Cup of Gold - Critical Reception
Though it sold what critic Susan Beegel reports to be a "respectable" 1,533 copies
first issue, Cup of Gold received little critical attention upon its publication (xxxvii). That is typical for a first novel, of course. The reviews it did receive were mixed, a foreshadowing of reviews of Steinbeck's works throughout his long and varied career. John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews points out that "the smattering of notices given [Cup of Gold] acknowledge its drama, its 'thoroughly masculine' appeal, and its facility with characterization" (xi). While some critics enjoyed the "swing and movement" of the tale's many exciting adventures, others criticized what they viewed as an unsuccessful blending of historical romance with more contemporary naturalistic fiction (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 4). As Wilbur Needham of the Los Angeles Times aptly states, "[Cup of Gold] is a gorgeous story; but you may be sure Steinbeck has not handled it in any orthodox fashion" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 7).
This charge of "unorthodoxy" would go on to resound throughout Steinbeck's career as his contemporaries were continually befuddled by his blending of seemingly inappropriate genres and his tendency to write about the cruel and dark side of human nature. Even is his first novel, Steinbeck did not shy away from describing the brutality to which people are liable to sink. One reviewer for the New York Evening Post commends Steinbeck for not overly romanticizing Henry Morgan: "[. . .] Henry's many undesirable qualities are not camouflaged. Henry was a cruel, orgiastic brute" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 4). Steinbeck also describes sexuality quite brutally and unabashedly portrays the cruelties of slavery and murder.
Overall, Cup of Gold, though generally considered decent for a first novel, still receives little critical attention in comparison to Steinbeck's later well known works. Still, the novel serves as an excellent introduction to some of the themes and interests that preoccupied Steinbeck throughout his career. Beegel points out, "Critics [. . .] have tended to search Cup of Gold for thematic similarities between this ambitious, swashbuckling pirate fantasy and Steinbeck's mature realistic fiction" (xxxix). Steinbeck himself always seemed ready for a high seas adventure and was engrossed with tales of travel and mysticism. Quests and discoveries of one kind or another are nearly always situated at the core of his fiction. Likewise, the disillusioned and disappointed dreamer, like Henry Morgan, nearly always makes an appearance in his fiction as well. Beegel quotes critic Joseph Fontenrose who identifies in the text:
[T]hemes of loneliness, mystic identification with the whole world, [. . .] women's secret knowledge, the speed of rumor, degeneration caused by too much security. Visible here are Steinbeck's interest in social justice, Greek and Latin literature, occult powers, the inner life of children. And in this, his first novel, we meet the Virgin Whore, the prostitute, the competent mother, the religious bigot, the madman, the wealthy amateur scientist, and the wizard-seer—recurring character types in Steinbeck's novels. (qtd. in Beegel xxxix-xl)
A thorough study of Steinbeck seems incomplete without a consideration of his first novel which, with hindsight, we can see presages so much of what is to come in his later writing. Additionally, Steinbeck fans will enjoy this compelling tale of obsession, conquest, and disappointment. The striking images in Henry's death vision at the end of the novel beautifully highlight the important roles that human companionship, love, and memories play in creating meaningful life experiences.