cover image Milton in American

Milton in American

Peter Ackroyd. Nan A. Talese, $22.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-385-47708-6

Ackroyd (Chatterton, Hawksmoor, English Music) is nothing if not daring, a novelist (and literary biographer) with a remarkable feel for classic English literature and an antic imagination. What he has supposed here is something that could have happened but didn't: the aged, blind John Milton, in disgrace for his anti-royalist sympathies at the Restoration, joins the Puritans fleeing to the New World in the middle of the 17th century. It turns out to be a remarkably fecund conceit, carried off with Ackroyd's accustomed narrative dash and fine period ear and eye. We see the blind Milton, accompanied as his ""eyes"" by a brash young Cockney he dubs Goosequill, boarding a boat for America, then wrecked upon the shore of what is now Rhode Island and finally coming to rest in a Puritan colony that is promptly named after him. Ackroyd's Milton is a contradictory creature. At first, he's admirably courageous and imaginative, but then, as he is surrounded by paragons of religiosity he secretly despises, he becomes increasingly rigid and intolerant. The worldly, easygoing Goosequill quickly finds common cause with the Indians, later with members of a lively neighboring Catholic community Milton abhors. In the end, the poet's bitter inflexibility leads to war. The problem with Ackroyd's vision, despite the skill with which it is set forth, is twofold: Milton as represented here could scarcely, for all his learning, have been the sweeping and compassionate poet we know; and, in some awkward narrative shifts in which Milton appears to be writing home to a kinsman, we get a thoroughly confused idea of what is happening in his mind. Is he secretly drawn to the Indians and their mysteries? Does he briefly recover his sight, only to lose it again? There are opacities here that are the more regrettable because so much of the novel is fresh and thought-provoking. (Apr.)