2013 Sophie Kerr Event Moves to Baltimore
- Photo by Kelly Neal
- Photo by Kelly Neal
- Bill McAllen Photography
CHESTERTOWN, MD—Two historic institutions will partner this spring when Washington College announces the winner of its famed Sophie Kerr Prize for literary talent during a special event at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. The May 14 celebration will be free and open to the public and will include remarks by Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic at the Washington Post, readings by up to five prize finalists, and the much-anticipated unveiling of the winner’s name. It will take place in the Library’s Central Hall at 7:30 p.m.
Valued this year at $61,192, the Sophie Kerr Prize is the largest undergraduate literary prize in the world. It is awarded to the Washington College senior who shows the most literary ability and promise. The decision to hold the 2013 prize announcement in Baltimore came at the invitation of Pratt Library CEO Carla Hayden and the leaders of the Baltimore-area alumni chapter who were eager to host an event in their city. It follows two years of events held at venues in New York City and 43 prior years when the winner’s name was announced during Washington College Commencement.
“Being in Baltimore just makes sense on many levels,” says English Department chair Kathryn Moncrief, who also chairs the Sophie Kerr Committee that selects the winner each year. “It’s such a literary city, with a rich tradition of great writers from Poe to Mencken to today’s talents—Taylor Branch, Anne Tyler, David Simon, Barry Levinson, Madison Smartt Bell and others. We have an enthusiastic group of alumni who are really connected to the Sophie Kerr tradition and want to be part of the announcement. And we couldn’t ask for a better partner and host than the beautiful Enoch Pratt Free Library.”
Hayden, who has led the 130-year-old Enoch Pratt Free Library for two decades, is familiar with Washington College and the importance of the Sophie Kerr Prize from her years of service on the Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors (1999-2004). She returned to Chestertown in the fall of 2012 to receive an honorary degree from the school in recognition of her stellar career and her rejuvenation of the Pratt as a source of civic pride and a center for learning and literature. “We are excited to work with area alumni to bring the Sophie Kerr excitement to Baltimore,” she says. “I like the idea of showcasing young talent and sharing the impact of the Prize with the public.”
The literary prize was established by a posthumous gift from Sophie Kerr, a prolific writer born in Denton, Md., about 30 miles from the Washington College campus. Kerr spent her adult life in New York, working as managing editor of Woman’s Home Companion and authoring 23 novels and hundreds of stories that were published in nearly all the popular American magazines of the first half of the twentieth century.
When it came time to pass her assets forward, however, Kerr bequeathed most of it to Washington College, where she had received an honorary degree (along with Eleanor Roosevelt) in 1942. From the original half-million dollars she left to the College at her death in 1965, the Sophie Kerr Endowment has over the years awarded some $1.5 million in prize money to promising young writers, most of whom have ultimately established careers in writing, editing, publishing and teaching the literary arts. The amount of the prize check has varied over the years from $9,000 in 1968, the inaugural year, to a high of nearly $69,000 in 2009.
Funds from the Sophie Kerr Endowment also help create a thriving literary culture on campus through scholarships, books for the library, and the Sophie Kerr Lecture Series, which brings prominent writers to campus to read from their work and meet with students.
In the first major change in the Sophie Kerr Prize tradition, the committee decided in 2011 to make two significant changes: To name up to five finalists for the prize before naming the winner, and to separate the announcement of the winner from Commencement and create a new celebratory event for the occasion.
“It’s proven to be a smart change for the school and, especially, for the students who apply for the prize,” says Professor Moncrief. “It allows us to celebrate not just the winner, but as many as five very promising young writers. And it removes a great source of anxiety and emotion from commencement. Now everyone who submitted a Sophie Kerr portfolio—including the winner—is free to enjoy their graduation day with family and friends.”