A response paper for English 450, Milton: To Paradise and Beyond, an upper-level literature course taught by Dr. Christopher Hodgkins, written on 4 December 2008 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
A Response to Paul Stevens’s “Milton in America”
by Matt Wallace
In the Summer 2008 issue of the University of Toronto Quarterly, Paul Stevens begins his introductory essay with an epigraph from R. W. Griswold, Milton’s first American editor, in 1845: “Milton is more emphatically American than any author who has lived in the United States” (789). Though this comment is clearly an oxymoron and appears to be a gross overstatement, one must note the literary context in which it was made. Ralph Waldo Emerson was just coming into his own as a literary titan, and Walt Whitman would not publish Leaves of Grass for another decade. But how Miltonic is America, and how American is Milton? In his essay, Stevens summarizes the contributors’ responses to this query.
Stevens recognizes the philosophical similarity between Jefferson and Milton. He cites Tony Davies’s essay “Borrowed Language” and reiterates his suggestion “that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1776) is rooted in Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) and that the confidence with which the Founding Father declares ‘all men are created equal and independent’ would be inconceivable without Milton’s angry assertion that
‘[n]o man who knows ought, can be so stupid [as] to deny that all men naturally were borne free’” (790). Though Jefferson’s eloquence is preferable to Milton’s bluntness, they make the same basic point. Even so, “however potent [Milton’s] presence might be, which it is, there is clearly a degree to which the relationship between the historical Milton and America is anything but continuous and the language of the Founding Fathers is often borrowed” (791).
Another parallel between Milton and Jefferson may exist in their attitudes towards empire. Stevens notes that “[i]t has become fashionable to represent Milton as a poet against empire, but the evidence suggests that when expansion is understood in terms of liberation and the regeneration it promises as opposed to domination, then Milton is more than willing to defend imperial intervention” (793). Jefferson often referred to America as an “empire of liberty.” Perhaps they would have approved of at least some of the various “imperial interventions” which have defined the enlarged American Century (1898-2008) and have been justified as defending and expanding liberty and other American ideals.
Stevens realizes that “Milton in America” is a paradoxical concept in that “while America has thought much of Milton, Milton himself seems to have thought very little of America” (791). Having lived from 1608 to 1674, why would Milton ever think of America? Geographically speaking, America was a distant, incomprehensible wilderness sparsely populated by aboriginal peoples and dotted with colonial settlements clinging to the shoreline. Furthermore, the concept of America as a political and social ideal would not begin to coalesce for another century. Milton’s “America was explicitly a wasteland, the world of privation” and “the locus of Adam and Eve at the moment of their deepest shame (Paradise Lost 9: 1110-1118)” (791). Milton lamented in Of Reformation (1641): “[W]hat numbers of faithfull, and freeborn Englishmen, and good Christians have bin constrain’d to forsake their dearest home, their friends, and kindred, whom nothing but the wide Ocean, and the savage deserts of America could hide from the fury of the Bishops” (791).
The forces that shaped Milton are also partially responsible for my existence. In late 1685, my eighth great-grandfather, Thomas Whicker (1652-1704), left his home in Colyton, Devon and bought passage to Virginia with four years of indentured servitude. His departure came just months after the unsuccessful rebellion in the western counties against the Catholic James II led by the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, the king’s illegitimate nephew. While Thomas seems not to have been involved, three of his distant Whicker cousins from Colyton were rebels. Perhaps he thought he had the wrong name in the wrong place at the wrong time and figured it best to change the one thing he could so as to avoid the fury of a Catholic king. Apparently my indentured English ancestor braved “the wide Ocean, and the savage deserts of America” to escape Catholic persecution, actual or threatened. My French Huguenot and ethnic German Moravian ancestors did the same soon after.
In order to survive, my immigrant ancestors chose exile across a dangerous ocean and sought refuge in a wilderness populated with hostile natives and wild beasts. They brought what they could of Europe, but most of what they would need, they would have to find in the new land and in themselves. My ancestors arrived here as Europeans but their experiences transformed them. Over time, they and the generations that followed became Americans.
I fully recognize my European ancestry, but I know that I am not a European. I am something different; I am an American. Milton developed his political and religious ideas with England in mind. Political and religious refugees carried those ideas to a distant, alien land where they grew into something different, something American. In the same way my ancestors and I became American, so too Milton became American.