Book Reviews / Comptes Rendus de Livres - Rudy, Jarrett. 2005. The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity -

Rudy, Jarrett. 2005. The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity

Richard Klein
Cornell University

Review of Rudy, Jarrett. 2005. The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Pp. 248, 31 black and white photographs, C$27.95, US$27.95, UK ₤17.95 ISBN 9780773529113

1 The Freedom to Smoke: Tobacco Consumption and Identity is a book less liberal than its title would seem to suggest. It has very little, virtually nothing, to say about the current repression of cigarette smoking in North America or, more generally, about the freedom to smoke as a class of freedoms to which our common humanity entitles us. It is rather a more historically focused study of the transformation of social mores surrounding the use of tobacco in Montreal at the beginning of the 20th century when women’s equality—which included the struggle for the right to smoke—gradually erased the freedom men once enjoyed in the 19th century to smoke freely in any public space they chose. The Freedom to Smoke is not a manifesto in favour of undoing the puritanical repression which tobacco, that great civilizing pleasure, has recently suffered. Mr. Rudy seems rather to approve the bans. The freedom to smoke with which the book is concerned is a class- and gender-based freedom once enjoyed in Canada exclusively by prosperous white men. That particular “freedom” has happily been lost at least since World War I.

2 Mr. Rudy is above all a historian of Montreal who displays a vast familiarity with the annals of the city’s life over the last century. He traces the gradual loss of the white male’s exclusive freedom to smoke wherever and whenever he chose under the pressure of women’s rights and mass marketing. Mr. Rudy brings to this often dry accumulation of evidence and data Judith Butler’s insights into the social construction of gender identity. The superiority that men assumed in the 19th century was both reflected and shaped by the rituals and practices surrounding smoking.

3 The whole argument of this book can perhaps be summarized in this single sentence, whose phraseology is not entirely free from the jargon of social and political scientists that often mars its style:Not until after the [First World] war, as the separate-spheres ideology that acted as a foundation for notions of liberal citizenship began to be transformed, did public smoking by women became [sic] more acceptable. (169)The grammatical slip is no doubt occasioned by the fog of infelicities that this jargon exudes. Too much meaning is being compressed into too poor words. The sentence requires some parsing. By “separate-sphere’s ideology,” Rudy is referring to 19th-century views that distinguished the “high-minded masculine sphere,” whose borders were demarcated by the right to smoke, from “women’s space, the private sphere, the family home, where she was the nurturer” (32). That ideology, harshly limiting women’s freedom, guaranteed the freedom of men and served to underpin “notions of liberal citizenship.” That notion was largely the prerogative of middle-class white men who were enjoying a certain degree of prosperity, of the kind that allowed them, for example, to create segregated smoking places, both within the home and without, that were the exclusive province of the high-minded male. Women could be excluded from those spaces thanks to the social prohibition against their smoking. By “liberal citizenship” Rudy is referring to a now-outdated notion of “liberalism,” one we would today consider conservative (closer to the European understanding of the term). It not only put the “rational and self-possessed … individual … at the centre of how society is organized,” but disqualified from this definition “women, workers and numerous ethnic groups,” who were thus effectively disenfranchised (5). In 19th-century Montreal, the liberated, liberal man displayed and defined his liberty by indulging “the freedom to smoke.” Rudy explains:Liberal ideals structured the ritual of smoking: from the purchase of tobacco, to who was to smoke, to how one was supposed to smoke, to where one smoked.... Nineteenth-century notions ... dictated that women were not supposed to smoke. The rationale went to the heart of liberal definitions of the individual—women did not possess the power of self-control. (169)Smoking was structured by liberalism to be a marker of gender superiority, of class and racial superiority; in turn, it lent its forms of consumption to creating the gender role of the liberal individual, a rich white male. Picture the boss and his cigar.

4 In the course of the early 20th century, as bourgeois consumption gave way to mass consumption, as hierarchical product choices—like that of smoking—became generally respectable in all social classes, as the suffragette movement won rights for women and as capitalism sought to expand its markets for manufacturing, the old separations between spheres collapsed and the freedom to smoke became universal—until recently, that is, with a whole new set of restrictions being imposed on the social order.

5 As a contribution to understanding the changing roles of gender in Montreal a hundred years ago, this is a meticulous and richly documented study. The study of tobacco, its consumption and distribution, not to mention its production and exportation, is a persistent theme in the whole political history of government in Montreal, as it is elsewhere, indeed everywhere in the world where tobacco is still held to be legal. Rudy describes in great detail how the use of tobacco in Montreal reflects and embodies the character of that city over the last hundred years. Tobacco is a mirror in which sociologists and film makers, to name a few, see reflected identity.

6 In the last paragraph of the book, Rudy deplores the fact that adolescents continue to militate in favor of the right to smoke, a desire, he claims, that was “created by prohibiting adolescent smoking.” He then concludes gnomically: This is not to claim that denying adolescents the right to smoke is the wrong policy. Rather it is to point to the complex ways in which discourses on individual rights and smoking bring meaning to identities—issues that continue to challenge today’s anti-smoking activists. (176)The vagueness of Rudy’s conclusion reflects his ambivalence toward tobacco. He seems to disapprove of it. He frequently reminds us that the anti-tobacco prohibitionists at the turn of the 19th century were right to denounce it. Although Rudy doesn’t seem to like tobacco, he does display at moments a kind of wistfulness for the heroic days, before the liberation of women, when bourgeois culture guaranteed to men their own “homosocial” spaces and the freedom to smoke. He rightly sees that tobacco is a powerful lens, a focus of intellectual attention, for understanding the relation between economy and social psychology—or what we call culture. But he fails to appreciate the beauty of smoking, what one might call its femininity, the power of its seduction that vastly exceeds its mere habituating qualities. He assumes that adolescents are inclined toward smoking because of its interdiction. That fails to account for the poetry of cigarettes, the charm that tobacco has, and continues to exercise over the lives of billions for more than four centuries.