- Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America by Kathleen Donegan
Traditionally, our stories of American literature and history take the form of what Kathleen Donegan describes as “developmental narratives” that tell of the transformation of unprepared settlers into capable colonists. These narratives emphasize the adaptations that enable colonial settlements to thrive and prosper, and they depend structurally on moments of transition best represented by the phrase “but then”: when the struggles of inexperience and ignorance dissolve, leading the way out of disordered confusion and into triumphant knowledge (7). These are intensely satisfying narratives about America, stories of perseverance and achievement that are pleasing both to tell and to hear. They are also, however, incredibly deceptive stories, for they are built on selective readings of selective texts, and their appealing power shuts out other kinds of stories about settlement, and other kinds of narratives about coloniality.
While traditional accounts move swiftly through the colonial process of “seasoning”—a seventeenth-century term used to describe the changes wrought by the experience of colonial settlement—in order to celebrate what emerges on the other side, Seasons of Misery chooses to linger in this “seasoning time.” There, Donegan locates truly unsettling dimensions to colonial American settlement, discoveries that depend in large part on a series of stunning readings of texts that scholars have tended to pass over, in large part because we have not known how to read them. Donegan not only shows us how but builds from these readings an important new narrative about crisis and catastrophe in early America, one in which becoming colonial entailed a “conjunction between suffering and violence” (3). [End Page 923]
Donegan situates her method at the “crossroads” of New Historicism and the new narrative history. Her approach emphasizes event over anecdote and brings the close reading methods of literary study to the retelling strategies of new narrative history. The result allows for an especially productive meeting of text and context, where “what is internal to the text meets or grapples with the material world” (16). Donegan stalls the traditionally diachronic narratives of American literary history and dwells instead in the synchronic moment “before the translation of events into facts” (8). What she finds there are scenes of catastrophe that we have been all too quick to pass over. By rejecting a developmental and progressive narrative for a more episodic series of events (what she describes as “a convulsive series of ‘nows’”), Donegan repositions “coloniality in crisis rather than in accretion” (9, 12).
Seasons of Misery achieves a lot: it 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 whose implications reach far beyond the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on which the book is focused. Seasons of Misery finds in the textual records of early America a troubling world of catastrophe and misery that we have been reluctant to acknowledge and confront, and the book implicitly asks that we face unsettling truths about American settlement, where suffering was both corporeal and epistemic, entailing physical pain but also mental confusion so profound that it was inexpressible. Indeed, the disordered or unmanageable form of these texts reflects the epistemological unmooring of their subjects and their writers.
Chapter 1 questions the conventional narrative terms in which we have learned about, taught, and understood the colony of Roanoke. The mystery and melancholy that typically characterize our stories about the Lost Colony also curtail its failure. Donegan looks at a series of texts from the 1580s and ’90s—including the charter to Sir Walter Raleigh, reports by Arthur Barlowe and Ralph Lane (both published in Richard Hakluyt’s works), and John White’s 1590 failed rescue mission—that together expose coloniality in Roanoke as a radical experience of disorientation, where being colonial meant “not being able to read and not being able to leave” (23). Donegan approaches the language and form of these texts with exquisite care, examining in detail...