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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  • Interesting that the New Yorker rejected this piece (I guess Fitzgerald wasn’t a “somebody” yet!) It does bring up the issue of how public intolerance of a cultural norm can snuff out said norm.

    Consider spittoons, for example. These used to be standard fixtures in all hotel lobbies, bus stations, shops, even doctors’ offices – until community health worries drove spitting in public out of favour throughout the Western world. Today, we’d be universally disgusted by the use of indoor spittoons, a practice that was once perfectly acceptable.

    With smoking, the judgement against it now goes beyond “neighbors’ and coworkers’ atti­tudes” as described in Fitzgerald’s short story, given what we know about the dangerous physical impact of second-hand smoke on those same neighbors and coworkers.

    I predict that smoking will one day go the way of the spittoon, precisely because of social disapproval. As an ex-smoker, I can’t wait to get there.

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