Mark Twain on Alcohol, Cigars, and Writing Habits

I have a natural curiosity as to how other writers write. It's not something easily observable, as most writing is done in private, so when an author mentions his work habits, I end up either marveling at the other writer's stamina or - less frequently - patting myself on the back for being so productive.

The excerpt that follows is from a letter from Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, in response to an inquiry sent out to leading figures of the day regarding the use of stimulants, such as alcohol and tobacco.  The responses, and they were often quite interesting, were then published in a book entitled, Study and Stimulants, or, The Use of Intoxicants and Narcotics in Relation to Intellectual Life, As Illustrated by Personal Communications on the Subject, From Men of Letters and of Science. (Say what you will, that's one heck of a subtitle!) The book was edited by A. Arthur Reade, and dates from 1883:

I have not had a large experience in the matter of alcoholic drinks.  I find that about two glasses of champagne are an admirable stimulant to the tongue, and is, perhaps, the happiest inspiration for an after dinner speech which can be found; but, as far as my experience goes, wine is a clog to the pen, not an inspiration. I have never seen the time when I could write to my satisfaction after drinking even one glass of wine. As regards smoking, my testimony is of the opposite character. I am forty-six years old, and I have smoked immoderately during thirty-eight years, with the exception of a few intervals, which I will speak of presently. During the first seven years of my life I had no health—I may almost say that I lived on allopathic medicine, but since that period I have hardly known what sickness is.  My health has been excellent, and remains so. As I have already said, I began to smoke immoderately when I was eight years old; that is, I began with one hundred cigars a month, and by the time I was twenty I had increased my allowance to two hundred a month. Before I was thirty, I had increased it to three hundred a month. I think I do not smoke more than that now; I am quite sure I never smoke less. Once, when I was fifteen, I ceased from smoking for three months, but I do not remember whether the effect resulting was good or evil. I repeated this experiment when I was twenty-two; again I do not remember what the result was. I repeated the experiment once more, when I was thirty-four, and ceased from smoking during a year and a half. My health did not improve, because it was not possible to improve health which was already perfect. As I never permitted myself to regret this abstinence, I experienced no sort of inconvenience from it. I wrote nothing but occasional magazine articles during this time, and as I never wrote one except under strong impulse, I observed no lapse of facility. But by and by I sat down with a contract behind me to write a book of five or six hundred pages—the book called “Roughing it”— and then I found myself most seriously obstructed. I was three weeks writing six chapters. Then I gave up the fight, resumed my three hundred cigars, burned the six chapters, and wrote the book in three months, without any bother or difficulty. I find cigar smoking to be the best of all inspirations for the pen, and, in my particular case, no sort of detriment to the health. During eight months of the year I am at home, and that period is my holiday. In it I do nothing but very occasional miscellaneous work; therefore, three hundred cigars a month is a sufficient amount to keep my constitution on a firm basis. During the family’s summer vacation, which we spend elsewhere, I work five hours every day, and five days in every week, and allow no interruption under any pretext. I allow myself the fullest possible marvel of inspiration; consequently, I ordinarily smoke fifteen cigars during my five hours’ labors, and if my interest reaches the enthusiastic point, I smoke more. I smoke with all my might, and allow no intervals.


March 14, 1882.

Before you run out and buy three hundred cigars, I'd caution you to check with your doctor as to what effect this might have on your health.  Medical science has improved a bit in the last 125 years, and even back then the perceptive Reade noted that, "if accurate statistics could be obtained, it would be found that the value of life in inveterate smokers is considerably below the average."  Reade concluded his work thusly:

I hope that young smokers will not conclude that by following the example of Mark Twain, their brain will become as fertile as his. To them tobacco is bad in any form. It poisons their blood, stunts their growth, weakens the mind, and makes them lazy. “It is not easy,” says Mr. Ruskin, “to estimate the demoralizing effect of the cigar on the youth of Europe in enabling them to pass their time happily in idleness.” It has been forbidden at Annapolis, the Naval School, and at West Point, the Military Academy of the United States, having been found injurious to the health, discipline, and power of study of the students. “At Harvard College,” says Dr. Dio Lewis, “no young man addicted to the use of tobacco has graduated at the head of his class;” and at the lycees of Douai, Saint Quentin, and Chambery it has been found that the smokers are inferior to non-smokers. No public enquiry has yet been made as to the influence of tobacco upon English youths, but I am assured by several leading schoolmasters that the smokers are invariably the worst scholars. It cannot be too widely known, therefore, that tobacco, like alcohol, is of no advantage to a healthy student, and I advise young men to avoid it altogether. Darwin regretted that he had acquired the habit of snuff taking, and Mr. Sala says that had he his life to live over again, he would never touch tobacco in any shape or form. Never begun, never needed. “I do not advise you, young man,” says Oliver Wendell Holmes, “to consecrate the flower of your life to painting the bowl of a pipe, for, let me assure you, the stain of a reverie-breeding narcotic may strike deeper than you think. I have seen the green leaf of early promise grown brown before its time under such nicotian regimen, and thought the amber’d meerschaum was dearly bought at the cost of a brain enfeebled and a will enslaved.”

My conclusions, then, are as follows:--

1.—Alcohol and tobacco are no value to a healthy student.

2.—That the most vigorous thinkers and hardest workers abstain from both stimulants.

3.—That those who have tried both moderation and total abstinence find the latter the more healthful practice.

4.—That almost every brain-worker would be the better for abstinence.

5.—That the most abstruse calculations may be made, and the most laborious mental work performed, without artificial stimulus.

6.—That all work done under the influence of alcohol is unhealthy work.

7.—That the only pure brain stimulants are external ones— fresh air, cold water; walking, riding, and other out-door exercises.




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