Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Maryland College To Award Nation's Largest Undergraduate Literary Prize, May 22

Sophie Kerr Prize Valued at $53,609

Chestertown, MD, May 17, 2005 — On Sunday, May 22, a Washington College student will walk away from their college graduation with more than just a diploma and a tassel. One talented student will take away the coveted Sophie Kerr Prize, the nation's largest undergraduate literary award. Twenty-nine seniors are competing for the prize, valued at $53,609 this year.

The competition is open only to Washington College's graduating seniors and is not limited to “creative writing.” Students may submit portfolios of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or a mixture of genres and styles. A committee comprising members of the College's English Department and the College President selects the winner. According to Professor Robert Mooney, director of Washington College's creative writing program, the committee members look for “evidence of an intellect that feels, of a heart that thinks, and willingness to take risks” in the writing portfolios.

“The committee is comprised of people who have devoted their lives to and are passionate about literature, and when a potential winner is found, it is something akin to intuition,” says Mooney. “It's an immediate recognition of a student's promise and proclivity for joining the age-old conversation that is literature, a certain maturity of voice that demonstrates that they will hold their own in it.”

The Sophie Kerr Prize is the legacy of the late Sophie Kerr, a writer from Denton on Maryland's Eastern Shore. When she died in 1965, Kerr left the bulk of her estate to the College, specifying that one half of the income from her bequest be awarded every year to the senior showing the most “ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor” and the other half be used to bring visiting writers to campus, to fund scholarships, and to help defray the costs of student publications. Kerr was a prolific writer who began her career as a woman's page editor for the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph and the Pittsburgh Gazette, served as managing editor of the Woman's Home Companion, and authored more than 100 stories and 23 novels. During the 38 years that the Sophie Kerr Prize has been awarded, its value has ranged from $9,000 to as high as $65,000.

Washington College legend tells of a Sophie Kerr curse, that winning the prize dooms one to a life of literary obscurity instead of popular success. But Robert Day, professor of English and founder of Washington College's creative writing program, dismisses the idea.

“There's been talk through the years of a Sophie Kerr curse, but the idea is just an unfortunate artifact of alliteration,” says Day. “The fact is that we have a Sophie Kerr blessing that continues to enrich our campus culture and gives many a young writer a leg-up on their after-college literary pursuits.” Former Sophie Kerr Prize winners are now published novelists, poets, journalists, editors, university professors and teachers, he notes.

Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in historic Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, it is the first college chartered in the new nation.

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