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Winter 2012

A Soap Opera Life Behind this Book

A book titled Miscellaneous Essays by H.T. Peck was among the excellent collection of books donated to Eugene McDermott Library by prominent Dallas physician Ludwig Michael in the spring of 2011. There were also various copies of collectible books by Mark Twain, Dr. Michael’s favorite author. The Peck book contained two essays by Twain, one titled “Christian Science and the Book of Mrs. Eddy.”

So who was this Peck fellow? Most of the essays in the book were written by Harry Thurston Peck, Latin professor at Columbia University and known as a scholarly and popular writer. The essays were mostly from The Cosmopolitan magazine in the late 1890s. Peck, considered a forceful oracle in his literary circle, made a name for himself chiefly by writing light and pungent essays. A little research revealed there was much more to know about the triumphs and tragedies of Professor Peck.

Peck asserted that the American man was simply a “master of patchwork” and that Fulton did not invent the steamboat, nor Edison the electric light, nor Morse the telegraph. Peck was editor of Harper’s Classic Dictionary and The Bookman magazine where he created the world’s first bestseller list. He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and Phi Beta Kappa. Women seemed to be his problem area and his undoing.

His first wife, Cornelia Dawbarn, an ardent Christian Scientist, divorced him in 1908. He married Elizabeth H. Duboise in 1910. Enter Esther Quinn, Peck’s stenographer whom he had known for about 10 years. Claiming Peck was engaged to her when he married Duboise, Quinn went hysterical in Peck’s office when he informed her of his second marriage. The tailspin to destruction began. Quinn filed a $50,000 breach of promise for marriage suit and blasted Peck, saying he married Duboise on impulse and did not love her. Further, Quinn charged that Peck still loved her and simply wanted Duboise as a housekeeper. Quinn was in her mid-30’s (she did not know her actual age) and Peck in his mid-50s.

A month later, his old colleague, Nicholas M. Butler, president of Columbia University, suspended Peck and demanded his resignation. Duboise moved back to Staten Island.

Peck fought the suit and Columbia. He told the New York Times, “Dr. Butler has known me for thirty years and the only thing that worries me about his asking for my resignation is that he should think I was such a feeble soul as to be scared off the Faculty by a mere demand of it.” Quinn claimed she had some 100 love letters from Peck and a few were printed in the newspapers which brought to mind the remark of an old sage: “Whenever you feel like writing a letter, sit down and write it for all that is in you. Put your most intimate thoughts on the paper, use all the terms of endearment at your command. Then put the letter aside and tear it up the next day.” Peck denied writing the fervid letters but damage was done.

Despite protests from some Columbia faculty members, Peck was fired from his $5,000 a year position in October, 1910 based on “the best interests of the university.” Peck sued the Boston Post for libel and received $2,500. He then sued Butler for $25,000 for injurious statements. Quinn’s suit was dismissed but she filed another action for a similar amount. Meanwhile, Dr. Joel E. Spingarn, professor of comparative literature literature at Columbia, was dismissed by Butler after offering a resolution to the philosophy faculty on behalf of Professor Peck. An alumni university newsletter said Spingarn’s dismissal was a result of his independent spirit and complaints by his colleagues - not a dispute with Butler over Peck. Spingarn countered by saying Columbia professors had been “cowed” by Butler.

Harry Thurston Peck image from The World’s Great Masterpieces: History, Biography, Science, Philosophy, Poetry, The Drama, Travel, Adventure, Fiction, Etc., Vol. 1, Harry Thurston Peck, Editor-in Chief, American Literary Society, New York, Chicago. 1901. (Not in copyright)

With no lectureships or prospects for literary work, Peck’s great successes faded and he found magazines were no longer interested in his submissions. He resorted to “hack work.” On March 13, 1913, the New York Times carried a bankruptcy notice for Peck. He listed his assets as $355 and debts as $161,900.86.

By mid-April he was critically ill and hospitalized by a nervous breakdown. Several weeks later ex-wife Cornelia took him to her home in Connecticut. Still confident Christian Science would help restore his mind, she felt a need to care for him since he was “sick, helpless and penniless.” Columbia reportedly offered to pay for Peck’s expenses but Cornelia turned it down. His current wife, Elizabeth Duboise Peck, agreed to let Cornelia care for him. Though Cornelia wanted Peck to believe in Christian Science, she admitted that his scholastic training had bred too much pride of intellect in him. She blamed those who were formerly proud to be his colleagues and friends for neglecting him.

Quinn also sued the New York Times for $100,000 for alleged libel in the Peck case. In December 1913 she was awarded six cents. No action was taken on her second lawsuit against Peck.

By August 1913 Peck was considered well but was not the same man or scholar. He moved into a $4 a day boarding house in Stamford, Conn. He had minor projects but lapsed into despondent fits for days and dismissed his stenographer for lack of work to give her. In March 1914, the writer who was himself a master of patchwork shot himself in the head. On a table near his body lay an open book, Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy, the subject of Twain’s essay. On the fly-leaf Cornelia had written her name and in quotes, “She hath done what she could.”

McDermott Library has four other books by Peck: Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, Personal Equation, Twenty Years of the Republic, 1885-1905, and What is Good English? And Other Essays.

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