- Temptations in the Wilderness:Freedom and Tyranny in Peter Ackroyd's Milton in America
"My loyalties will not be bound by national borders, or confined in time by one nation's history, or limited in the spiritual dimension by one language and culture."—Edward Abbey
Gordon Campbell and Thomas Corns are merely two of the most recent defenders of the idea that "in intellectual terms, Milton is one of the founding fathers of America."1 Here they are speaking—like George Sensabaugh, Lydia Dittler Schulman, and R. P. Van Anglen before them—of Milton's obvious influence on the republicanism of such figures as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.2 The adjective "intellectual" in their introductory prepositional phrase is crucial, however, for it registers simultaneously the authors' agreement with what has become a commonplace in writings on John Milton and America, and qualifies the broader implications of the main clause. Campbell and Corns go on, after all, to assert that Milton is not our contemporary: "He was certainly no democrat," they remind us, nor [End Page 27] was he a defender of the electoral process, the rights of the servant class, or even of toleration for such groups as Roman Catholics.3 An implicit early modern/modern dualism is more important here, I think, than an American/non-American one, since Campbell and Corns appear to be referencing Milton's influence on the young Anglo-American republic metonymically, as evidence of the more progressive—that is, "modern"—aspects of his thought. One is tempted, though, to isolate the apparent contradiction, to deduce that Milton was certainly no American either.
Only one scholarly work has sought to challenge directly what we might call the consensus viewpoint in American reception studies of Milton—that the poet-polemicist was a "founding father" of America. In a 2008 University of Toronto Quarterly special issue entitled "Milton in America," edited by Paul Stevens and Patricia Simmons, several leading Milton scholars "interrogate or complicate the belief that 'religious and political America sprang from [Milton's] brain.'"4 In his introductory essay for the issue, Stevens acknowledges that both its title and its heterodoxy are inspired by Peter Ackroyd's 1996 alternate-history novel, in which Ackroyd asks what would have happened if Milton had fled to the Anglo-American colonies on the eve of the Restoration rather than remaining in England and turning his attention to completing Paradise Lost and the 1671 volume. Ackroyd's increasingly fanatical and bigoted Milton quickly assumes leadership over a New England colony whose persecution of a nearby Catholic community functions as a critical commentary on the historical Milton's writings and thought. Though Stevens implies a certain admiration for a novel he calls a "deliberate anachronism," he engages it only briefly, for a few sentences.5
In this essay, I wish to give Ackroyd's novel the attention I believe it deserves, not only as a work of art but also as a formidable critical engagement of Milton's relationship to America—especially the familiar idea of Milton as an intellectual forefather of men such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. To begin, we should acknowledge the rather simple but surprisingly overlooked point that Ackroyd's fictional Milton, like the historical [End Page 28] one, knows nothing of America as an independent nation. The "America" depicted by Ackroyd is a wilderness, a land without borders, national history, or even a coherent identity; it is a pre-America, a non-America, which is precisely what motivates the actions of the novel's increasingly despotic, puritanical protagonist. As Milton complains early on to Goosequill, his mischievous but devoted servant, the land is too undefined and sprawling:6 "This wilderness is a foul contagion (110). … We must remedy the soil. … We must make maps (111) … [and] establish a nation of God in this western world" (157).
As we shall see, Ackroyd's puritanical Milton is associated directly with civilization, especially in the sense of that advanced state of social organization, and the civilizing impulse; in contrast, colonial America is associated with wilderness—an overwhelming state of abundance and, well, wildness, that Milton and the Puritans populating...