MILTON IN AMERICA by Peter Ackroyd


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The prolific Ackroyd (Blake, 1996; The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, 1995, etc., etc.) imagines how things might have gone if the great John Milton, Puritan sympathizer and quondam secretary to Oliver Cromwell, had fled to America after the restoration of Charles II to avoid the distinct possibility of his own execution. Milton sets sail in the spring of 1660, at that time in high spirits and vital humor. Blind for eight years, he is accompanied by a cheerful, educated young man dubbed Goosequill for his ability to write--and for the unruliness of his hair. Serving as Milton's amanuensis as well as his eyes, Goosequill saves the great man's life when arrival in the New World comes via shipwreck and a subsequent trek through the wilderness--ending at last at the little puritan settlement of New Tiverton, whose godly people honor Milton by begging him to be ""author and prime architect"" of their emergent ""little commonwealth"" of (renamed) New Milton. All goes well at first, until two things happen--one being a six-week disappearance from which Milton returns mysteriously changed; and the other the arrival from Virginia of a pleasure-loving group of papists who found their own town--Mary Mount--nearby. More repugnant to Milton even than the Catholics' foul and benighted religion is their embracing of--and intermarriage with--the Indians. The learned scholar and poet becomes a raving model of intolerance, vilely persecutes even his own people, and finally, in 1662, organizes the nearby towns of New England into an actual war against Mary Mount--with heartrending results. Not subtle or deep in probing character--even Milton's--yet a tour de force of historical fiction with gold mines of place names, people's names, atmosphere, and ideas. Not a word is said about Paradise Lost--printed, in real life, in 1667. In this allegorical novel about America, race, and ferocities of hatred and fear, the suggestion is that paradise was lost long ago.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday