Among the Bear-Baiters

I'm writing this while enjoying one of the most satisfying moments of my day, one of the most satisfying moments known to humanity. It's morning. I prefer to take a sip, even two, from my favorite old oversized coffee cup, with a glazed blue-checker band, before firing up. My lighter has been acting up lately, but the pack of Winstons is nearly full -- and, hooray, the flame doesn't sputter as it did last night. The deep pull, after hours of sleeping abstinence, is ambrosial. The large box of Nicorette, planted on the desk corner at New Year's, doesn't have a chance, not today.

It used to be said that tobacco smoking was a habit. These days, the plainer word is addiction. But is smoking also a hobby? Most addictions start out as hobbies. And don't people refer loosely to their hobbies as addictions? Like: The guy's a real computer-game addict or she's hooked on shopping. There once was a time when we smokers freely indulged ourselves anywhere we pleased. But then, on or around July 1987, human nature changed. The hobbydom of tobacco died, or to be more exact, was banned, at least in respectable company. If it can be likened to a sport, smoking in America went from being baseball, the national pastime, to become something like bear-baiting or cock-fighting -- a quaint, vicious, shameful activity practiced secretly by knots of marginals, their sanity highly questionable.

Yes, talking up the good old days of smoking is golden-age mythologizing. Things were never that wonderful. Tobacco, a nasty weed to harvest, lay behind the worst mass exploitation implanted in the American colonies, of white indentured servants as well as African slaves, spurred by indifference among royal profiteers in the mother country. In 1691, a group of Virginians dispatched one Dr. James Blair to London to raise funds for a new college, which would train men for the ministry. Blair met with some success until he called upon the royal treasury commissioner, Sir Edward Seymour, who appears to have been the R.J. Reynolds of his day. The supplicant Blair said that the good people of Virginia, just like those of England, had souls to save. “Souls!” Seymour shot back. “Damn your souls. Grow tobacco.” Blair eventually raised his endowment (and established the College of William and Mary), but the souls of Virginians remained wrapped in tobacco leaves for centuries to come.

Still, it wasn't all desolation. In its heyday, between roughly 1880 and 1960, cigarette smoking brought a democratic kind of pleasure on so many fronts that, more than a hobby, it became a way of life. Yet, although it was a mass phenomenon, smoking permitted infinite personal idiosyncrasies, a very American kind of thing. Were you one of those people who tapped your smokes on the table (or, if need be, the back of your free hand) before lighting up? Did you hold your smoke in the standard American fashion, between index and middle finger, or did you go for the older, European style of pinching between index finger and thumb -- a style that could connote a certain sinister bent (all the movie Nazis smoked that way)? I could go on.

But here, beside the ashtray, sits a new book called No Smoking, published by a firm new to me, Assouline, lavishly packaged (like a box of Benson & Hedges, or maybe Dunhills), filled with old photos of celebrity and rank-and-file smokers alike, and graced with a superb long preface by my friend Luc Sante. Luc writes as an ex-smoker, which gives his deeply felt remembrance of cigarettes past a certain elegiac grace.

I have no such happy luxury. For the moment, I am still a bear-baiter, a deviant idiot, confined to indulging in my study (where a smoke remover hums to protect all others from the side-stream), or in stigmatized public areas where I exchange grim pleasantries with the other bear-baiters. With the pubs of Ireland now smoke free, it may not be long before even the French get smart. Then there will be no place left. Imagine: “Défense de Fumer” signs in every bistro and boîte de nuit.

I'm determined to kick the addiction before the French nation does. Sante has shown me what no nauseating photos of carbonized lungs managed to -- a way to feel and remember and even taste the great satisfaction without shame, the loathing of which, in a perverse way, has only fed my fondness for nicotine. It would help, though, if someone could figure out how to squeeze some democratic romance out of slicing open those infernal plastic cubes of Nicorette. Luc? Assouline?

Where there's a will, there's a way.

Sean Wilentz is the author most recently of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln.

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