21-Year-Old Senior from Berlin, MD, Wins $55,907 for Critical Writing and Poetry
Chestertown, MD, May 21, 2006 — 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 Marshall Shord, 21, a Washington College English major from Berlin, Maryland, the ceremony brought another reward: a check for $55,907. Shord's critical thesis on Thomas Pynchon, along with his portfolio of essays, stories, and poems, earned him the largest literary award in the country exclusively for undergraduates—the Sophie Kerr Prize—presented Sunday, May 21, 2006, during the College's 224th Commencement ceremonies.
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 224-year-old liberal arts college. The Prize, worth $55,907 this year, is among the largest literary awards in the world. Washington College has awarded more than one million dollars 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. Shord was one of 31 to submit a portfolio for consideration, but it was a critical thesis on novelist Thomas Pynchon that earned him departmental honors from the English department and caught the attention of the Sophie Kerr Committee. In making the award, they praised his "intellectually adventurous" thesis while also noting the quality of his poetry.
English Professor Richard Gillin, who presided over the committee's deliberations, stressed that the prize can be awarded for student writing outside the submitted portfolio—in this case, the critical thesis Shord submitted as a graduation requirement. But it was clear that the committee was also impressed with Shord's creative writing and especially his poetry. Gillin praised Shord's poems for their "stark imagery and slowly developing realizations that are often plangent and unsettling."
Professor Thomas Cousineau, Shord's thesis adviser, echoed Gillin's enthusiasm for this year's winner, calling Shord's examination of Pynchon's major novels one of the best theses he had ever seen.
"I was especially impressed by his complex reading of these novels as the work of a 'second generation' modernist writer who managed to find highly original ways of imitating the methods of his high-modernist master James Joyce," Cousineau said. "Marshall also offered intriguing applications to these novels of the reinterpretation of the Narcissus myth that Marshall McLuhan proposed in his landmark Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man."
Shord's professors expect him to continue on to graduate school. "In fact, we will insist on it," Cousineau said with a smile.
The Sophie Kerr Prize is the namesake of an Eastern Shore woman who made her fortune in New York, writing 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 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.