.
Cup of Gold
combines a realistic method with allegory and parable. The book can be read as an ordinary man’s tragic quest for fortune, fame, and love; an artist’s failed quest to find his Muse; or Europe’s bloody quest to realize an American Dream in the New World. It can be a cautionary tale about the piratical ethics of American business and its corporate robber barons, or about the similarly piratical ethics of a new American imperialism. And finally,
Cup of Gold
is an autobiographical novel, the story of young John Steinbeck’s quest to find his vocation. Perhaps the best way to make sense of this dissonant symphony is to investigate each of its unusual elements.
The basic plot of
Cup of Gold
is reasonably faithful to the actual life of Sir Henry Morgan, arguably the most famous pirate in English history. The novel traces Morgan’s rise to fame and fortune—his boyhood in the Welsh mountains, his departure for the West Indies, his entrapment in indentured servitude, his slow acquisition of wealth and the means to buy a sailing vessel, and his eventual fulfillment of his dream “to go a-buccaneering and take a Spanish town.” Morgan’s brutal but brilliant career climaxes with his capture of the “Cup of Gold”—Panama City with its fabled riches. His depredations nearly bring him to the gallows, but instead Morgan claws his way to a knighthood and the lieutenant-governorship of Jamaica, winning the hand in marriage of the previous governor’s daughter, his cousin Elizabeth.
Cup of Gold
ends with the ailing knight on his deathbed.
Captain Blood
Pirates of the Caribbean
, virtually every pirate story in our literature owes something to the life and legend of the genuine Sir Henry Morgan, and
Cup of Gold
is no exception. A gentleman’s son from Wales, the historic Morgan probably went out to the West Indies as a soldier in a military expedition against the Spanish. After helping England seize Jamaica from Spain, Morgan based himself in Port Royal. There he created his own flotilla of small vessels and a heterogeneous force known as the Brethren of the Coast—a sea-borne army of English, French, and Dutch adventurers, professional cattle hunters, vengeful Indians, escaped slaves, runaway sailors, convicts, and cutthroats. Responding to no authority but the will and charisma of their leader, the Brethren fought the Spanish solely for prizes and plunder, hence the motto Steinbeck records, “No prey, no pay.” Ashore, they were known for rape, loot, and pillage. They took hostages, tortured victims to learn where their valuables were hidden, and held entire towns for ransom, burning them down if the gold and silver were not forthcoming. Between 1655 and 1671, Morgan and his men would sack eighteen cities, four towns, and thirty-five villages of New Spain. Morgan’s capture of Portobello against heavy odds was perhaps the most successful amphibious assault of his century, and his sacking of the fabled treasure city of Panama the most notorious.
These activities were a militant form of venture capitalism authorized, for the most part, by the British crown. Lacking a navy large enough to defend her developing interests and challenge Spanish supremacy in the New World, England instead relied on privateering—a legalized form of piracy—to harass the enemy. Men such as Morgan, able to fund their own expeditions and raise their own crews, were given letters of marque to legitimize their depredations and were allowed to keep their booty, often divided with respectable investors who purchased shares in their voyages. To the English, Morgan was, in Steinbeck’s words, “a hero and a patriotic man.” To the Spanish, however, this ruler of “a wild race of pirates” was “only a successful robber”—if not an infamous terrorist.
The historic Henry Morgan, like Steinbeck’s protagonist, married his cousin Mary Elizabeth, daughter of Colonel Edward Morgan, lieutenant-governor of Jamaica and Henry’s uncle. As in
Cup of Gold
, the marriage took place shortly after the death of the bride’s father, but fact differs from fiction in one important way—the actual wedding happened well before the sack of Panama. Morgan was already a successful and wealthy buccaneer, but the marriage was not contingent upon his triumph, and seems to have been made for love, as Mary Elizabeth had no dowry. This historic union echoes in every pirate yarn featuring a love affair between a buccaneer-hero and the governor’s daughter/ niece/ward, whether Captain Peter Blood and Arabella Bishop, or Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. By transmuting the actual Morgan union into a loveless marriage of convenience,
Cup of Gold
departs from both the romance and reality of the pirate tradition, and establishes its own ironic, antichivalric tone.
Problems arose for the historic Morgan when—as in the case of Panama—he continued his marauding without state sanction during a brief period when England and Spain were at peace. For this, he was arrested and taken to London to be tried as a pirate; but when England’s relationship with Spain took a turn for the worse, he was released, knighted, and made lieutenant-governor of Jamaica. There Morgan eventually died of the combined effects of tropical fever, dropsy, and alcoholism in 1688, leaving behind thousands of acres of sugar plantations and Mary Elizabeth, named in his will as “my very well and entirely beloved wife.”

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