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.
- 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
- 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
- Pushkin: an occasional social smoker
Smokers who quit
- 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].”
- 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.
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
- James Joyce
- 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