Hart, on Tobacco

Jeffrey Hart is Professor Emeritus of English at Dartmouth College, and a cultural critic, essayist and columnist. He holds an A.B. and Ph.D. from Columbia University, both in English literature, and formerly served four years with U.S. Naval Intelligence. During his more active teaching tenure, professor Hart often made a point of nettling colleagues: while they protested the price of gas, he drove to school in a Cadillac limousine. Professor Hart is still a Senior Editor with National Review, and a founder and adviser to The Dartmouth Review.

Below is Professor Hart’s 1992 essay on tobacco.

Smoking is politically incorrect these days, but have you ever wandered into a good pipe shop?

These are male environments, of course, which surely makes them objectionable, but pipes are works of art. A pipe shop has its own ambience, yes, a male ambience.

These smoking instruments often are beautiful, selected for the grain of their wood or the gracefulness of their design.

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"A pipe shop has its own ambience, yes, a male ambience."

There are times when I like a slim little pipe, but other times when I like a massive blockbuster. I have a pipe that was smoked by a general on the Boer side in the war against England. It’s a huge thing. That general was only a bit over five feet tall, and the pipe must have rested on his chest as he smoked it. It has a metal lid, so that he could smoke it while the clouds were raining down upon him, along with the British bullets. The general died in old age in Ohio.

I also have a beautiful briar churchwarden pipe, about 18 inches long. I don’t know why this particular design is called a “churchwarden.” I enjoy that pipe, and indeed use it as a prop while lecturing to college classes. (Of course, the sign over my head says “No Smoking.”)

I have another favorite pipe, a Peterson model from Ireland, which my wife bought in a pipe shop in Harvard Square. She had a silversmith inscribe in silver my class numerals in the front of the bowl: 1951.

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"There are times when I like a slim little pipe, but other times when I like a massive blockbuster."

The tobacco I favor comes from that same pipe shop, and it’s a mixture called “Black Gold.” Years ago, I favored “Balkan Sobranie,” which is very good, and some of my former students still smoke it, but now I lean to “Black Gold.”

That pipe shop in Harvard Square has a wall covered with old photographs of Harvard football games, people wearing handlebar mustaches and so on, and the place smells like rich tobacco. It even stocks marvelous cigars, not now Havana cigars, but when we finally get rid of Castro we will have Havana cigars again.

A few years ago, a friend of mine tried to smuggle a load of Havana cigars into Miami, but they were discovered and confiscated by the Customs. Too bad. He asked the officers what they were going to do with these good cigars. Their answers: “Burn them. Very Slowly.”

There is only one very good pipe store left in midtown Manhattan, down from four or five 10 years ago. Yet it remains a fine pipe store, full of beautiful pipe objects. Some of them are antiques purchased at estate auctions. The atmosphere in the store is redolent of tobacco, and the manners are relaxed and masculine. The clerks and the customers discuss blends and mixtures of tobacco, what cigars are being imported, what new or old pipes are available. This store is sort of a club. A piece of civilization that is perhaps vanishing.

"There is only one very good pipe store left in midtown Manhattan, down from four or five 10 years ago."

"There is only one very good pipe store left in midtown Manhattan, down from four or five 10 years ago."

 Can anyone think of Sherlock Holmes without his pipe – not to mention his “quick Watson, the needle”? (Morphine?)

Presidents were often nominated in the famous “smoke filled room,” cigar smoke I suppose. There is good and bad cigar smoke. I can hardly wait for Castro to disappear.

Some of the very best pipe stores are in London. They have mahogany counters, glass cases, and even brass spittoons. I would not be surprised to hear that some of the pipes were designed by Rembrandt.

Yes, yes, yes, I know all about lung cancer.

But, more and more, it seems that if you want to avoid cancer of one sort or another you have to stop living.

Now that is something of a contradiction.

Pipes have now been banned at the regular meetings of college facilities. Mr. Chips and Sherlock Holmes would have been shocked, shocked. This is one among many reasons I myself do not attend faculty meetings anymore.

There is an ideological contradiction involved here. The American Indians, who are Politically Correct these days, introduced tobacco to the Europeans through Sir Walter Raleigh. Tobacco is Politically Incorrect. We’ll have to work that one out.

Are women behind all of this Puritanism? Maybe. The only woman I ever met who smoked a pipe was the wife of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, a charming and witty lady. Some women do smoke cigars, diminutive and “feminine” ones, but not the big and glorious variety.

I have a sign in my office in the Dartmouth College English Department that reads: “Thank You For Holding Your Breath While I Smoke.”

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“Thank You For Holding Your Breath While I Smoke.”

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