Chestertown, MD — Most college seniors will look back on their graduation ceremony as a day of pomp and circumstance culminating in a handshake and a diploma. For Christine Lincoln, a 34-year old single mother and English major at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, the ceremony brought other rewards: top honors, a dream fulfilled and a check for $54,266. Lincoln's creative writing portfolio, which she describes as an exploration of "what it means to be African-American," earned her the largest undergraduate literary award in the country — the Sophie Kerr Prize.
The awarding of the Sophie Kerr Prize, given annually to the graduating senior who demonstrates the greatest "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor," has in recent decades been a highlight of the commencement ceremony at the 218-year-old liberal arts college. The Prize, worth $54,266 this year, is among the largest literary awards in the world. Washington College has awarded more than three quarters of a million in prize money since it was first given in 1968, most often to writers of poetry and fiction. Scholarly and journalistic works, though less often selected, are given equal consideration.
Lincoln's winning submission was a collection of mostly short fiction entitled "Sap Rising."
"Christine is a superior storyteller as well as a perceptive critical writer" said Professor Richard Gillin, chair of the English Department and of the Sophie Kerr committee which selected Lincoln's text from a pool of 23 submissions. "She integrates scene and mood, uses haunting rhythms, dramatic tensions, and gathers these elements and fuses them to make the ordinary world come alive with insight."
Robert Mooney, Director of the O'Neill Literary House who served as Lincoln's thesis advisor described Lincoln as "a true storyteller, a natural, one mindful of the past that has made the present who carries it forward to keep it alive and, in the process, enriches the lives around her." He adds "The profound courage that undergirds Christine's characters mirrors her own."
An admirer of such diverse writers as William Faulkner, Somerset Maugham and Toni Morrison, Lincoln says it was her grandmother who taught her "the magic of words" and inspired her to become a storyteller. Lincoln remembers hearing story after story on the porch of an old farmhouse in Lutherville, Maryland, the community where Lincoln grew up and which she fictionlizes as "Grandville," in many of her stories. Lincoln says her stories enact the tension between personal desire and the struggle to belong to a community, a conflict she finds at the heart of the African American experience where the African conciousness of "we" meets the American obsession with "I."
Lincoln's exploration of cultural issues took her twice to South Africa during her undergraduate years. She received grants from the Washington College Society of Junior Fellows to spend time in that country studying problems of domestic violence. Closer to home she worked with other student leaders to found the Center for the Study of Black Culture on the Washington College campus. All this while raising Takii, her six-year-old son in an apartment near campus.
Lincoln was working as a radiology technician in Baltimore when her son was born seriously ill. "I gave up everything — my house, my car — to pay his medical bills for the two years." Faced with the prospect of starting over she decided to pursue her dream of the writing life. A newspaper article about the Sophie Kerr prize drew her to Washington College, the only school to which she applied as a transfer student from Baltimore City Community College. "I read about their community of writers and knew that was the place for me," Lincoln said.
Lincoln plans to pursue a Ph.d. in African Literature at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Sophie Kerr Prize is the namesake of an Eastern Shore woman who made her fortune in New York, writing light women's fiction during the 1930s and 1940s. In accordance with the terms of her will, one-half of the annual income from her bequest to the College is awarded each year to the graduating senior demonstrating the best potential for literary achievement. The other half funds scholarships, supports student publications and the purchase of books, and brings an array of visiting writers, editors and publishers to campus to read, visit classes, and discuss student work. Her gift has provided the nucleus for an abundance of literary activity on the bucolic Eastern Shore campus.
Washington College is a small liberal arts college on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Founded in 1782, it is Maryland's oldest chartered college, and the tenth oldest in the nation.