by Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: You are an innovator in the study of John Milton’s poetry and prose, and such innovation in general, I take it, began with New Historicist scholars of the Early Modern era in Europe in the early eighties, which followed the poststructuralist “boom” of the Seventies. What circumstances and predilections influenced you to become—among other things—a Miltonist, a member of that “fit audience though few”?
Angelica Duran: In brief, my main influences were my linguistic and reading comfort zones from my youth, then my professors, then during my academic profession the Milton Studies community. At length…
I was introduced to Milton through his sonnet “When I consider” in the popular culture paperback One Hundred and One Famous Poems (1929), one of the few books in my home. In high school, I read a short portion of Paradise Lost, but it really came into my consciousness when I took my British Literature survey course at U.C. Berkeley. I think I had a predilection for Milton based on his Latinate style and his direct engagement with the Bible. My first language is Spanish, which has a much stronger Latin syntax and vocabulary than does English; thus, I felt somehow at linguistic-home with Milton. Plus, another one of the few books in my home when I was growing up was La Biblia Sagrada [The Holy Bible]. Certainly, all other major early modern English writers engage with the nexus of the Bible, spirituality, and religion; but Milton directly engages with specific passages and image-sets from the Bible that I initially found readily apprehensible and that continues to enthrall me.
My first year as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley in 1984 solidified my belief that I wanted to be a professor of literature, even though I had never interacted directly with a professor before that year. I had seen a number of them since my mother worked a residence hall janitor at U.C. Irvine, and I regularly picked her up from work when I was in high school. I figured that the profession would be competitive so I approached all my classes with an eye to figuring out what specialty I would like to follow. Frankly, I found joy in all my English courses – from medieval to modern, from the novel to poetry – whether it be just the readings, especially engaging fellow students, or great teaching. So, I figured I would select major English authors, since, at least back then, it seemed that such a specialty would help me land a job—and I did need to be financially self-sufficient; and Milton was my favorite among that pool. In retrospect, I am a little surprised I did not pick Edmund Spenser, after taking excellent courses from Paul Alpers, or William Shakespeare, after taking courses from Joel Altman and Stephen Booth.
After a six-year hiatus between my M.A. and Ph.D., I entered Stanford in 1994 with the idea that I wanted to focus on Milton, but I was open to changing my emphasis or expanding my primary research, especially in the days when it seemed that so many great dissertations and first books covered a number of authors. J. Martin Evans helped me discover that I preferred using Milton as my literary anchor as I explored large cultural issues. The title of my first book, The Age of Milton and the Scientific Revolution, which emerged from my dissertation, indeed reflects that approach. Milton has remained my primary anchor in most of my edited and co-edited collections, A Concise Companion to Milton and Milton in Translation and in my upcoming monograph Milton among Spaniards, which covers Spanish reception of Milton from the seventeenth century through today and in such arenas as the Spanish Catholic Inquisition, translations, the stage, and visual art.
Ever since my first MLA, in 1999 in Chicago, where I landed my Purdue job, I have found so much support from the “fit audience though few” of fellow Miltonists that I have stuck at it.
Fink: You have written on Milton from a Disability Studies perspective in at least two articles. (These are: “John Milton and Disabilities Studies in Literature Courses.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 6.3 (2012): 327-39, and “The Blind Bard, According to John Milton and His Contemporaries.” Mosaic, vo. 46, no. 13, 2013, pp. 141-155.) Certainly anyone teaching the famous sonnet, “On His Blindness,” should grapple with your reading of it. During my undergrad years, a professor told the class that, due to his blindness, Milton’s verse featured a powerful musicality, whereas he exhibited a relatively limited talent for visual imagery. And, oddly enough, I think the description of the hell where Satan was cast was given as an example of this disparity. But hey, hell isn’t supposed to be colorful! Would you regard what I was taught as just an example of seventies ableism or do aspects of the generalization hold up?
Duran: I have been surprised and thrilled at the response I have received about “The Blind Bard,” especially since I entered into Critical Disability Studies somewhat by accident, in response to an invitation to contribute a chapter to Milton in Popular Culture (2006). The co-editors, Laura Knoppers and Gregory Colon Semanza, invited me to write on any matter for the Part on “Social Justice.” My chapter, “The Blind Leading the Blind and Sighted: John Milton and Helen Keller,” refers briefly to the sonnet “When I consider,” showing Keller’s reader response to Milton and his works in her activist work for the blind and the deaf. I value the affiliation Keller found with Milton, and I value any reader response that bravely seeks to articulate the fellow feelings that readers find with authors and that serve as visceral responses or touchstones for thoughtful research and interpretation. On the one hand, digital search engines might provide significant data on poetic techniques or the predominance of types of images used by blind writers and sighted writers. On the other, I do not find claims about Milton’s blindness accounting for the characteristics of his visual imagery and musical verse compelling. Further, Milton was sighted most of his life.
In all my publications, I am very cautious about generalizing interpretations. Indeed, in the article “The Blind Bard,” I focus on three of Milton’s sonnets – that is to say a few short works – rather than the usual suspects of Paradise Lost with its blind narrator and Samson Agonistes with its blinded titular character. I am slowly formulating my valid interpretations of how Milton’s blindness might filter into the works he wrote after he became blind, which is to say his late masterworks. Specifically, I am looking at the poetic conversation between Jorge Luis Borges, who also experienced late onset blindness, and Milton for my current book-project Milton in Hispanoamerica.
As I mentioned in a 2019 MLA Annual Convention paper, I would very interested to see scholars delve deeply into the interactions of embodiment and poetry – such rich possibilities in terms of form alone – in relation to Milton and other authors, whether able-bodied or disabled. With Milton, there remains much to be done with his mobility disability precipitated by gout. Upon my first reading of Book 1 of Paradise Lost, I remember pausing at the line “such resting found the sole / Of unblest feet,” describing Satan landing in Hell after a short flight. Certainly, I was responding to the textual techniques, Milton’s brilliant use of pun (soul/sole) and close-up. Now, knowing the extra-textual biographical context, I do indeed ponder more deeply this literary representation of embodiment.
Fink: Yes, generalizing interpretations often don’t account for the heterogeneity of an author’s work.
Now that you’ve mentioned Borges, it’s appropriate for me to ask about “Three of Borges’s Miltons,” published in Milton Studies, 58, 2017, pp. 183-200. In that article, you foreground the seemingly unresolved dissonance between the great Argentinian’s valorization of Milton as a “personal” (190) source of inspiration and sustenance, and the conflicting desires to use “literatures from around the world produced in crucial moments of nation formation as model’s for Argentina’s present work of establishing a powerful national literature” (184) as a cohesive force but to resist Milton’s Puritanism in the name of his country’s “cultural independence from… influential European cultures” (185), and finally, what I surmise to be an embrace of Milton in the construction of a “universal identity” (190). You argue that, taken as a whole, Borges’ various writings do not reconcile these differing evaluations of Milton. But could they be reconciled satisfactorily by later Argentinian or other South American thinkers? Or might coherence be achieved only through the “postmodern” sacrifice of “universality” for “regional” contextualization and the subordination of the personal to the national project? Or could there be some other hierarchical shuffling?
Duran: I am happy when I find reconciliation when it is indeed present but I am more interested in exploring, interpreting, and sharing my interpretations of whatever reader responses I find and, ideally, through those responses attain deeper understanding of Milton’s works and literature more generally. Through my research and thinking through for Milton in Hispanoamerica, I am finding myself building on the findings in Latin American studies about the various, equally-pertinent definitions of mestisaje as synthesis – the mixing of elements for the creation of an inherently new entity – and composite – a complex in which each element maintains its features, as in a mosaic. In either case the elements, new entities, or complex could possess universal and local features, as global studies has tried to express with the portmanteau glocal. I am enjoying puzzling through the different Miltons that Borges represents, especially in his poetry.
Fink: Your notion of “mestisaje as synthesis” brings Gloria Anzaldua’s dialogue with Jose Vasconcelos in Borderlands to mind.
One of your intricately woven analyses of Milton’s place in intertextual dialogues is “Walter Raleigh, through John Milton, according to William Carlos Williams,” published in the William Carlos Williams Review, vol. 31, no. 1, 2014, pp. 15-31. Near the end of the article, you summarize how Williams, registering the vexing impact of the Great Depression and World War II, utilizes intertextual juxtapositions to control how his own texts will be read:
In In the American Grain, Williams uses Miltonic voice and form as mediators that enable him to construct satisfactorily a conversation about and with Raleigh. In “Raleigh Was Right,” he assumes the critical stance of Raleigh’s “The Nimph’s Reply” but relies on the Miltonic image of the violets from “L’Allegro” to keep in check as much as possible alternative versions that his readers might miscreate. (29)
Williams wishes neither to valorize or reject the pastoral. You allude to his notorious poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” in identifying how the recontextualization of history is “the literary call”: “So much depends upon individuals willing to construct and reconstruct anew from the pasts they select and from the pasts that select them” (29).
Construction here “depends upon” the reconstruction of hybrid elements. You write: “The images of the multiple seeds and eventual flowerings throughout the work powerfully figure hybridity as a desirable telos of American settlement rather than a foisted concession to Old World purity” (16). In the introduction to Milton in the Americas, Milton Studies 58, 2017, you and Elizabeth Sauer, the guest editors, note that “Williams’ Puerto-Rican heritage has slowly begun to be incorporated into Anglophone works” (xi). Do you think that Williams’ intended representation of “America” in the Raleigh and others sections of In the American Grain and drawing of parallels with Milton’s hybrid discourse in Paradise Lost (at odds with his Puritanism), important aspects of your argument, might reflect the Puerto Rican influence?
Duran: The sentence that you quote, from the last paragraph in the article “Walter Raleigh, through John Milton, according to William Carlos Williams,” voices one of my ultimate aims in that article, to draw attention to the agencies of all individuals, including the article’s readers, to “construct and reconstruct anew from the pasts they select and from the pasts that select them.” In terms of my previous arguments and the select works by Williams in that article, those pasts include such diverse matters as access to specific pieces of literature via libraries, the time and locales in which author-Williams and we live, and our individual heritages. A past that selected Williams is his acquisition of the Spanish language as a heritage language, U.S.-Puerto Rican Spanish inflected by the U.S.-American libraries and discursive communities in which he lived. Then, as an adult he actively selected to draw from historic and biographical linguistic pasts to translate Hispanophone literature into English. Some of the effects of such were his reflections in writing and in interviews on how his U.S.-Puerto Rican identity impacted his coming of age (see David A. Colón’s “Here’s to You, Meestair Robangson: The Inter-American William Carlos Williams,” vol. 5, 2015, pp. 1-9) and his pan-American relationships with Latin American literati (William Carlos Williams Review, “Remembering William Carlos Williams: Hugo Rodríguez Alcalá (1917-2007),” vol. 31, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-14).
These authorial experiences certainly must combine with authorial knowledge and choices, and thus should be considered in readers’ analyses of his works; but they cannot dictate readers’ interpretations of his works. How and to what effect are the very stuff of careful analysis and interpretation. I sense a careful, subtle argument for a pan-American expansion of identity in William Carlos Williams’s very use of his publishing name, specifically the use of his Hispanic middle name, rather than “W.C. Williams,” which he toyed with using. In In the American Grain, I see the same sort of subtle yet powerful argument in his presentation of “American” to mean “of the Americas” rather than only “of the United States of America” in a book that uses the adjective in its very title and that has chapters that focus on locales and experiences from Canada to South America. I also see gestures to even greater inclusion in much of his poetry and fiction with its representation of useful things and non-divisive or unifying elements, like his famous red wheelbarrow and the violets of “Raleigh Was Right.”
If I didn’t know better, I would think that you had gotten ahold of my drafts for Milton in Hispanoamerica, given your questions on Jorge Luis Borges and William Carlos Williams. Williams, like Borges is also featured in that book-in-progress.
Fink: I’m glad to hear that you will be writing more on Williams. And thank you for pointing to recent scholarship that foregrounds the Puerto Rican (and, in general, Latin American) influence on his work.
You illustrate in “John Milton, Englishman: ‘Of the Devil’s Party’ per the Spanish Inquisition.” Reception Studies 2 (2010): 22-47, how the index of the Spanish Inquisition, beginning with the 1707 version and, surprisingly to me, extending well into the nineteenth century, focused on Milton as a political figure more than as a poet and banned his writing due to his Protestantism and anti-royalism. You go as far as to declare that this history of negation and exclusion accounts for the current paucity in Spain of scholarly and readerly interest in Milton’s texts. You express the wish to rectify this situation; here is the article’s final sentence: “The best outcome of the reception of this essay will be the future scholarly activity needed to combine the best elements of the Anglo and Hispanic Miltons to augment the reach and delight of future readers” (41). It’s almost nine years since this article was published; do you detect a movement in the direction of a fuller, more satisfactory, less Index-influenced reception of Milton’s work in Spain? If so, what has caused the shift, and what specific form(s) is it taking? If not, what is currently being done that might soon have an effect?
Duran: I am still looking forward to the many hands that would make smaller work of the great amount of untapped, exciting work to be done on the Miltonic-Hispanic conversation. We need nuanced studies of the very real antogonisms and negative reception of Milton’s works and legends, as well as of the literary traces of fellow-feeling his works and legends inspired in the Hispanic world. As noted in Milton in Translation (Oxford UP, 2017), Paradise Lost has been fully translated (1812-2005) into Spanish roughly twenty times by Spaniards and at least three times by Latin Americans, a number rivalled only by French translations, which have rightly garnered scholarly and popular interest. This is but one indicator of the potential scholarly work I am claiming. It is not just my personal interest – although it is that too. I do detect interest in the topic primarily within arenas of study that I would call global Milton or Milton-as-World-Literature. Of the fourteen articles in the 2017 special issue of Milton Studies, “Milton in the Americas,” that you mentioned and that Elizabeth Sauer and I co-edited, three are on the Miltonic-Latin American conversation, two on Latin American-Spanish literary conversations and one on a Brazilian-Portuguese one. I have also been happy to find good reception of my work on the topic in the form of invitations to write chapters for volumes that do not segregate the topic but instead include it as part of other important areas, for example, in Milton and Catholicism (U of Notre Dame Press, 2017) and Making Milton: Writing, Publication, Reception (Oxford UP, 2019). New and vibrant Miltonic-Hispanic literary conversations continue to emerge, such as the Hispanophone graphic novel Paraíso perdido (2012) by Spain’s Pablo Auladell, translated into Dutch and French in 2015 and into English 2017. I welcome readers of this interview who are specialists in Hispanic language and culture to contact me because I am happy to share the research notes I have gathered from the many digital and material archives and special collections in the U.S., Spain, and Latin America that I have studied; or help them with leads that they might pursue.
Fink: Given how Brit Lit was used to develop a Eurocentric hegemony during the colonial period in African and the Subcontinent, the reception of Milton in Africa would be an interesting area of exploration, too. And I wonder how readers in the Far East who exist outside of a Christian tradition contextualize his work.
I suspect that some of the undergraduates you teach—and perhaps even grad students—resist Milton, especially because of his Puritan attitudes. (And perhaps they resist his texts in ways that they don’t with Shakespeare or with Metaphysicals such as Donne and Herbert.) If I’m right about this, how do you help them work through that resistance and arrive at a sense of dulce et utile?
Duran: I am not aware of resistence to Milton’s works or his representations of religious figures or topics in the early undergraduate, senior-level, or graduate courses in which I teach Milton’s works at Purdue, a public land-grant university. After all, they voluntarily enrolled in the courses. I remain very impressed, year after year, by students’ ability to approach his works with curiosity and respect.
The early British literature survey course – an introductory course populated mostly by first or second-year undergraduates – reminds me of my survey course at U.C. Berkeley, also a public university, when I was an undergraduate, where you have some students with only passing knowledge of the major canonical works and minor works of the Anglo-Saxon period through 1700, with the exception of Shakespeare’s; others with a solid familiarity with those works; and others with a passion for and solid foundation with the literary or cultural contexts most related to Milton’s works such as, say, epics, religious works, and the birth of modernity. I try to take advantage of this diversity so that we can all work to apprehend the texts at hand and develop our reading approaches to construct valid interpretations, and enjoy ourselves as much as possible given the strictures of reading some pretty heady texts within a short time-frame. We generally get to whatever Milton text is on the syllabus – be it Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, or a careful selection of his shorter works – three-quarters into the semester. By that time, students feel confident enough to comment on, share their biblical or religious knowledge, or ask about religious topics so pronounced in Milton’s works, as much as other major topics. I would say that roughly the same number of students find themselves engaged with the Milton text as with any other text in the early British literature survey course. I ensure that I stress the sweetness and utility of all the works on our syllabus, through prep work, in-class discussions, or my lectures, all made easy since I keep finding sweetness and utility in them after more than twenty years of university teaching.
By the time students enroll in the senior-level major-author Milton course, they have their gender, global culture, and other breadth requirements under their belts. Rather than resistence to Milton, I see them seeking to apply their tools (or methodologies) to the early works early on in the semester, then really honing them when we reach the later major works. Milton’s great poetic skills at the very least impresses them as they grapple with his representations of, for example, religious joy in “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” vocational ambivalence within his Christian framework in his sonnet “When I Consider,” and grasping at any cultural straw to deal with personal and communal sorrow in his pastoral elegy Lycidas.
I teach Paradise Lost in the graduate World Literature course and all of Milton’s poetic works and one prose work (either Of Education or Areopagitica) in the graduate major-author Milton course. It is a very exciting time for graduate students interested in religious studies and studying Milton. Through our digital and material libraries, as well as archives and special collections, we have wealth of old and new critical material in Milton studies mainly from Europe and the Anglo-Americas. Since the turn of the twenty-first century especially, we also have new critical material from those same places as well as from around the globe, many of those dealing with religious studies. I loved being the lead-editor of Milton in Translation and being among the first to read about the work of translators of Milton’s works into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean given the assumed audiences, generally lacking a foundation in the Judeo-Christian tradition; or of the religious proscriptions that delayed the translation of his works in countries who adhered to the reading restrictions imposed by the Catholic Church; or of the mixed political and religious forces that shaped their translation into Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian. The bibliographies of those chapters chronicle the exciting critical works that grapple with – perhaps resist? I am not sure – Milton’s vibrant and tough representations of predominately Christian and by extension non-Christian texts, issues, and figures.
This answer sounds a bit buoyant, I know; but that’s my assessment.
Fink: Buoyancy and virtu/virtue are not opposed.
Duran: I’ve been (justifiably) called an earnest scholar. I wouldn’t mind being called a buoyantly virtuous scholar, too!