Bernard Bailyn is a titan in the field of early American history and the 529 pages of text in this book display his mastery of that field. The Barbarous Years presents in thorough detail the first six or seven decades of the Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York settlements and to a lesser extent Delaware and Maryland as well. Certainly anyone looking for a comprehensive overview of these events should read this book.
The Barbarous Years is, mainly, an overview, but, as the title indicates, Bailyn emphasizes the barbaric circumstances of the settlement experience in an attempt to establish thematic unity. He relates in graphic detail the killings, tortures and massacres committed by the European settlers and Native Americans against each other, particularly in the chapters on Virginia. But he takes pains to note how each such group inflicted identical horrors upon its own members as well. In a similar vein, he sets forth the details of the deprivations the Europeans endured in their earliest years, the mean conditions of their daily lives and the astonishingly high mortality rates.
There is also substantial demographic analysis of the settlement communities; significant description of the conditions and events in 17th century England that caused the exodus to America; and a detailed exposition of the diverse viewpoints on religious and other issues, such as land management, within the several communities, and the roots of those differences in England.
The reading experience, however, was not commensurate with the scholarship. Having read Philbrick's "Mayflower" and "The Island at the Center of the World" I was already familiar with the Massachusetts and New York narratives. Those books, particularly Philbrick's, are written more as narratives than expositions, and held my attention better than this one did. There is just a lot of exposition in this book . I am not referring only to the passages on demographics and land management practices, which, being new topics to me, held my interest initially for some time, but just went on too long. But the book often had that "no index card left out" feeling to it. Every person mentioned seems to get a short biography. I would have liked a little editing to focus more on the people who were truly important.
Last, the author is just verbose. Rarely is a person characterized by just one phrase or quote; three seems to be the median. Few nouns go without the company of an adjective and the same for verbs. In a span of just 8 lines on page 431, Roger Williams is described as "self-confident", "self-willed," , "self-conceited", "stubborn", "spiky", "uncompromising", "assertive", "imaginative", "attractive", "insensitive", "unquiet", "turbulent", "stiff", and "uncharitable". Surely some of these are redundant. John Winthrop, Jr., is introduced on page 401 as "the most accomplished among them, the most cosmopolitan, worldly, sophisticated and intellectually adventurous". Cosmopolitan, worldly and sophisticated? It's like a thesaurus entry. On page 405, a group of persons is described as "equally experienced in practical affairs, equally contentious, equally contrary-minded, equally argumentative, sensitive to slights and relentless in following through on their own opinions." Are not the phrases "equally contentious" and "equally argumentative", if not others, sufficiently "equal" that one could have been deleted? As a reading experience, it was unfortunately more of a slog than I had expected. I see the Publishers' Weekly review uses the word "weighty" to describe the book and that's not a bad choice, in both its favorable and unfavorable senses.