By Mary Sprague
Elm Staff Writer
This year, the annual Sophie Kerr Literary Prize — the largest undergraduate literary award nationwide — turns 50. Kerr was a prolific modernist writer, with 23 published novels, innumerable short stories, and even a cook book. Her immense love for literature and the Eastern Shore motivated her to bequeath a shockingly large half-a-million dollar trust fund to Washington College in order to both foster the literary arts within the community and honor a graduating senior with the most literary promise.
Half of her endowment goes toward the betterment of a literary community on campus, including the purchase of books for the library, funding scholarships, and bringing in guest speakers for the Sophie Kerr Lecture Series at the Rose O’Neill Literary House. A few of the many speakers who have visited include Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien, Junot Díaz, Dorothy Parker, William Kennedy, Robert Pinksy, Billy Collins, Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley, W.D. Snodgrass, and winner of the 1982 Prize, Peter Turchi.
“It’s a who’s who,” Robert Mooney, professor of English and creative writing said. “If you go to the Literary House, you’ll see some, but by no means all, of the posters … of people who have been here.”
In his article for a 1997 issue of “Washington College Magazine,” 1970 Prize winner William Thompson said, “Since its inception, the gift has made possible a parade of nearly 200 visiting authors, performers, and scholars who otherwise might not have set foot on a small campus miles from the traditional literary circuit.”
The Prize is not limited to creative writing, but rather, as specified by Kerr’s will, is awarded to the graduating senior who demonstrates, “the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.”
“It could be scholarship in English, but perhaps scholarship that has literary value in other disciplines as well,” Dr. Mooney said. “We know it when we see it.”
As specified by the will and outlined by the Sophie Kerr Portfolio Guidelines on the College website, “the [Selection] Committee is made up of full-time faculty in the English department and the President of WC …. In addition to the winner, the Committee selects between two and four finalists to recognize.”
Dr. Mooney said, “The Committee, in my 20 years here, has worked extraordinarily well together, with a sense of open-mindedness and judiciousness. We look at what comes in and judge it on its merits against Sophie Kerr’s wishes about the literary endeavor. We discuss, we argue, we respectfully bring in different positions, and, every time I’ve been a part of this, come to consensus.”
The Prize and its legacy has a positive, profound impact on young writers and the role of writing at WC.
“The other half of that money, on an annual basis, goes to scholarships that we can give to promising young writers, … purchasing books for the library that have literary value, and using that money to bring in writers of the caliber that we’re able to bring into classrooms, give readings, spend time with our students,” said Dr. Mooney. “It all shows a commitment [to English] on the College’s part.”
In an interview from Dec. 12, 2012, the 1971 winner Jim Dissette discussed this impact.
“From its inception, I thought the prize was an amazing offering. It was a lot of money, of course, but more importantly, and I mean this — at least for me — I realized that there were a majority of people on the committee who felt my manuscript had some merit. More than anything, writers want to connect with a reader. For a 21-year-old, to have a group of professors you respected, worked with, sometimes failed with, decide that you had potential …. I think it meant the same as it does today.”
The awards ceremony for the prize is May 19 in Decker Theatre. As the date looms on the horizon, words of advice from a Dec. 11, 2012 interview with Michele Balze, the 1989 winner, are particularly applicable.
“My advice to new and future Sophie Kerr winners would be to give yourself time to think about your identity as a writer and why writing is important, not only to you, but to culture. These are things they might have to think about anyway, but the rush of the whole experience of winning doesn’t always give much time for contemplation.”
Christina Clark-Rhode, the winner of the first Sophie Kerr Prize in 1968, also shared words of inspiration in an interview from Dec. 12, 2012. “Pay attention, remember who you are, take a chance, try new things, and don’t take yourself too seriously.”