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the Complete Review
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Milton in America

Peter Ackroyd

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To purchase Milton in America

Title: Milton in America
Author: Peter Ackroyd
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997
Length: 307 pages
Availability: Milton in America - US
Milton in America - UK
Milton in America - Canada
Milton in America - India
Un puritain au paradis - France

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Our Assessment:

A : a rollicking story, very well written

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Scholar D Winter/1998 Morris Freedman
The Guardian . 5/9/1996 Andrew Biswell
The New Leader B 5/5/1997 Bill Christophersen
New Statesman B 27/9/1996 John Clute
The NY Times C+ 14/5/1997 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. D 6/4/1997 Tony Tanner
The Spectator A- 7/9/1996 Peter Levi
Sunday Telegraph B- 31/8/1996 Jonathan Bate
TLS . 30/7/1996 Trev Broughton
Wall St. Journal C+ 6/5/1997 Paul Dean

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though it certainly wasn't a very popular book. All express a sense of disappointment. All criticize Ackroyd's heavy hand and many feel his portrait of the Puritans is outrageous. Some like his style, but even here there is no consensus.

  Note that the American publications tended to be much more critical than the British ones -- perhaps being more "sensitive" to the poor maligned Puritans' feelings.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The only basis in fact that I can imagine underpinning Ackroyd's flat, nastily distorted picture of an overbearing, sadistic, hypocritical, shallow, insensitive, exceedingly prudish man is Milton's sonnet "On the Late Massacre in Piemont" (...) With his novel, Ackroyd seems to be exacting vengeance for Milton's lifelong antipathy toward Roman Catholics." - Morris Freedman, The American Scholar

  • "It's an outrageous premise. But that's as it should be. For Milton in America is a comic fable and satire, albeit one with tragic and allegorical elements." - Bill Christophersen, The New Leader

  • "It is a hard book to judge. Some of the cartooning is tedious (.....) But his destruction of paradise (...) is deeply scary, deeply prophetic. Milton in America is a slingshot ideogram of our loss of America, of all the world." - John Clute, New Statesman

  • "The Milton of the early pages (...) blazes with a breezy, literate wit. (...) Mr. Ackroyd never runs out of clever repartee, but unfortunately his story falters and, finally, sinks beneath the weight of Milton's ever more rhetorically overwrought harangues. (...) Milton in America, in other words, turns into a rather heavy-handed morality tale, even if an uncommonly well-written one." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "There are lots of literary echoes and allusions in the novel, but they don't do anything for the tired texture of the prose. It is merely "distressed," as they rather nicely say of fake antique furniture. It comes across as pointless pastiche -- or rather, pastiche with one point: to make Puritans and Puritanism appear as mad, cruel and all-around hateful as possible. (...) It is not a very edifying performance." - Tony Tanner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "As a book, as an image of the poet lost, it perfectly does come off. I found it terrifying and unforgettable." - Peter Levi, The Spectator

  • "Like all Ackroyd's novels set in the literary past, Milton in America is researched with care and written with bravura. At the same time, as in all his novels, there are moments of flimsy pastiche. In particular, the patience of the reader is stretched to breaking-point by a large cast of cardboard cut-out Puritans (.....) Equally wooden is some of the plotting." - Jonathan Bate, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Mr. Ackroyd's Puritans, however, are postmodernist fabrications, fit only to be mocked for their canting stupidity. (...) Much of the novel is adroit and facile, but at no time does it move us or reward our patience with a genuine insight into its grand themes." - Paul Dean, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Peter Ackroyd's Milton in America is a rewriting of history, wondering "what if ?" The premise of the novel is that in early 1660 the English poet John Milton (already blind and famous, but not yet the author of Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes) decided that he had to flee England, fearing execution for his support of Cromwell and the Commonwealth now that Charles II was on the verge of restoring the monarchy.
       Ackroyd sends Milton across the Atlantic to New England, where the poet expects to find like-minded folk (i.e. similarly religiously narrow-minded folk who are also opposed to English rule and the English monarchy).
       The book is divided into two parts. In the first, "Eden", Milton's sea-voyage and arrival in New England are described. It is a rough and demanding journey across the ocean, culminating in the boat being smashed to pieces upon their arrival. Only the fit survive -- pious Milton and his amanuensis and eyes, known as Goosequill, or simply Goose.
       Milton is welcomed by the local settlers, and under his wise counsel a new settlement is built -- New Milton. The settlers are expected to be devout and harsh punishments are set for those who fail to live up to Milton's expectations. Native Indians also inhabit the surrounding countryside, and the locals trade with them, or hire them as labourers. Milton disapproves of the heathen folk: "I thought them to be very like the ancient Britons (...) but it seems to me now that they are closer to the wild Irish."
       Part two describes the "Fall" of this semi-Eden. Milton himself falls, wandering out lost into the wilderness where he is trapped in an Indian trap -- left dangling upside down from a tree. The heathens provide medical assistance -- and his sight is also restored, briefly. Milton comes back changed by this experience -- and not for the better.
       Things get worse when a group from Virginia, led by Ralph Kempis, show up, announcing that they have purchased nearby land and plan to settle there. They call their city Mary Mount, and they are -- god forbid ! -- papists, followers of the Church of Rome. Hell and damnation indeed !
       The Catholics are jolly folk, dancing around their maypole, adorning their church, welcoming one and all. They are even friendly to the Indians ! Milton can't stand for this, and eventually he sees to it that it comes to a violent confrontation between the Puritans of New Milton and beyond and the Catholics of Mary Mount and their heathen allies. Paradise lost indeed.

       The story is told in a number of voices, including Milton's dictation and Goose recounting his adventures with his old master to his pregnant wife. Milton and Goose are a fun couple, with echoes of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or even Lear and the Fool -- though Goose does come into his own, gaining independence from the blind poet.
       From the sea voyage to the various adventures on land Milton in America is packed with good stories. Ackroyd is also in fine form: the dialogue and repartee are sharp throughout, and some of it is positively brilliant.
       It is not a nice story. The tyrannical Milton does not come off well, becoming a brutal despot, acting unjustly at nearly every turn. Ackroyd suggests the possibility of Milton recognizing the error of his ways, but then cuts it short.
       The Puritans and the Catholics are perhaps drawn too black and white here. The dull, unthinking Puritans blindly follow their blind leader, overwhelmed by the force of his personality, rarely daring to question his decisions. The few Catholics that are encountered tend to be fair and open-minded, with their leader, Ralph Kempis, a good and generous fellow and a voice of reason against Milton's rage.
       The characters are somewhat simply drawn -- even grand Milton -- but Ackroyd tells a fine and fun story. It is not a realistic story of the settling of America, or a true biographical picture of Milton, but it seems a possible vision. It is not a kind picture of Milton, but then Milton was also certainly not a kind man and it seems plausible that he could have turned into someone resembling this figure in these circumstances.
       The religious conflict in this book is, like all religious conflicts, farcical. Though some seem to take offense Ackroyd's approach seems ideal, making for a thoughtful and clever entertainment, and a very good read. Certainly recommended.

       Note that reaction to this book was less than enthusiastic, and that it apparently did not sell particularly well, especially in the United States. It apparently never even made it to a paperback edition in the US -- a devastating failure for an author of Ackroyd's renown.
       Critical reaction was also fairly harsh (see review summaries), though not at all uniform. The Puritans find many partisans among the critics, most of whom seem to be expecting way too much from this novel. Few also give sufficient credit to Ackroyd's portrait of Milton, which is far more complex than they suggest.
       We're baffled by the reaction -- this is a very good story, and it is exceptionally well told. What more does one need ?

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Milton in America: Reviews: John Milton: Peter Ackroyd: Other books by Peter Ackroyd under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Paul Muldoon suggests other English authors (Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge) establishing an ideal state in America, in Madoc
  • See also the Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author Peter Ackroyd was born in 1949. He has written numerous novels and several literary biographies.

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