Sophie Kerr Underwood

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Every year Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland awards the Sophie Kerr Prize to their graduating senior who is deemed to have the most literary promise. But who was Sophie Kerr?

This prize gets a lot of press for being the largest literary prize for an undergraduate in the world. This year over $65,000 was awarded to a Westminster, Maryland resident Reilly D. Cox for his poetry. That amount is impressive since both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award each only give individual winners $10,000. But who was Sophie Kerr?

The benefactor of the Kerr Prize was born August 23, 1880 and raised in Denton, Maryland. Sophie's father was a locally respected nurseryman and horticulturist. Sophie said that growing up she had unfettered encouragement to read to her heart's content. The passion she had for this activity stayed with her the rest of her life.

Sophie received an undergraduate degree from Hood College where she began writing, but was rather dismissive of her teachers up to that point. She went on to graduate studies at the University of Vermont where she met a teacher she did not dismiss: Professor Samuel Emerson. He made her realize that "I did not know how to use my mind, and that my education was of the most shocking superficiality. I learned that I did not know how to think." She forlornly came to the conclusion that she did not have the proper training to become the great intellectual she had hoped to be. "But I did at least get this - the habit of thinking things out for myself. A poor opinion, thought out by the individual, is better than a lazy acceptance of someone else's say-so."

Meanwhile Sophie had been bitten by the writing bug. She said: "When I graduated from college I was just eighteen and I came home and I told my father that I was going to be an author and he might as well buy me a typewriter - I was always of a severely practical turn of mind." She got her typewriter and began writing and submitting short stories to magazines.

In 1904 Sophie married a civil engineer named John Underwood. Not much has been written about this union except that it ended in divorce after only four years. She continued to write under both her given name of Kerr and that she got from her brief marriage: Kerr Underwood. Maybe this was for propriety's sake or maybe it was because she owned an Underwood typewriter and enjoyed the play on words of a writer being named Underwood.

Regardless, picking up and moving on Sophie began to write society stories about her trips to Washington and Baltimore which were published by the Pittsburgh Gazette. She parlayed that into a job running that paper's 'women's page'. There she learned the art of editing while continuing to sell her short fiction pieces to magazines around the country. In the twenties these were all the rage - the equivalent to TV shows or today's podcasts. Sophie took her successes and went to New York to apply for a job at a publication called the Women's Home Companion. Eventually she became its editor and this remained her day job for the rest of her career.

It is interesting to note that at this point in the early 20th century writing was becoming a sort of national pastime which she was a little bit ambivalent about: Sophie wrote: "I believe that there was never a time when so many people were writing and writing well, but saying nothing of value. On the other hand, I believe that there is a lot of big stuff being done and that the mediocre stuff doesn't really obscure it." Those conditions could be said to prevail even today.

Sophie was a very prolific commercial writer. She wrote about everything from cooking and gardening to politics. She was a music critic. She wrote over 500 short stories, 23 novels, several poems, and a handful of plays. Her work was made into a few movies and television shows and even produced on Broadway. She had a strong following. Most of her fiction was written about women who had experiences similar to her own. They were often career girls with wit, and determination. They were the epitome of what modern young women of the early 20th century wanted to be. She told stories of ladies taking a stand, demanding respect within their marriages, and at their jobs. Some were good girls and some were very bad.

Sophie knew what her audience liked, in other words what would sell in that contemporary marketplace. She knew what young women in particular wanted to read. Yet, her own reflection on her work suggests Sophie did not necessarily write to advance a feminist agenda. She said: "Furthermore, what my various characters say does not necessarily reflect my own view or beliefs - I have no propaganda spirit - the story's the thing. Time and time again have indignant readers berated me for beliefs which were at wide variance with my own, but perfectly in keeping with the character who expressed them."

Sophie's fiction might have been dismissed as the "chick lit" of her day. Just the same when she wrote a novel called The Golden Block it was clearly advancing the cause of women in the work place. This was the story of a successful woman executive who starts out as a secretary at a construction company and who works her way up to running it. The female lead, facing those who are skeptical whether a woman is smart enough to succeed, says: "There's no sex in brains. You've got to play a perfectly merciless game of give and take, for that's modern business." The book received mixed reviews. Some critics praised the bravado of Sophie's heroine while others said that she had abandoned her morals. Another said Sophie had done nothing in this book to "clarify feminism". Still others praised the novel saying that unlike other authors' women characters, hers made things happen rather than waiting for things to happen to them.

Sophie lived most of her life in a brownstone at 115 East 38th Street in Manhattan where she entertained her literary and theatrical friends. She always kept cats including two which she wrote about named "Useless" and "Worthless". Her family home in Denton, the Sophie Kerr House, still exists. It was a bed and breakfast in 1980's but currently is a private residence. After her parents died and the homestead was sold she is said to have summered in Denton staying at the Brick Hotel. Some thought she based her book "One Thing is Certain" on the people there but she claimed that she never used real people's lives in her stories.

As she got older Sophie was free with her advice and encouragement for other writers. One co-worker said that as an editor she was a "stronghold of comfort". In an interview Sophie suggested that neophyte writers should write as much as they could and learn to type so they could get a job doing secretarial work at a local newspaper in order to get their foot in the door.

In 1942 Sophie was awarded an honorary degree from Washington College along with Eleanor Roosevelt. This was the fiftieth anniversary of women's acceptance at the college. Though she received other degrees from other institutions, it was probably her affection for the region she grew up in which led her to bequeath most of her estate to Washington College when she passed away in 1965 at the age of 85. Each year her gift continues to fund scholarships, book purchases, special events, and the literary prize given in her name. The bequest has also funded writing workshops for Washington College students by visiting literary giants like Katherine Porter, Edward Albee, and Toni Morrison.

The Sophie Kerr Prize was first awarded in 1968. There has been some talk of a curse associated with the prize since few of its recipients have risen to great acclaim as writers. But to date, 48 individuals have used the money to further their education and to start off their lives as adults hopefully, as Sophie would say, without the "lazy acceptance of someone else's say-so".