Daily Archives: March 12, 2011

Smoking and creativity: a few data points

Bruce Charlton recently posted on a possible link between smoking and creative accomplishment. In the comments, Dennis Mangan said that nicotine seemed especially helpful for writers and even asked, “Has there ever been a great writer who wasn’t a smoker?” Out of curiosity, I decided to check.

I took out Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment, looked at the highest-ranking writers in his roster of significant figures in Western literature — those with a score of at least 25 on a scale from 1 (Joyce Cary, DuBose Heyward, and others of like stature) to 100 (Shakespeare) — and tried to find out who smoked and who didn’t. I had originally planned to check a larger number of writers, but sleuthing out the smoking habits of historical figures quickly becomes tedious. For whatever it’s worth, here’s what I found. If you have additional information about the smoking habits of any of these people, please leave a comment.

Smokers

  • Molière: “No matter what Aristotle and the Philosophers say, nothing is equal to tobacco; it’s the passion of the well-bred, and he who lives without tobacco lives a life not worth living.”
  • Lord Byron: “Sublime tobacco! which from east to west / Cheers the tar’s labor or the Turkman’s rest. / Divine in hookas, glorious in a pipe / When tipp’d with amber, mellow, rich, and ripe; / Like other charmers, wooing the caress / More dazzlingly when daring in full dress; / Yet thy true lovers more admire by far / Thy naked beauties—give me a cigar!”
  • Dostoevsky: a heavy smoker, rolled his own cigarettes
  • Schiller
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • T. S. Eliot: died of emphysema reportedly brought on by his heavy smoking
  • Milton: smoked a pipe every night before going to bed
  • Baudelaire
  • Pushkin: an occasional social smoker
  • Dickens
  • Keats

Smokers who quit

  • Tolstoy
  • Émile Zola: “Perfection is such a nuisance that I often regret having cured myself of using tobacco.”

Non-smokers by choice

These people lived at a time when tobacco was available but did not use it.

  • Goethe: “Only a few things I find as repugnant as snakes and poison. These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs and garlic and [cross].”
  • Rousseau
  • Voltaire
  • Victor Hugo: hated smoking, refused to allow anyone to smoke around him

Non-smokers of necessity

These people lived and died before tobacco had been introduced into the Old World.

  • Dante
  • Virgil
  • Homer
  • Petrarch
  • Boccaccio
  • Euripides
  • Horace
  • Cicero
  • Ovid
  • Aeschylus
  • Sophocles

Unknown

I’ve been unable to find any definite information on these people’s smoking habits.

  • Shakespeare: never mentions tobacco in his writing, but that doesn’t prove anything
  • Jean Racine
  • Ibsen
  • Balzac
  • James Joyce
  • Cervantes
  • Gogol
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Rilke: a biography mentions that he at first considered tobacco smoke “vile” but later got used to the smell; implies that he was a non-smoker, though I suppose he may have taken up the habit later
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley

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