Tobacco: A Cultural History of How An Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, by Iain Gately. Grove Press, 400 pages. $25.
Even nonsmokers will appreciate novelist Iain Gately's lively and engaging account of how the world -- most of which never knew about, much less consumed, tobacco until the mid 16th century -- came, so to speak, to need the weed. It is an astounding story.
When you consider that originally, the plant was indigenous to South America alone, and only made its way across the globe relatively late in the history of human civilization, first as booty, then as bounty from the New World, it seems all the more amazing that it now so thoroughly suffuses almost every culture and nation on the planet. Still more amazing is the central role tobacco has played in human history since its dissemination.
As Gately so thoroughly documents, tobacco was not only the cash crop that made the American colonies as indispensable and prosperous as they became, it was, in all the likelihood, also the single most important reason why those same colonies began trading in slaves.
The labor intensiveness of tobacco farming, coupled with the overwhelming demand for the crop in Europe and the need to remain profitable in the Americas or die, necessitated the cooption of a massive and cheap workforce. The venture was so successful, Gately argues, that tobacco income provided the financial basis for American victory in the Revolutionary War, and the sustainability of the new nation thereafter.
Gately's gifts as a raconteur shine through in his enthusiastic relation of such tales as the origin of the term for the active ingredient in tobacco -- nicotine. It was named after the French queen Catherine de' Medici's court physician Jean Nicot, who introduced the herb to European society, touting it, ironically enough, as a cure for cancer.
This led to the habit of social snuff-taking, which, on the advice of Nicot, French courtiers began taking as a prophylactic. With characteristic humor, Gately writes: "They found the habit strangely compulsive, and tobacco use began to spread as quickly as the plant itself."
Thereafter, as it had done before, tobacco consumption of every conceivable variety spread through conquest. The cigarette, for example, followed Napoleon across the European continent and beyond. During Queen Victoria's reign, the British used tobacco anally, as a laxative, and promptly spread La Diva Nicotina, as they called it, to India and the rest of Her Majesty's empire.
Perhaps it is only fitting that the most litigious fuss over the Nicotian herb has been made here in America, where it all began. But somehow, when you finish reading Gately's delightful tour of mankind's sexiest and -- second only to alcohol -- most intimate addiction, you're likely to find the idea of anyone suing a tobacco purveyor almost as absurd as the left hand suing the right. You're also likely to find the entire late 20th century demonization of tobacco strangely anachronistic, historically out of joint, as if the past could not have led to this.
It hardly needs saying that when a cultural history can make you see your own time as an oddity, as if you had arrived there for the first time, and from a long way off, that work has more than succeeded. This book has in spades.
Norah Vincent, who lives in New York City, is co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick and Easy Guide to Sounding Smart and Cultured (Hyperion, 1998). She writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times and her work appears biweekly on Salon.com.