Another Take on Not Smoking, the Law and Tolerance

The New Yorker published a story this week, on smoking, that caught my attention. It’s by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. The author died in 1940 at the age of 44, after a ruinous period of addictions including alcoholism, debts and other problems.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (June, 1937), photo by Carl van Vechten

Thank You for the Light dates to 1936. The main character is a woman: “Mrs. Hanson was a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty…” She sold girdles and craved cigarettes. Smoking had the power to “rest and relax her psychologically.” He describes her growing frustration at not being able to take a drag in offices where she did business.

The story suggests that although public and workplace smoking wasn’t illegal back then, it was frowned upon in cities like Chicago. The protagonist longs for past years and places where she could chat and share a drink or cigarette with clients after work. Times had changed, she reflects.

In Fitzgerald’s words:

…Not only was she never asked if she would like to smoke but several times her own inquiry as to whether anyone would mind was answered half apologetically with ‘It’s not that I mind, but it has a bad influence on the employees.’

This vignette offers a 1930s perspective on what some call social health – that an individual’s behavior might be influenced by neighbors’ and coworkers’ attitudes. In this story, the woman finds solace in a church. I won’t give away the ending.

The short read lingers. What’s unsettling, still, is whether the socially-driven ban on smoking helped or harmed the woman.

According to the New Yorker’s Page-Turner, the magazine rejected Fitzgerald’s story when he submitted the piece. The writer’s granddaughter recently uncovered it. This time around, it passed muster.


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A Story About A Doctor and His Neighbors

In recent years, some physician authors have wrestled with why doctors might want to think twice before “friending” their patients on Facebook. The usual reasons are to protect the physician’s professional image – that the public might see their weirder, or not-so-polished-as-while-working side and, also, to maintain a certain “distance” – lest doctors become so concerned about their patients’ well-being that they can’t render objective opinions or advice.

Others suggest it’s a good idea for doctors to be socially out there, so to speak. Besides, through most of history, or at least the civilized part in which there have been designated healers, many individuals knew their doctors, who often resided in the same village or region as their patients. People trusted their physicians or didn’t, based on what they knew about their reputations as practitioners and as local denizens.

In the October issue of Harper’s Magazine, T.C. Boyle provides a disturbing portrait of a portly, unkempt doctor who lands a job in small town, presumably in Maine. His unmannerly behavior disturbs some residents. The piece addresses, at least peripherally, some ultra-modern and ancient concerns about relationships between patients and doctors within a community. I don’t wish to give more of this short story away, so I won’t.

I do recommend What Separates Us From the Animals, part of a forthcoming novel, When the Killing’s Done, to my readers. With his frank, absorbing language, Boyle offers insight into human beings as sometimes social creatures who take far-from-perfect care of themselves. Doctor included.

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