MCEAS Fellow Profile: Jacob Myers


Jacob Myers is a Marguerite Bartlett Hamer Dissertation Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation is entitled "Noxious Life: Figuring Vermin in the Natural Histories of the British Caribbean." We spoke with Jacob about his research interests, his reading recommendations, and the scholars who have most influenced his work.

Q: What drew you to the study of early America?

Myers: Surprisingly enough, China! I went to Macau on my Fulbright to teach eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature at a university there. I was living on the Pearl River Delta, a region shaped by British and American encroachment during the very literary period I came to teach. Living China's history pushed me to think beyond imperial metropoles. When I came back to the U.S., I interned at the Department of State’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms where I deepened my understanding of how Anglo-American material culture emerged out of mercantile force. At Penn, I began theorizing what made the eighteenth century “global,” and I turned to the Caribbean because it exemplified how America was defined by imperial flows. Peoples from all over the planet migrated or were forcibly brought to these islands, carrying with them animals, plants, objects, and ideas. They reshaped the region through violence and conquest, through survival and resistance, through traditional and hybrid knowledges. Then, they reshaped the world. My arrival to early American studies probably seems circuitous to others, but it reflects America’s own circuits, how it was – and is – embedded in a global network.

Q: How did you become interested in your dissertation topic, researching vermin in the natural histories of the British Caribbean?

Myers: I always imagine that I’m reclining on a therapist’s couch when someone asks me this question. “And, how long have you been thinking about roaches?” Joking aside, I am drawn to subjects that scholars avoid because they evoke disgust or horror. I had written papers on colonizers’ relationships with parasitic insects for Chi-ming Yang and Suvir Kaul’s graduate seminars, but the project as a whole clicked when I was reading through Hans Sloane’s natural history during my fields research. In a throwaway remark, the naturalist notes that cane-rats were sold as a food source in Jamaican markets. This was a shocking prospect to me because the practice was such a taboo in early modern England since it was associated with cannibalism! As I turned to archival research to better understand, I realized early Caribbean residents had a lot to say about rats. Cane-rats were in planter manuals, medical treatises, Parliamentary reports, diary entries, letters, poetry, novels, folklore, and even prayers! Reading across these sources, I saw that they were alternately portrayed as vermin and resource by resident Europeans and Africans. This contradiction in terms – a valuable pest – spurred my project’s major questions: How did the various people living on the islands understand non-domesticated animals that lived close to them? What made something – or someone – “vermin” and according to whom? What narratives and metaphors were used to render this island life “pestilential” and what were the alternative ways of thinking hidden in this figuration? It was through these questions that I realized so-called “vermin” defined Caribbean plantation life and its legacies.

Q: Who is an author that you think more early Americanists should read?

Myers: Everyone needs to read more scholars working on the Caribbean. There’s been a big (and vital!) push in early American studies towards transatlantic, hemispheric, or global approaches, but the United States often remains at the center of studies on #VastEarlyAmerica. Early Caribbeanists have cultivated an amazing array of archival and interpretive methodologies that challenge many commonsense views of early America. They attend to how porous the Atlantic world was, how mobile peoples and ideas were, and how multi-perspectival sources are. I think Nicole N. Aljoe’s Creole Testimonies, Pablo F. Gómez’s The Experiential Caribbean, Sara E. Johnson’s Encyclopédie noire, Rana A. Hogarth’s Medicalizing Blackness, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s New World Drama, and Jenny Sharpe’s Ghosts of Slavery are all required reading because they expand our view of early America by reorienting it through the lens of the Greater Caribbean.

Q: What is something you’ve read or watched recently that other early Americanists might find interesting?

Myers: Along with being a literary historian, I also research how we think about history on film. Recently, I have been re-watching the DuSable’s Equiano.stories, an adaptation of Olaudah Equiano’s life story told through micro-video social media. (Think Instagram’s Reels or Tiktok!) Its innovative, first-person perspective immerses its viewers, and its multi-post format creates opportunities to foster a personal relationship with Equiano’s world by liking, commenting, and reposting meaningful moments. At the same time, its heavy editing reminds us that its history – like every history – is constructed. Equiano.stories is aimed towards the general public, but it provides a provocative intervention in debates about how to approach the archive of slavery and the politics of recovery and speculation.

Q: What are you most enjoying about your Fellowship at the McNeil Center?

Myers: The community at the McNeil Center really is impeccable. I have workshopped the manuscripts of distinguished and emerging scholars, and I have been lucky enough to share my own work with the McNeil community. Participating in such an intensive forum has radically enlarged my understanding of early America – it’s been exciting to see the future of the field here. Plus, the camaraderie among the fellows is precious. We talk through conceptual issues we’re navigating in our research. We reflect on the ethics and importance of particular archives and interpretive techniques. These are questions I rarely get to broach in my home department. I mean, how often do you get to spend a full year alongside other people in your particular niche? Plus, everyone is so generous and friendly. These are relationships that I will be taking with me well after my fellowship is over.


Jacob Myers is a Marguerite Bartlett Hamer Dissertation Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania. Read more about his dissertation on his bio page.