- Front Porch
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Long before the South was the Sunbelt, or the Cotton Belt, or even Dixie, a big part of southeastern North America was tobacco country. Widely used for ritual and recreational purposes by Native Americans, Nicotiana tabacum ignited a massive craze for smoke when European explorers first brought it back from their travels in the sixteenth century. The Caribbean variety was especially popular, but when John Smith's Virginians could find no metallic gold to support themselves, it was the golden leaf that saved the Chesapeake colonies from extinction. Spreading from Virginia all over the Southeast and from there to Kentucky and beyond, the "sovran herbe" has flourished here ever since, shaping the people and their [End Page 1] region like no other rival except perhaps the cotton plant and the longleaf pine tree. Without the bewitching sorcery of smoke, the South as we know it might not exist at all.
We know by now, of course, that tobacco's high comes mixed with pain and suffering. The stuff is deadly—no doubt about it. The experts claim that smoking kills over 440,000 people every year, and that's just counting the American casualties. It's our leading preventable cause of illness and death, and the simplest Internet check will produce enough grim statistics to keep you aghast for days.
Tobacco haters have been around as long as smokers, at least among the Europeans who turned the Indians' ceremony and pastime into a big-time international commodity. King James I famously called smoking "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless." Many modern Americans feel exactly the same way about it, and no-smoking ordinances have accordingly crept across the American landscape, even penetrating tobacco's fastnesses in North Carolina itself.
And yet. . . . While many of us have sworn off tobacco for good, the filmy bands of vapor still have their unmistakable allure. Poet Michael McFee captures the feeling perfectly in his contribution to this issue, "My Aunt Smokes Another Lucky." The precise, elegant gestures, the snap of the lighter, the flash of red nail polish and matching lipstick, McFee's subject is the epitome of sophistication and desire. And watch any movie or television show—the characters are not only more exciting and better looking than almost anyone you know in real life, they are also more likely to smoke. The connection between being grown up, sexy, and glamorous—and using tobacco—seems indestructible. Presumably that's why almost four thousand youths take their first drag every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Reviled as backward for so long, the South has been making people feel modern and up-to-the-minute with the gift of tobacco ever since the 1600s.
So we at Southern Cultures thought it was high time for a special issue on tobacco. Duncan Murrell starts us off with a reflection on James Buchanan Duke, the captain of industry who popularized mass cigarette smoking and created a monopoly of the American tobacco business which the Supreme Court broke up in 1911. The spin-off companies kept on flourishing thereafter and came to dominate huge swaths of the upper South's industrial landscape in the twentieth century. Whole towns bowed to King Tobacco: to Duke's old American Tobacco Company in Durham, to R. J. Reynolds in Winston–Salem, to Philip Morris in Richmond. And for lots of southerners, tobacco manufacturing, especially cigarette manufacturing, was a depression-proof industry that paid good money when other jobs were hard to find.
How did Buck Duke do it? On the technological side, Murrell explains...