Although he is best known as the father of American literature, Mark Twain was a lifelong cigar smoker. Born Samuel Clemens in 1835 in Hannibal, Missouri, the legendary writer and humorist started smoking cigars at age eight and never looked back.
An Abundance of Tobacco
During the 1800s, tobacco was plentiful in Missouri and throughout much of the United States. Plantations and cigar factories provided all the sticks the future novelist would need. Cigars also were cheap — often costing a few pennies each — so it’s not surprising that Twain developed a taste for stogies. It was a preference he maintained throughout his life. Perhaps that is because Twain was said to have smoked 22 to 40 cigars a day!
Mark Twain: A Smoker of Many Trades
Although Mark Twain became one of America’s most renowned writers, his formal education was scant. He left school after the fifth grade, worked as a printer’s apprentice, and then wrote articles for his brother’s newspaper, Hannibal Journal. At eighteen, he traveled the country. He applied his printing experience in New York and Cincinnati, among other cities. When he wasn’t working, he educated himself in public libraries.
Twain eventually returned to Missouri and the Mississippi River where he trained as a riverboat pilot and drew inspiration for his two most famous novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His pen name also came from his time on the river. It is a term that refers to water depths.
Mark Twain then headed West and worked unsuccessfully as a miner, an experience he transformed into one of his first and most well-known stories, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Despite his travels and experience in several trades, journalism and writing were Twain’s destiny. The only other constant in his life was smoking. He wrote that “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know that because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
Mark Twain on Giving Up Smoking
Twain tried to quit several times. After joining the Cadets of Temperance when he was 15 — a total abstinence society for the youth. He abstained for nearly three months. However, he later wrote of that time as being “consumed with cigar cravings.”
His wife, Olivia Langdon, also disapproved of his smoking habits. When he couldn’t quit entirely, he vowed to limit his smoking to one cigar per day. However, this merely led to increasingly larger cigars. Ever the humorist, Twain said of that attempt, “Within the month, my cigar had grown to such proportions that I could have used it as a crutch.”
Writing and Smoking
Throughout his life, his smoking habits drew criticism and concern for his health to which he responded, “I smoke in moderation. Only one cigar at a time.” And that he did: one right after the other. How else could he consume a legendary 300 cigars a month?
Like many writers, there was a connection between his smoking and his work. He considered cigars “the best of all inspirations.” While writing Roughing It, an autobiographical work about his time out West, he tried quitting again. When he struggled to get words to the page, he resumed his favorite pastime and wrote the book in three months with no difficulty, crediting cigars for his proficiency with the pen.
Besides his many books, Mark Twain was a successful lecturer and earned as much money as he lost through failed business ventures. Throughout his colorful life, he remained a committed cigar smoker. While it’s not known the exact cigar brand Twain smoked, he frequently mentioned his dislike for “Havanas.” He also mentioned favoring Connecticuts over the Cuban variety perhaps because he’d honed his palate on homegrown cigars. However, his tastes often offended his friends and family. Several people who later interviewed Twain described his cigars as long, dark and having an awful odor. Twain’s cigars were more likely a thinner ring gauge. How else could he smoke over two dozen a day?
Although Twain tried the best cigars of the era, he always returned his regular stogies. No one can fault him for that. The premium cigar industry back then was not what it is today. Twain wasn’t finicky and had few preferences, but he was a smoker through and through.
Mark Twain’s Legacy
Mark Twain was born shortly after the appearance of Halley’s Comet and he once predicted he would “go out with it.” He was right. He died on April 21, 1910. The day after Halley’s comet appeared.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has been presenting an award in Twain’s honor since 1998. The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor has gone to Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Dave Chappelle, Tina Fey, George Carlin, David Letterman, and many others. All are undoubtedly honored to be spoken of in the same breath as the man who once said, “If I cannot smoke cigars in heaven, I shall not go.”
Considering how cigar life has evolved and endured, Twain will be in good company regardless of whether he’s in heaven or hell, or somewhere between.
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