Beginning in 1968, when the first Sophie Kerr Prize was awarded, each graduation at Washington College built to a moment of tension as to which one of more than 20 aspiring writers would receive the nation’s most lucrative undergraduate literary prize. This year, the college’s best-known tradition will not be carried out at graduation or in Chestertown. The winner of the $61,062 prize will learn of his or her triumph in Manhattan. For the first time since the prize was created in the 1960s, the Sophie Kerr committee will narrow candidates to a field of five or six finalists and will announce the winner on May 17 at a ceremony at Poets House in Battery Park City.
“This is a magnificent prize, going to incredibly talented students, and they weren’t quite getting the recognition they deserved,” says the college’s first-year president, Mitchell Reiss, in explaining the rationale. “That was going to continue to be the case if we awarded it at graduation in Chestertown.”
The change has drawn mixed reactions from former winners, current students and community members. Last year’s winner, Hailey Reissman, says the prize casts too large a shadow over graduation. She is a fan of the new plan. Laura Walter, the 2003 winner, says she is happy that the college will name finalists so more students get recognition for their talents. She also agrees that the tension associated with the prize can overwhelm graduation.
Officials cite two main reasons, one practical and one emotional, for awarding the prize in New York. On the practical side, the setting will allow the winner and finalists to meet with publishing executives and writers who might help them launch careers. On the emotional side, the change will remove from graduation day the feelings of intense disappointment experienced by those who do not win.
Kerr, a magazine editor and writer of women’s fiction who grew up on the Eastern Shore and spent her working life in New York, bequeathed the prize (half of the annual income from her donation to the college) to the senior with the “ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.” The sum was $9,000 when the prize was first awarded in 1968 and has fluctuated to as much as $68,814 in 2009.