Rediscovered Twain Essay Talks Cigars

Rediscovered Twain Essay Talks Cigars

Article by Garson Smart

Absolutely anyone who knows anything about American literature knows that there’s a lot more to Mark Twain than Huck Finn. There’s his witty and iconoclastic essays (“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”; “Corn-Pone Opinions”), his uproarious and scathing book reviews (“What Paul Bourget Thinks of Us”), his fierce anti-imperialism and advocacy for the rights of women and minorities (Following the Equator); his anti-religious writings (Letters From the Earth). But what even many fans don’t know is that a good pile of Twain’s writings still has not seen publication–until now.

Indeed, Who Is Mark Twain, a newly-published anthology containing works that the famous author refused to publish in his lifetime, for fear of jeopardizing his family’s financial security and wealth (and perhaps even their safety). These unpublished pieces take his iconoclasm to a new level.

The book is a grab-bag as full and rich as any premium cigar sampler. But what will interest cigar aficionados the most is that one of these unpublished pieces sees Twain indulging his fondness for cigars and smoking at greater length than ever.

Twain was a longtime cigar aficionado. Indeed, he indulged a preference for premium cigars (and even not-so-premium cigars) to a degree that might surprise even the most hardcore of today’s cigar aficionados. Rumor holds that he was already keeping up a one-hundred-cigar-per-month habit by the age of nine (his supply came from a kindly shopkeeper who paid the young Twain, nee Samuel Clemens, in cigars for brining him water).

In these more health-conscious times many writers turn to coffee in the same way that their literary forebears turned to alcohol and drugs–the myth of the substance-abusing writer having fallen on hard times, as future generations of readers look at the work produced by, say, Faulkner and Fitzgerald in their alcoholic-haze years and find it lacking in the brilliance of these same writers’ first books. But, in every generation, the need for an imaginative jump-start, whether in the form of a stimulant (caffeine or nicotine) or some other ritual (jogging, meditation, etc.), is a constant in artists’ lives. Twain’s jump-starter of choice was the cigar, and he loved it as much as any contemporary writer loves his or her coffee. He tried to quit smoking during the composition of his classic travel memoir, Roughing It, but found he couldn’t get the work done. Two chapters took a whole week. He went back to smoking with renewed vigor. His relationship to tobacco is explicitly addressed in the 1883 essay “Smoking as Inspiration,” and he also touches on cigars in the anti-imperialist Following the Equator.

But the new book brings us “Conversations With Satan,” a crazy fantasia in which Twain presents himself as interviewing the Devil himself during a visit to Vienna. (Satan maintains that he is not needed in America, so why not visit Vienna?) After touching on many topics, the essay settles down into a discussion of tobacco, at first between the narrator and Satan, and then between the narrator and himself. Satan finds that he especially enjoys Navy Cut tobacco, and despises the fruit-flavored Turkish kind. From here, the narrator reflects to himself at some length on the vagaries of taste, the way that each cigar aficionado seems to have his or her own personal preference, which she or he considers objectively superior to that of any other premium cigar aficionado. We look down on those who don’t appreciate the same cigars we do, quite foolishly, when in fact such things are always a matter of taste–and besides, Twain argues, few of us would even recognize the taste of our own “favorite” cigar if it didn’t come in a distinctive box. If our favorite cigar comes unmarked as part of a premium cigar sampler, Twain seems to imply, we wouldn’t know it from all the others.

Provocative words for cigar aficionados. One way to prove Twain wrong: order a premium cigar sampler and subject yourself to a blind taste test. Or two. Or three. Or twenty. After all, as Twain himself said, only sleeping and eating should be allowed to interrupt the smoking of a good cigar. But remember Twain’s rule: don’t smoke more than one at a time.

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