By Jack Despeaux
Elm Staff Writer
The Sophie Kerr Prize is arguably the most coveted award at Washington College, as it awards close to $60,000 to the graduating senior that shows the most promise for a career involving writing. It is the largest literary undergraduate prize in the country.
Sophie Kerr was a writer on the Eastern Shore in the early 20 century who instated an endowment that would be used for an annual literary prize at WC for a student that has excellent abilities in creative or critical writing. WC has provided over $1.4 million to students who have won the award since 1968. The Sophie Kerr prize exceeds the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle.
Now the ceremony to announce the winner, which has hopped between esteemed natinal institutions, is coming back to its roots in Chestertown.
“At the request of then-president Mitchell B. Reiss, the Sophie Kerr Committee agreed to rethink the entire process of how the winner was named, including when and where the prize winner was named,” said Dr. Kathryn Moncrief, the chair of the committee. “We made the announcement in New York City for two years, then in Baltimore for two years.”
Moncrief, the head of the WC English department, said that the return would be much more convenient for parents who live further away since the ceremony is during Commencement weekend, and a drive to New York or Baltimore and then Chestertown may be too much for some families. She also said that if the ceremony is then local, fellow students and friends of the finalists would be able to watch and congratulate the winner as well as the finalists in person instead of live-streaming the video on the Internet.
Moncrief said that she is happy to see the prize returning home.
She said that going to New York and Baltimore was an experimental attempt to see what would work best for the finalists and their families. “Both New York and Baltimore were positive experiences for us and for the students. It was good to try a new approach to the event. We are particularly grateful for the generosity of the Pratt library for hosting the event the past two years in their beautiful historic space, to the Gilman School for hosting our students for a reading, and to have connected with the Baltimore community,” Moncrief said.
Dr. James Hall said that the location of the ceremony and the community around it is not tremendously important for the award. “Geography and literary endeavor are not the same thing; literature is made everywhere: in jails and in public squares, in beautiful landlocked villages and in skyscraper apartments overlooking the sea. The beauty is in its being made,” he said. He emphasized that the Sophie Kerr Prize is primarily a celebration of literature and art, whether in Baltimore or Chestertown.
Hall also elaborated on the process of selecting the winner of the prize, saying, “The Sophie Kerr Prize Committee members [comprised of all full-time faculty members of the English Department and the President of WC] read each portfolio. We submit a ranked list to the Chair, and when we meet we discuss all portfolios and how they demonstrate ‘future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.’ We then go through a series of discussions and votes, until a group of finalists and a winner emerge. The prize is awarded to the student the Committee feels exhibits the most potential for literary endeavor.”
Moncrief ensured that the ceremony would be the same as it has always been. She said, “The finalists will read from their work at the event where the winner is named. The winner will continue to receive her or his check at the commencement ceremony, in accordance with Sophie Kerr’s will.”