The poet John Milton was a difficult man who lived in difficult times. A republican at the time of the restoration of Charles II to the throne, the blind Milton found himself summarily bounced from his job, tossed into prison, and threatened with execution before he was eventually released. Despite his troubles, or perhaps because of them, it was in this tumultuous time that Milton created his enduring masterpiece Paradise Lost. But what if he hadn't? What if, instead of pouring his creative energies into poetry, Milton had followed a different path, say, to America? This is the premise of Peter Akroyd's novel, Milton in America. |
In Milton in America the poet flees England for the New World, where he proceeds to establish a Puritan community and to become increasingly obsessed and repressive as years go by. Milton's madness reaches a bloody climax when a group of Roman Catholics sets up a settlement nearby. Admirers of Ackroyd's previous works will find this one intriguing; admirers of the historical Milton might well be outraged by this radical revision of the great man's life.
When Peter Ackroyd, one of Britain's undisputed literary masters, writes a new novel, it is a literary event. With his last novel, The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, "as gripping and ingenious a murder mystery as you could hope to come across," in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle, he reached a whole new level of critical and popular success. Now, with his trademark blending of historical fact and fictive fancy, Ackroyd has placed the towering poet of Paradise Lost in the new Eden that is colonial America.
John Milton, aging, blind, fleeing the restoration of English monarchy and all the vain trappings that go with it ("misrule" in his estimation), comes to New England, where he is adopted by a community of fellow puritans as their leader. With his enormous powers of intellect, his command of language, and the awe the townspeople hold him in, Milton takes on absolute power. Insisting on strict and merciless application of puritan justice, he soon becomes, in his attempt at regaining paradise, as much a tyrant as the despots from whom he and his comrades have sought refuge, more brutal than the "savage" native Americans.
As always, Ackroyd has crafted a thoroughly enjoyable novel that entertains while raising provocative questions--this time about America's founding myths. With a resurgence of interest in the puritans (in the movie adaptations of The Scarlet Letter and the forthcoming The Crucible), Milton in America is particularly relevant. It is also entirely absorbing--in short, vintage Ackroyd.