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
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.''