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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Cup of Gold: A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) » User review

A Very Odd Little Tale About a Pirate

  • Mar 8, 2001
The blurb on the cover says this was Steinbeck's one and only effort at an historical novel so I picked it up at once, being, myself, a lover of the historical tale. And frankly I like swashbucklers, to boot, so that promised an added kick.

Well, it read smoothly enough and yet it was a rather odd offering, all in all, since it proved to be a somewhat lyrical rendering of the life of the infamous pirate Henry Morgan, making him out to be an idealistic dreamer-knight, driven to do cruel and heartless things only because of his hard-to-outgrow boyishness, a condition which, in the end, entraps him in a never-never fantasy land of his own making. Certainly pirates weren't like this, all poets and romantics, not really, and it is very unlikely that Morgan, the rapacious scoundrel we know from history was.

And yet, there is something endearing and entrancing in this magical interior fantasy of a boy who sets out to find adventure and grows into the rapscallion Morgan, scourge of the seas, of the Spaniards and, in the end, of his fellow buccaneers. This tale tracks Morgan from his run-away Welsh boyhood to inadvertent slavery in the Carribbean to young manhood in the English colony of Jamaica, and on to his long dreamed of career of piracy and beyond. Growing into a fearless and clever strategist of the seas, Morgan hurts those he passes by on his life's journey, from parents to father figure in old Jamaica, to the women he abandons, all because of his own self-absorption and personal dreams. But the lure of the rich Spanish colony in Panama, known as the Cup of Gold, and of a reputed woman of unexcelled loveliness who resides there, the Red Saint, combine to draw him on to his greatest adventure of all. There in Panama Morgan meets his dream's end, never to be quite the same thereafter. There Morgan will shed his boyish cloak of fantasy and, in doing so, seal his fate as an ordinary mortal like the rest of us, doomed to labor and grow old and die in the shadow of his shattered dreams.

There is much that is surrealistic in this little novel although the portrayal of the time and place of the tale rings true enough, albeit as though seen through an oddly refracted psychological lense. The facts seem solid to, as Steinbeck describes many of the events of the time. But in the end, I found the dream-like quality of this tale less edifying than distracting and so, though it was an easy book to read, it did not completely win me.

author of The King of Vinland's Saga

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About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky ()
Ranked #230
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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About this book


This lush, lyrical fantasy is Steinbeck's sole work of historical fiction. Henry Morgan ruled the Spanish Main in the 1670s, ravaging the coasts of Cuba and America and striking terror wherever he went. His lust and greed knew no bounds, and he was utterly consumed by two passions; to possess the mysterious woman known as La Santa Roja, the Red Saint, and to conquer Panama and wrest 'the cup of gold' from Spanish hands. This work is a fantastic, swashbuckling stuff!--This text refers to an alternatePaperbackedition.
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ISBN-10: 014018743X
ISBN-13: 978-0140187434
Author: John Steinbeck
Publisher: Penguin Classics

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