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A Thought for Today


by Terrell Tebbetts                  

       

Last week I read a little-known novel by Steinbeck titled Cup of Gold, and it got me to thinking about an issue in today’s world. The novel, which came out in 1929, tells the story of Captain Henry Morgan, perhaps the most successful of the freebooters who ravaged the Spanish Main in the latter 1600s. Such a story relates to our world? Trust me. First a little background. Morgan was British. In the 1600s little Britain was still trying to establish its claim to a part of the Americas, while powerful Spain dominated the hemisphere. Rather than challenge Spain directly with British warships, Britain commissioned independent freebooters—aka buccaneers or pirates—to attack Spanish ships and settlements to carry off all they found. That’s the world which Steinbeck depicts and in which he develops the character of Captain Henry Morgan. That world’s relevance to our world lies in two of its principal characteristics. One characteristic is that it’s an all-male world. Steinbeck’s freebooters have no wives and no family lives. How could they? They’re at sea much of the time, and while in port they pretty much stay drunk. Yes, Steinbeck has them visiting the harbor whores, but that’s hardly like having a wife and family. Their only “families” are the other freebooting shipmates they work, drink, gamble, fight, and whore with. The second characteristic is the utter violence filling these men’s lives. They kill all the sailors whose ships they take, they kill all the men in the port cities they raid, they rape every woman they find in those cities, and then they burn the cities to the ground. They do all this without the least bit of compunction and with absolutely nothing remotely approaching moral or even simply humane reasoning. Morgan makes the connection between these two characteristics perfectly clear. In his last conquest before “retirement,” he takes Panama City and finds the prize he longs for, the most beautiful woman in the world, La Santa Roja. When she rejects his first advances, he goes out and shoots one of his own followers. When she also rejects his next advances, he shoots the only one of his followers he’s allowed to become close to him. Steinbeck’s point is pretty simple, isn’t it? The absence of women makes the lives of men destructive. Don’t we see Steinbeck’s point in today’s urban street gangs? Like Steinbeck’s freebooters, they live in all-male worlds, having sex without commitment and becoming “baby daddies” without becoming husbands or fathers. They hijack cars rather than ships and pillage their own neighborhoods rather than coastal cities, but their violence, especially against one another, stuns us. Prophet Steinbeck warned us 85 years ago: men need women if their lives are to be productive, and women need to secure men’s commitments if their lives and the lives of their children are not to be filled with destruction. Terrell Tebbetts is the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in American Literature at Lyon College. He can be reached at terrell.tebbetts@lyon.edu.