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Seasons of MiserySeasons of Misery

Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America

Kathleen Donegan

Narrated by Deborah VanFleet

Available from Audible

Book published by University of Pennsylvania Press

The stories we tell of American beginnings typically emphasize colonial triumph in the face of adversity. But the early years of English settlement in America were characterized by catastrophe: starvation, disease, extreme violence, ruinous ignorance, and serial abandonment. Seasons of Misery offers a provocative reexamination of the British colonies' chaotic and profoundly unstable beginnings, placing crisis—both experiential and existential—at the center of the story. At the outposts of a fledgling empire and disconnected from the social order of their home society, English settlers were both physically and psychologically estranged from their European identities. They could not control, or often even survive, the world they had intended to possess. According to Kathleen Donegan, it was in this cauldron of uncertainty that colonial identity was formed.

Studying the English settlements at Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, and Barbados, Donegan argues that catastrophe marked the threshold between an old European identity and a new colonial identity, a state of instability in which only fragments of Englishness could survive amid the upheavals of the New World. This constant state of crisis also produced the first distinctively colonial literature as settlers attempted to process events that they could neither fully absorb nor understand. Bringing a critical eye to settlers' first-person accounts, Donegan applies a unique combination of narrative history and literary analysis to trace how settlers used a language of catastrophe to describe unprecedented circumstances, witness unrecognizable selves, and report unaccountable events. Seasons of Misery addresses both the stories that colonists told about themselves and the stories that we have constructed in hindsight about them. In doing so, it offers a new account of the meaning of settlement history and the creation of colonial identity.

Kathleen Donegan is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.


“A provocative and remarkably original contribution that considers the agony of settlement in early America. Donegan writes so beautifully that readers might miss the audacity and innovation of her argument.”

—Jill Lepore, Harvard University

Seasons of Misery is a smart, provocative work that belongs on the bookshelf of scholars working in the fields of seventeenth-century Anglo-American history, literature, and culture, as well as scholars interested in the cultural history of violence.”

American Historical Review

“Donegan rightly calls attention to the tenuous nature of early English colonization efforts, highlighting the violence, deprivation, and contingency that marked efforts to establish permanent colonies. Her perceptive reading of texts offers many rewards, not least of which is a rich sense of how disoriented early colonists were by the catastrophes they confronted—and often created—in the novel social and physical circumstances of the New World.”

Reviews in American History

Seasons of Misery ... not only recovers texts or textual episodes that historians and literary critics alike seldom read or integrate into studies of early America, but it offers new ways of narrating American literary and cultural history.”

Early American Literature

“Harrowing, moving, and revelatory, Seasons of Misery offers up a new and unfamiliar vision of the settlement of early America—one that tells of unsettlement and trauma at the heart of the experience of early colonialism and encounter. In stunning prose, Donegan opens a heretofore unseen space in narratives of early America and the field of early American studies.”

—Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Northeastern University

“Elegantly written and persuasively argued, Seasons of Misery provides sophisticated close readings of the early historical eyewitness accounts of English settlements in the New World.”

—Ralph Bauer, University of Maryland

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University Press Audiobooks