John Charles McNeill (1874-1907), among North Carolina’s most important poets, enjoyed a short, yet successful, career as a journalist and a lawyer. Hailing from Wagram in Scotland County, McNeill spent a blissful childhood among spacious fields and broad forests. He attended a small school near his boyhood home until his family moved to Riverton, when McNeill was twelve. After a short time at another school, in his early twenties McNeill attended Wake Forest College.
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After studying law his junior year, McNeill graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1897, and received a master’s degree in English two years later. At twenty-six, he moved to Lumberton, where he established himself as an attorney, although he preferred journalism and poetry to the drudgery of law. It was in Lumberton that he began submitting material, including poems, to a weekly newspaper. His election in 1903 to the state senate provided him an opportunity to pursue his political ambitions, where he supported the popular temperance movement by introducing legislation that forbid the production or sale of alcoholic beverages in Scotland County. After leaving Lumberton in 1904, McNeill moved to Laurinburg again to establish a private practice.
While a senator, McNeill penned poems, a number of which were published in Century Magazine and the Charlotte Observer. He became a staff member of the Observer in 1904. Already an established poet, he became a roving journalist, covering interest stories from all over the state. In October of 1905, McNeill won first place in the competition for the inaugural Patterson Cup, the first literary contest to be held in North Carolina. The achievement gave McNeill greater exposure, and with the unofficial title of “North Carolina’s Poet Laureate,” he was hired for numerous speaking and literary engagements. Two years later, McNeill became gravely ill and returned to the family house in Riverton. On October 17, 1907, he died and was buried in Spring Hill cemetery, near Wagram. His boyhood home has been preserved and is open to the public at Temperance Hall in Wagram. Two collections of McNeill’s poems were published, Songs Merry and Sad in 1906 followed by Lyrics from Cottonland, published posthumously.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, IV, 181-3 (1991)—sketch by Richard Walser
Heritage of Scotland County (2003)
Richard Walser, "McNeill's Poem about a Suicide: An Essay in Literary History," The Windhover (Spring 1966)
Richard Walser, Literary North Carolina (1970)
North Carolina Writers Network website: http://www.ncwriters.org
John Charles McNeill, Songs Merry and Sad (1906)