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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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John Steinbeck's "Cup of Gold"; first edition, first issue; with color pictorial jacket; Robert M. Mc Bride; 1929; sold for $6,000. Photo courtesy of PBA Galleries.
When John Steinbeck wrote his first novel “Cup of Gold” he worked as a caretaker in Lake Tahoe on a large estate owned by the widow of a San Francisco surgeon.

Steinbeck’s nearest neighbor was two miles away so he could write in peace. There was also plenty to read in the family’s well stocked library and mostly he was content. When Steinbeck wrote he also listened to classical music. He said it improved the rhythm of his words.

“Cup of Gold : A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History,” was the full title of the book. Steinbeck’s 1929 historical fiction was loosely based on the life of pirate, Sir Henry Morgan. Morgan ruled the Spanish Main in the 1670's, ravaging the coast of Cuba and America and wrecking havoc wherever he went.

Full of good guys and bad guys the book celebrated the myths and legends Steinbeck enjoyed as a child. The novel grew out of a short story he wrote as a student at Stanford.

While he was writing “Cup of Gold” Steinbeck traveled to Camp Richardson twice a week on snowshoes. It was a meeting place for caretakers of surrounding resorts. There he got his mail and enjoyed some conversation and camaraderie.

But Steinbeck enjoyed his solitude. He saw it as groundwork for life as a writer.

“Do you know, one of the things that made me come here was, as you guess, that I am frightfully afraid of being alone,” he wrote to a friend. “The fear of the dark is only part of it. I wanted to break that fear in the middle, because I am afraid much of my existence is going to be more or less alone, and I might as well go into training for it.”

In deep isolation he was able to go deep with “Cup of Gold”. He knew the book would not be his best work, but he hoped it would jumpstart his career. When he was done, Steinbeck sent the handwritten book to college friend Kate Beswick who typed it for him.

Early in 1929 Steinbeck received word from Stanford classmate, Ted Miller that Robert M. McBride & Company was going to publish “Cup of Gold”. Steinbeck was paid a $250 advance against future sales.

His friend Mahlon Blaine was hired to illustrate the text and Steinbeck was upset and insulted. He thought the illustrator made the book look like a swashbuckling tale for teenagers rather than a work of serious adult fiction. Ultimately, Steinbeck didn’t complain too much because “Cup of Gold” sold more copies than his next two books combined.

Steinbeck was a natural storyteller with a knack for capturing the feelings and lives of everyday working people from the early-20th century through the 1960s.

“My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other,” he said. Steinbeck did just that.

Collecting John Steinbeck has always been expensive for two reasons. His books are desirable and his first editions in dust jackets are scarce.

On Jan. 15, PBA Galleries, San Francisco, featured a selection of Steinbeck books in its Fine Literature sale. Here are some current values.

John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men; first edition, first issue; pictorial jacket; Covici-Friede; 1937; $900.

East of Eden; one of 1500 copies; Viking; 1952; $1,440.

The Red Pony; first edition; one of 699 hand numbered copies; Covici-Friede; 1937; $2,040.

The Grapes of Wrath; first edition; color pictorial jacket; Viking; 1939; $3,000.

Cup of Gold; first edition, first issue; unstained top edge; color pictorial jacket; light wear to edges; $2.50 printed price still present; Robert M. Mc Bride; 1929; $6,000.

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