KATHLEEN DONEGAN, Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2014), 255 pp.

Amerikastudien/ American Studies 60.4



What happened to Englishmen’s identities during the establishment of colonial settlements in America? And how did these settlers “become colonial” living in the New World, experiencing crisis, misery, and catastrophe through suffering and acts of violence? In Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America, Kathleen Donegan sets out to answer these and related questions in her examination of early colonial identity in English settlement writings and narratives of the first years, putting crisis and catastrophe at the center of her study’s interest. By focusing on colonial individuals and their writing through the framework of catastrophe and misery, Donegan uncovers a history often overlooked in past research. She zooms in on the “present” of the early years of settlement and on formative, “seasoning” (7) experiences, disconnecting it from being solely read in the comprehensive context of the subsequent overall achievement of the colonies. Part of the value of the book stems from Donegan’s selection of texts and her excellent close readings—often against the grain—of well-known authors, like William Bradford or George Percy, and less widely read narratives, like John Nicholl’s An Houre Glasse of Indian Newes (1607). She sheds light on the interplay of the settlers’ charter-imposed official duty of establishing a colony versus actual experiences, on the settlers’ negotiations with their own sense of belonging, and their transition of becoming “something else” (87) due to everyday circumstances.

Seasons of Misery is organized as a “lateral study of an intensive period” (16) of Donegan’s chosen colonies “rather than a longitudinal study of any one region or a comparative account of regional development” (16). In her in-depth analysis of four early English settlements in the United States and the West Indies, Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, and Barbados, the author thoroughly proves her claim that “it was through early catastrophe that colonial identities were first formed” (20).  The book is divided into four major chapters, each dedicated to one of the stated colonies, and framed with an introduction and an afterword. In the introduction (“Unsettlement”), Donegan starts with the overall historical as well as literary contexts of her texts and explains her focus on misery and catastrophe with reference to early American scholars, such as Mitchell Breitwieser or Richard Slotkin. Donegan approaches her material through literary criticism and narrative history to eventually uncover “both the junctures and disjunctures between the inner and material world” (16) on the way to creating “new forms of coloniality” (16).

Chapter 1 (“Roanoke: Left in Virginia”) opens up the stage with a contextualization of the three failed attempts at establishing a colony at Roanoke, Virginia’s mythical Lost Colony as “a coda to the forced expulsion that ended England’s dream of inhabiting a New World Eden” (22). Although she refers to well-known texts by Thomas Harriot and John White, Donegan puts her major focus on the—unheeded—disordered narrative of the first English colony’s governor Ralph Lane[1] about the years 1585 and 1586 to trace “a mark of catastrophic discourse in the earliest literature of English colonists” (25). As particularly insightful in this chapter proves Donegan’s adaption of Mary Louise Pratt’s “contact zone” into a “chaos zone” (34) as a tool to analyze passages of disorder and confusion (Lane’s narrative features a number of those) or as Donegan calls it, “writing of incursion” (35) with “incursion” describing the respective time between contact and permanent settlement in Roanoke (34).  

In Chapter 2 (“Jamestown: Things That Seemed Incredible”), Donegan states that “studies of the settlement must always identify the turning point between the horror of the early years and the subsequent history of colonial development” (70). For Jamestown, she argues that this shift from misery to functionality needs particular attention to grasp the complexity of the early settlement’s development (71). Claiming that crisis stimulated the process of “becoming colonial,” Donegan moves away from an overall “narration of recovery” (71) by reading George Percy’s accounts—as the main textual representative— against John Smith’s to reveal stories about hunger, violence, atrocities, and death in the colony’s early years. For Donegan’s purpose, Percy’s texts especially serve as a new kind of writing about the early settlement as it describes “material crises such as starvation, siege, and massacres and also on representational crises such as faltering codes, lost identifications, and the struggle to describe staggering events” (72; emphasis original). Her close reading of the texts convincingly show how the colony has been created on the foundation of its own various catastrophes, like the Starving Time, and how settlers gradually become colonists as a result of their “confrontation with, and eventually through identification with, their misery” (87). 

William Bradford’s statement, “the living were scarce able to bury the dead” (qtd. in Donegan 118) to fathom the mortality and the physical presence of death through the sheer amount of bodies in the early years serves as point of reference for the analysis of Plymouth in Chapter 3 (“Plymouth: Scarce Able to Bury Their Dead”). The author tracks those deaths and their interpretation “either popularly mythologized or critically resolved” (118) in a selection of texts, among those William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, or an account[2] published under the name of Martin Pring to reveal narratives about early settlement that are much more complex and even a great deal darker than what we are used to from previous Early American Studies research. According to Donegan, “dead bodies became highly charged sites of cultural crisis” (18) and deeply affected the resident Native tribes as well as the newly arrived settlers in their appropriation of space, especially in the years 1616 to 1622, due to the high mortality rates (18). By illustrating the power struggles of the Plymouth and Wessagusset settlers and the people of the Massachusett tribe in the context of life and death, Donegan fully accomplishes her goal to “read both the events and the strategies that surrounded these catastrophes of colonial settlement without invoking a tragic/triumphalist scene of closure” (119).

Settlement narratives of the West Indies at a time when Barbados was on its way to the sugar revolution are at the center of Chapter 4 (“Barbados: Wild Extravagance”). Here, Donegan broadens her scope from continental North America to the West Indies to also highlight “the central place of the Caribbean in the colonial Atlantic world” (18). The chapter starts out with a—rather longish but perceptive—introduction to the settlement history of the West Indies through a close reading of John Nicholl’s An Houre Glasse of Indian Newes as the earliest report about English settlers in the West Indies (161). Donegan identifies “[e]xcess and ungovernability” (16) as reference points for her striking reading of Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (the chapter also includes two illustrations of the 1657 edition). As, in the years before the full establishment of the plantation complex, catastrophe “lived […] not only in the staggering mortality rates but also in the natural, social, and economic worlds that were considered to be inescapably immoderate” (19), Donegan creates a comprehensive overview of life in the tropics alternating between excess and crises, bodily distempers and sexual desires, and structure and violence.

            The afterword (“Standing Half-Amazed”) addresses and answers a couple of essential questions concerning Donegan’s work. Most importantly, she explains why she “trace[d] the workings of catastrophe through the colonizer” (203) through four major points: the settlers’ own description of being “in states of misery” (203); the necessary use of critical analysis of catastrophe and crisis to prevent the narratives from serving “national ideology” (204); to recognize the mutual relationship between “suffering and violence” (204) in the context of settlement; and to become aware of the differences in “the literature of colonization writ large and the more specific features of a literature of colonials” (204). Donegan concludes her persuasive study by once again highlighting her major argument: the interdependence and coexistence of violence and suffering in the early settlements provided the breaking foundation for the process of becoming colonial (212).

With Seasons of Misery, Kathleen Donegan takes us on an—at times—surprising and shocking journey to an early America that we have not yet seen so clearly. The lens of catastrophe and misery provides the key to more fully understanding colonial identity transitions. With examples like Plymouth’s dying men leaning armed against trees as protection of the settlement (chapter 3, 137), or Ligon’s description of slaves trying to extinguish the sugar cane fires (chapter 4, 200), Donegan opens a new perspective on the interplay of misery, catastrophe, trauma, and crises of the early settlements by uncovering narratives of hardship, atrocities, and chaos. She not only convincingly analyzes a variety of well-selected narratives of the four different settlements but also broadly contextualizes them to support her argument. Donegan’s approach to reading colonial narratives through the framework of catastrophe, misery, and crises in the early settlements emerges as very productive. With its emphasis on colonial identity formations and its contribution to settlement history, Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America represents an original, valuable, and thought-provoking study in the field of Early American Studies.


Stuttgart                                                           Veronika Hofstätter

[1]Ralph Lane, An Account of the Particularities of the Imployments of the English Men Left in Virginia by Richard Greenevill under the Charge of Master Ralph Lane Generall of the Same, from the 17. of August 1585. until the 18. of June 1586. at Which time They Departed the Countrey; Sent and Directed to Sir Walter Raleigh.

[2]Martin Pring, A Voyage Set Out from the Citie of Bristoll at the Charge of the Chiefest Merchants and Inhabitants of the Said Citie with a Small Ship and a Barke for the Discoverie of the North Part of Virginia, in the Yeere 1610 under the Command of ME Martin Pring.