Samuel Peck Samuel Minturn Peck (1854-1938) was Alabama’s first poet laureate. He published seven collections of poetry and a volume of prose short stories. Although his work gained some popularity, he was never acclaimed by critics. The importance of his poems and other literary endeavors remains of historical interest.
Peck was born in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, on November 4, 1854, to Elisha Wolsey and Lucy Lamb Peck. His father was a New Yorker who came to Alabama in 1824 to practice law. The family lived briefly in Illinois from 1865 to 1867 and then returned to Tuscaloosa, when Elisha Peck became Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court under the Reconstruction government. Samuel Peck enrolled in the University of Alabama in 1871 and graduated with a master’s degree in 1876.
Although his main interest was literature, he entered Bellevue Hospital Medical School in New York to please his parents. During his medical studies, Peck published his first poem in the New York Evening Post. In 1879, Peck received his medical degree and, having satisfied his parents, Peck was free to pursue a career in literature. He studied languages and literature at Columbia University and published poems in several newspapers and magazines, including the Youth’s Companion, Century, and the Independent.
In 1886, the New York publishing house of White, Stokes, and Allen published Peck’s first volume of poetry, Cap and Bells, to great success; the book went through five editions. The 86 poems in the volume demonstrate his technical facility in the genre of light verse, or vers de société.
When his father died in 1888, Samuel Peck inherited a sizeable fortune and decided to travel abroad and study. He took courses at the Alliance Française in Paris and in 1895 toured France by bicycle. He made six trips to Europe between 1895 and 1914 and was fortunate to book passage back to the United States before the outbreak of World War I. During these years, he continued to publish, producing several volumes of poetry, including Rings and Love Knots (1892), Rhymes and Roses (1895), and Maybloom and Myrtle (1910). Several of his poems, most notably “The Grapevine Swing,” explore rural themes that Peck experienced during his upbringing. That poem and several others were set to music as performance pieces. He also produced a volume of short stories, Alabama Sketches (1902), in which he attempted to join the already-fading “local color” genre of southern literature. Several of the sketches were set in the fictional town of Oakville, which was modelled on Tuscaloosa. Peck’s last book of poems, Autumn Trail, was published in 1925. Samuel Minturn Peck lived out his last years in Tuscaloosa, and in 1931, after the Alabama Writers Conclave successfully lobbied the state to create the honorary position of state Poet Laureate, Peck was selected to hold that title.
Samuel Minturn Peck died in Tuscaloosa on May 3, 1938.
Going, William T. “The Prose Fiction of Samuel Minturn Peck.” Alabama Review 8 (January 1955): 36-42.
———. “Samuel Minturn Peck, Late Laureate of Alabama: A Fin de Siècle Study.” Georgia Review 8 (Summer 1954): 190-200.
Owen, Marie Bankhead. “Samuel Minturn Peck: Alabama Poet Laureate.” Alabama Historical Quarterly 1 (Summer 1930): 101-6.
Williams, Benjamin Buford. A Literary History of Alabama in the Nineteenth Century. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979.