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Posts Tagged ‘John Steinbeck’

Adventures in Bookland: Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck

Monday, May 15th, 2017


Back when I was at school, I had a John Steinbeck phase, courtesy of an unusually well-stocked school library and a school where anyone wanting to escape the feral chaos of breaktimes had one of two choices: retreat to the library or joining the cadets. Naturally, I chose the former option, and there encountered for the first time John Steinbeck and W Somerset Maugham, two authors who are forever associated with St Aloysius’ College in my memory. As far as Steinbeck was concerned, I remember reading East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row (although pretty well nothing remains in memory of the last of these). But well-stocked though our school library was (a relic of the time when the school had been a grammar, before it went comprehensive and comprehensively lost its way), it didn’t have Cup of Gold. A pity, because a book subtitled A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History would likely have appealed to a fourteen-year-old boy looking for some escape from the school’s thoroughgoing violence (think Tom Brown’s Schooldays but without the Dr Arnold and rather less of the classical education, although the school did still run to Latin classes).

So having missed out on Cup of Gold at school, I came across it recently at the library – just as it was about to be thrown out. With the running down of public libraries, my old school library was much better stocked that even large libraries are today. One reason for that is the way books are removed – even classic books – if they are not taken out often enough according to some arbitrary algorithm sitting on a computer system. By that algorithm, Cup of Gold was to be deleted – I arrived just in time to give it a new home.

Having saved the book, I finally got round to reading it, my interest piqued by learning in the introduction that this was Steinbeck’s first novel. And, yes, it has all the hallmarks of a young man vigorously exploring just what he can do with this marvellous, overflowing cup of words that he has set in front of him. In Steinbeck’s case, the answer is a lot (although in later books he would choose, rightly, not to do some of the things he does in this one). Things such as spending the first half of the book in a cod mystical Wales (did Steinbeck ever visit Wales? My suspicion, from reading this and visiting Wales, is no), then rushing through the major part of the hero’s life in the second half, with the ending rather tacked on. So, yes, structurally it’s a bit of a miss, but one that carries the reader along with its sheer exuberance. Luckily, Steinbeck learned other skills to marry to the exuberance, and wrote better novels, but read this for an insight into a young writer flexing his artistic muscles for the first time.