CMU Libraries: Full Record (2 of 4)
Sunday, July 13, 1997

IN AMERICA'' By Peter Ackroyd Doubleday. $22.95.
   In 1660, John Milton was both the poet of ``Lycidas,'' ``L'Allegro,'' and 
``Il Penseroso'' and the well-known Protesant author of controversial tracts 
condemning the royal government of England and defending the beheading of 
Charles I.
    He wrote against the tyranny of kingship and what he viewed as the 
incestuous relationship between the crown and papacy, which he thought 
helped to lure the people into ``a double tyranny of custom and blind 
affections from within.''
   With restoration of the British crown in 1660, the great revolutionary 
writer and former member of Oliver Cromwell's government may well have had 
good reason to fear for his life.
   Novelist Peter Ackroyd chooses this moment in Milton's life to set his 
new novel. We find the blind writer skulking through English backroads in a 
covered wagon. A young rapscallion, who becomes his guide through the 
visible world and his amanuensis, hops in.
   His ability to write Milton's words - and a stiff shock of hair - prompts 
the poet to dub him ``Goosequill.''
   Ackroyd's historical fiction follows a long tradition of satire. Indeed, 
Milton's jocular right-hand boy seems a cross between Lawrence Sterne's 
Tristam Shandy and Mark Twain's Huck Finn. Ackroyd achieves his more subtle 
satiric effects by placing the great canonical figure in close quarters with 
such unlikely company as the uneducated and the ``savage.''
   The two strange companions join a group of ``brethren'' headed to the New 
World in the ship Gabriel, named for one of the archangels who plays a role 
in Milton's ``real'' ``Paradise Lost.''
   Abounding in allusions to Milton's poetry and prose, Ackroyd shipwrecks 
the vessel and only Goosequill and the blind poet survive. They seek the 
``fresh woods and pastures new'' of America, and discover Puritans who wish 
to name their settlement ``New Milton.''
   Though established by ``choice'' and ``election,'' with Milton as the 
chief magistrate, New Milton soon begins to resemble the church government 
and rule of law that Milton so abhorred.
   Milton has a mysterious experience among the Indians, after which he 
turns from radical Protestant to unequivocal Puritan. A nearby settlement of 
papists, who revive the tradition of the maypole and later of kingship, push 
Milton over the edge, and the rhetoric of his political and religious tracts 
takes to arms. Along the way, Milton and the king of the Maypoler-papists, 
Kempis, engage in a verbal battle that resembles an Internet flaming more 
than a 17th-century religious dispute.
   The opposition of the Puritan New Milton and the revelers of Mary Mount 
recalls the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the rival themes in Milton's 
own ``L'Allegro'' and ``Il Penseroso'' - whether sumptuous enjoyment or 
sensual austerity should be the guiding principle of life.
   Goosequill comes to favor the revelers and eventually leaves New Milton. 
Though he initially admired the learned poet, he believes Milton has 
forsaken beauty by severing sensual enjoyment from the Commonwealth. The 
Puritanical view of nature as evil, Goosequill and the novel suggest, will 
have devastating consequences for the New World.
   Towards the end of the novel, we are given an account of Milton's 
experience among the Indians, which provided a brief respite from his 
blindness (and other sensual deprivation). Imbibing a ritual Indian 
aphrodisiac, Milton becomes enamored of an Indian woman and sleeps with her. 
Upon waking, he is filled with horror and self-disgust, flees the Indians, 
trips over a rock and becomes blind again.
   It is upon his return from this ``fall'' that Milton becomes the arch 
Puritan of the Americas. He is then ready to lead a coalition of Protestant 
settlers into a blood bath against Mary Mount.
   Ackroyd, biographer of Blake, Dickens and T.S. Eliot, not only suggests 
that Milton's blindness represents his denial of the senses, but that as 
Blake had held, his notion of the Fall is exactly backwards: the Fall from 
Paradise comes only after the banishment of sensual enjoyment.
   Though premised (perhaps intentionally) on what is now recognized as a 
mistaken stereotype of Milton as a fanatical Puritan (he actually wrote in 
favor of divorce, against censorship and was not an anti-sensualist), 
Ackroyd brilliantly brings his New Milton to life, showing how 
preconceptions shape reality, even in a so-called New World.
   Despite making the polar opposites of the colonies too clear cut, Ackroyd 
accomplishes much with ``Milton in America.'' He makes John Milton relevant 
to the reader as he revives the old poet and his cause in an imaginative 
fictional account. He embellishes our senses even as he bemoans the 
Puritanical denunciation of them.
   And he shows how the revolutionary ideals of religious and political 
liberty can ossify into their opposites, when neighbors or even parts of 
ourselves are vilified as ``the enemy.''
DRAWING: John Milton
Poet Michael Rectenwald, award-winning essayist and author of ``The Eros of the Baby Boom Eras,'' will teach writing at CMU in the fall.

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