'Rum Histories' explores significance of celebrated liquor

Penn State York professor publishes book about colonialism and literature
Female English faculty member holding her recently published book standing outside at Penn State York

Jennifer Nesbitt, associate professor of English at Penn State York, has a new book out which explores the historical significance of rum.

Credit: Barbara Dennis

A new book by Jennifer Nesbitt, associate professor of English at Penn State York, offers insights into the way important commodities shape our thinking about the world. “Rum Histories: Drinking in Atlantic Literature and Culture” is now available from the University of Virginia Press as part of the New World Studies series.

“Rum has such a sad and violent history,” said Nesbitt, “yet it is an important part of life-affirming, communal celebrations. This book explores that paradox as it is expressed in art.”

According to the Virginia Press’ website, Nesbitt’s book discusses “a wide spectrum of writing, from popular contemporary works such as Christopher Moore’s 'Fluke' and Joseph O’Neill’s 'Netherland,' to classics by Michelle Cliff, V.S. Naipaul, and other luminaries of the Caribbean diaspora.”

“It was a project I just fell into, right in the middle of writing my first book,” said Nesbitt. “I started to notice how rum muddled the moral compass of characters who genuinely wanted to see equity and justice in the wake of British imperialism. Consuming the alcohol made characters revert back to old ideas and stereotypes — like they were drunk on the past,” she said.

When Nesbitt finished writing “Narrative Settlements: Geographies of Women’s Fiction between the Wars,” published in 2005 with the University of Toronto Press, she went back to the idea and, she said, “It became an obsession.”

"Once I saw it in one novel I started to see it everywhere, not just in Caribbean fiction," said Nesbitt.

Penn State has supported the development and writing of this important contribution to Caribbean literary studies. Nesbitt received a fellowship from the Institute from the Arts and Humanities as well as a sabbatical to complete this work. The book is also available free of charge through Penn State’s participation in Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem program. Nesbitt’s work on this project has fueled her teaching, bringing courses on Caribbean literature and history to the campus.

In addition to her two books, Nesbitt has also published articles on contemporary film and television, notably working with local NPR affiliate WITF, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as a commentator on the television series “Downton Abbey.”  In 2020, she was named the editor of the digital journal “The Space Between: Literature and Culture, 1914-1939.”

She is the 2020 recipient of the University College Faculty Council Teaching Award and a frequent judge for the regional Poetry Out Loud competition and the Martin Library Celebration of Poetry. She is also the program coordinator of the English major at Penn State York.

Nesbitt, who grew up in New England, received a degree in history and literature from Harvard University. After a stint in arts administration, she earned a doctorate from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to joining Penn State York in 2003, she taught English at Wilkes University, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.