M. Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and author whose best-selling book “The Road Less Traveled” offered millions of readers an inspirational prescription of self-discipline, died on Sunday at his home in Warren, Conn. He was 69.
The cause was complications of pancreatic and liver duct cancer, said Michael Levine, a friend and publicist.
Dr. Peck is among the founding fathers of the self-help genre of books, which retain their popularity from year to year. “The Road Less Traveled,” published in 1978, and its later companion volumes, “Further Along the Road Less Traveled” (1993) and “The Road Less Traveled and Beyond” (1997), have sold more than 5 million copies in North America, according to Dr. Peck’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, and have been translated into more than 20 languages.
” ‘The Road Less Traveled’ really marked the beginning of contemporary self-help,” said Jan Miller, a literary agent whose firm, Dupree Miller & Associates, represents other stars in the field, including Dr. Phil McGraw and Joel Osteen. “It was a significant work because he was able to blend the psychology and the spiritual so magnificently.”
Unlike the huge best sellers of today, however, which arrive in bookstores accompanied by blaring trumpets of publicity, “The Road Less Traveled” went all but unnoticed when it was released in 1978.
Simon & Schuster initially printed only about 5,000 copies, one of which was sent to Phyllis Theroux at The Washington Post. Ms. Theroux was later quoted as saying that she spent two weeks writing a review “that would force people to buy the book.”
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Taking a break?
That eventually happened, but only after Dr. Peck labored to stimulate sales by copying the review and sending it to several hundred newspapers around the country. The hardcover book sold a respectable 12,000 copies, and the paperback edition sold 30,000 in its first year.
That number doubled in each of the next two years, and in mid-1983, five years after publication, “The Road Less Traveled” reached the New York Times best-seller list for the first time. It has since spent 694 weeks on the list, the equivalent of more than 13 years.
“The most common response I have received to ‘The Road Less Traveled’ in letters from readers,” Dr. Peck wrote in 2003 in an introduction to the 25th-anniversary edition of the book, “has been one of gratitude for my courage, not for saying anything new, but for writing about the kind of things they had been thinking and feeling all along, but were afraid to talk about.”
The book focused on Dr. Peck’s core belief that, as stated in its opening sentence, “Life is difficult,” and that its problems can be addressed only through self-discipline. Humans, however, tend to try to avoid problems, a habit that only creates more difficulties, Dr. Peck said.
To that dose of self-discipline, Dr. Peck added an inseparable spiritual element. “I make no distinction between the mind and the spirit, and therefore no distinction between the process of achieving spiritual growth and achieving mental growth,” Dr. Peck wrote in the preface to the original book. “They are one and the same.”
Dr. Peck’s approach to self-discipline was infused not only with his general belief in the help of higher power, which made his books particularly popular with 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, but also with his specifically Christian personal beliefs, which crystallized relatively late in life. As the biography on his Web site explains, he was baptized in a nondenominational ceremony at the age of 43, by a Methodist minister in an Episcopal convent, where he had frequently gone on retreat.
Morgan Scott Peck was born May 22, 1936, in New York. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy but was expelled from Middlebury College during his sophomore year for refusing to attend mandatory R.O.T.C. sessions. He transferred to Harvard, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1958, and he received a medical degree in 1963 from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
Dr. Peck then spent nearly 10 years as a psychiatrist in the Army, something that he once admitted was an “odd choice” given his college experience. He said that he became opposed to the Vietnam War soon after joining the Army but also viewed the experience as a way to study the behavior of individuals and organizations.
Dr. Peck is survived by his wife, Kathleen Kline Yates Peck. His first marriage, to Lily Ho, ended in divorce. He is also survived by their three children: a son, Christopher, and two daughters, Belinda and Julie.
Dr. Peck wrote several other books, including a novel, “A Bed by the Window” (Bantam, 1990), and two other nonfiction best sellers, “People of the Lie” (Simon & Schuster, 1983), an exploration of human evil, and “The Different Drum” (Simon and Schuster, 1987), which looked at the nature of community.
Jonathan Dolger, who bought “The Road Less Traveled” for Simon & Schuster as an editor there and who later became Dr. Peck’s literary agent, said neither he nor the author considered the book a self-help manual.
“In some ways it is an inspirational book,” he said. “But I have no idea what made it such a success, and I don’t think Scotty had an idea either.”