The harder I work…

June 14, 2011

Recently forwarded to our editorial offices by a field correspondent, authorial provence unknown:

Literary noble Sir Compton Mackenzie once said, “The harder I work the more I need to smoke, because tobacco is the handmaid of literature.” I wonder whether there’s been any truly great writer, other than those unfortunates who lived before the weed was discovered, who didn’t smoke. Besides its pleasurable qualities, nicotine enhances the brain’s activities, speeding up thought processes, and writers have known this for centuries: Kant smoked a pipe every morning; though he allowed himself only one pipe a day, his pipes got bigger over the years. And when Hobbes sat down to write, he had five pipes lined up, which he smoked one after the other. (All three of these men lived to a ripe old age.)


Twain on Cigars

April 25, 2010

In lieu of original writing, please enjoy Mark Twain’s essay Concerning Tobacco, re-printed below. The author’s legendary cigar habit (estimated at one hundred per month) is rumored to have been come by when he was nine years old and a local tobacconist agreed to pay him in cigars for running daily errands.  

As concerns tobacco, there are many superstitions. And the chiefest is this–that there is a STANDARD governing the matter, whereas there is nothing of the kind. Each man’s own preference is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept, the only one which can command him. A congress of all the tobacco-lovers in the world could not elect a standard which would be binding upon you or me, or would even much influence us.

The next superstition is that a man has a standard of his own. He hasn’t. He thinks he has, but he hasn’t. He thinks he can tell what he regards as a good cigar from what he regards as a bad one–but he can’t. He goes by the brand, yet imagines he goes by the flavor. One may palm off the worst counterfeit upon him; if it bears his brand he will smoke it contentedly and never suspect.

Children of twenty-five, who have seven years experience, try to tell me what is a good cigar and what isn’t. Me, who never learned to smoke, but always smoked; me, who came into the world asking for a light.

No one can tell me what is a good cigar–for me. I am the only judge. People who claim to know say that I smoke the worst cigars in the world. They bring their own cigars when they come to my house. They betray an unmanly terror when I offer them a cigar; they tell lies and hurry away to meet engagements which they have not made when they are threatened with the hospitalities of my box.

Now then, observe what superstition, assisted by a man’s reputation, can do. I was to have twelve personal friends to supper one night. One of them was as notorious for costly and elegant cigars as I was for cheap and devilish ones. I called at his house and when no one was looking borrowed a double handful of his very choicest; cigars which cost him forty cents apiece and bore red-and-gold labels in sign of their nobility. I removed the labels and put the cigars into a box with my favorite brand on it–a brand which those people all knew, and which cowed them as men are cowed by an epidemic. They took these cigars when offered at the end of the supper, and lit them and sternly struggled with them–in dreary silence, for hilarity died when the fell brand came into view and started around–but their fortitude held for a short time only; then they made excuses and filed out, treading on one another’s heels with indecent eagerness; and in the morning when I went out to observe results the cigars lay all between the front door and the gate. All except one–that one lay in the plate of the man from whom I had cabbaged the lot. One or two whiffs was all he could stand. He told me afterward that some day I would get shot for giving people that kind of cigars to smoke.

Am I certain of my own standard? Perfectly; yes, absolutely –unless somebody fools me by putting my brand on some other kind of cigar; for no doubt I am like the rest, and know my cigar by the brand instead of by the flavor. However, my standard is a pretty wide one and covers a good deal of territory. To me, almost any cigar is good that nobody else will smoke, and to me almost all cigars are bad that other people consider good. Nearly any cigar will do me, except a Havana. People think they hurt my feelings when then come to my house with their life preservers on–I mean, with their own cigars in their pockets.

It is an error; I take care of myself in a similar way. When I go into danger–that is, into rich people’s houses, where, in the nature of things, they will have high-tariff cigars, red-and-gilt girded and nested in a rosewood box along with a damp sponge, cigars which develop a dismal black ash and burn down the side and smell, and will grow hot to the fingers, and will go on growing hotter and hotter, and go on smelling more and more infamously and unendurably the deeper the fire tunnels down inside below the thimbleful of honest tobacco that is in the front end, the furnisher of it praising it all the time and telling you how much the deadly thing cost–yes, when I go into that sort of peril I carry my own defense along; I carry my own brand–twenty-seven cents a barrel–and I live to see my family again. I may seem to light his red-gartered cigar, but that is only for courtesy’s sake; I smuggle it into my pocket for the poor, of whom I know many, and light one of my own; and while he praises it I join in, but when he says it cost forty-five cents I say nothing, for I know better.

However, to say true, my tastes are so catholic that I have never seen any cigars that I really could not smoke, except those that cost a dollar apiece. I have examined those and know that they are made of dog-hair, and not good dog-hair at that.

I have a thoroughly satisfactory time in Europe, for all over the Continent one finds cigars which not even the most hardened newsboys in New York would smoke. I brought cigars with me, the last time; I will not do that any more. In Italy, as in France, the Government is the only cigar-peddler. Italy has three or four domestic brands: the Minghetti, the Trabuco, the Virginia, and a very coarse one which is a modification of the Virginia. The Minghettis are large and comely, and cost three dollars and sixty cents a hundred; I can smoke a hundred in seven days and enjoy every one of them. The Trabucos suit me, too; I don’t remember the price. But one has to learn to like the Virginia, nobody is born friendly to it. It looks like a rat- tail file, but smokes better, some think. It has a straw through it; you pull this out, and it leaves a flue, otherwise there would be no draught, not even as much as there is to a nail. Some prefer a nail at first.

However, I like all the French, Swiss, German, and Italian domestic cigars, and have never cared to inquire what they are made of; and nobody would know, anyhow, perhaps. There is even a brand of European smoking-tobacco that I like. It is a brand used by the Italian peasants. It is loose and dry and black, and looks like tea-grounds. When the fire is applied it expands, and climbs up and towers above the pipe, and presently tumbles off inside of one’s vest. The tobacco itself is cheap, but it raises the insurance. It is as I remarked in the beginning–the taste for tobacco is a matter of superstition. There are no standards–no real standards. Each man’s preference is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept, the only one which can command him.

Hart, on Tobacco

April 30, 2009

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.


"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.


"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.”


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