Cup of Gold

Setting | Character Summaries | Plot Synopsis | Reception
Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts


A 1936 cover from the novel Cup of GoldJohn Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold: A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History, is a work of historical fiction about the adventures of swashbuckler Sir Henry Morgan. Steinbeck intertwines some historical fact, as the title suggests, with a variety of literary conventions like medieval allegory, romantic adventure, and stark naturalism to retell the tale of Wales' famous Seventeenth Century "privateer."

As a young man, Henry is intrigued by exotic tales of high sea adventures. As he matures, he undertakes his quest to capture the heart of La Santa Roja, a woman allegedly as beautiful as the sun, and to conquer Panama, a place known as the Cup of Gold. Young Morgan swiftly becomes a fierce and revered commander of his own ship, gaining the admiration and respect of sea-faring men across several continents. The more accomplished Henry becomes as a sea captain, the more preoccupied he becomes with fulfilling his ultimate desire to find La Santa Roja and to raid Panama. His need to triumph over this woman compels him and he is eventually victorious in his pursuits, yet Henry pays an immense personal price for his fortune. Suddenly, the world he set out to gain collapses around him. Though he is promoted to great wealth and fame, he dies lonely and disillusioned.

Steinbeck's depiction of the isolated and disappointed Henry Morgan inverts the traditional tale of the carefree swashbuckler, while at the same time intimating themes about conventionality, repressed and unfulfilled desires, greed and hunger for power that will appear in many of his better known works later in his career. Cup of Gold was first published in August 1929 by Robert M. McBride and Company.