Freely We Serve: David Ainsworth and Thomas Festa’s Locating Milton: Places and Perspectives

David Ainsworth is a Professor of English Literature and a member of the Hudson Strode faculty at The University of Alabama. He teaches Seventeenth-Century British literature as part of the Strode Program, specializing in the works of John Milton. He received his PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005.

In addition to his own writing and scholarship, Ainsworth was named as the first Communications Director of the Milton Society of America in 2013. His latest work, a collaboration from Clemson Press with Thomas Festa, Locating Milton: Places and Perspectives, provides scholarly perspectives on Milton’s writing and impact by bringing fresh voices into the conversation. The Milton Society of America awarded the book the Irene Samuel Award for best multiauthor work on Milton.

Ainsworth notes, “Essays in the book were based upon papers given at the 2017 Conference on John Milton, held in Birmingham, AL, and co-directed by myself and Alison Chapman at UAB. The Conference on John Milton had been held for decades at Murfreesboro, TN, by two professors at Middle Tennessee State University and one at Christian Brothers University. When they announced that their 2015 conference would be the last, Alison and I were two of the people to volunteer to continue it. UA and UAB English, along with the Hudson Strode Program, all supported the Birmingham conferences.”

Locating Milton: Places and Perspectives is divided into three sections with the first introducing “Milton at Home and Abroad at Once.”  These essays look at identifying Milton in relation to both place and time. John Rumrich’s “John Milton’s Night at the Opera” and Elizabeth Sauer’s “Studied for Action: Milton’s Bookscape and Communes Loci” both explore young Milton and several formative experiences that helped shape his life intellectually. In Jameela Lares’s “Milton for Mississippi: A New Call for Public Intellectuals—or Some Better Term” readers jump to modern experiences students are having with Milton in rural Mississippi. Lares discusses making work accessible in impoverished communities where arts education is often forgotten or neglected. Helping readers see classics as relatable and accessible inspires confidence to readers while hands-on engagement helps foster valuable feelings of community, much akin to Ainsworth’s own goal as an educator.

Section two of the book investigates “Milton’s Mathematical Models and examines some of the relationships formed between Milton’s writing and early modern mathematics and cosmology. Making sense of the shape and size of the universe take center stage in these discussions. In Matthew Dolloff’s “Gabriel’s Trumpet: Milton and the 17th Century Conceptualization of Infinity” we see how engagement with Galileo results in new understanding and innovation into the size, shape, and scope of the universe around us. Christopher Koester’s “Mathematical Milton: Number Theory and Nesting Infinites in Paradise Lost” focuses on the complexity and completeness of numbers, this time shifting the focus from the infinite to the singular. Geoffrey Emerson’s “When Milton ‘Comes to Model Heav’n’: Experimenting with Scientific Genre and Diagram in Paradise Lost” discusses using diagrams of language to model the solar system and its effect on readers as they imagine and construct their own worlds. Emerson received his PhD through UA’s Strode Program and currently works in The University of Alabama Department of English as well.

The final section of the book looks at “Milton’s Multitudinous Returns.”These essays take into consideration reception of Milton’s work as a vehicle of historical influence. Clay Greene, another of UA’s Strode Program graduates, presents “Giving Laws to Milton’s God: Præexistence as Revision of Paradise Lost” and uses an anonymous work to compare how it engages with complex political ideas alongside the cosmological and theological of the time. In “Samson: An Unlikely Hero of Socialism” by Miklos Peti, readers see how one can view Milton’s protagonist as a revolutionary liberator of the proletariat.  Milton’s own rebelliousness certainly echoes within the discussion.

Collaboration in the Milton community has been a cornerstone of David Ainsworth’s career and his work in editing Locating Milton: Places and Perspectives stands as a testament to that work.  The Milton community of scholars he and his colleagues have helped establish has become a home for research and scholarship to genuinely flourish on campus and beyond.

–Travis Turner