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Book Smart

Reading Up on Sophie Kerr, the Woman Who Turned a Small Eastern Shore College into a Literary Mecca

Photographs courtesy Washington College
Eleanor Roosevelt (third from left) was among those in attendance when Sophie Kerr (far right) received an honorary doctorate from Washington College in 1942

By Eileen Murphy | Posted 5/17/2000

Each year, on the third Sunday in May, Washington College becomes a destination for news photographers and feature reporters. The visiting journalists descend upon this small liberal-arts school on MarylandĘs Eastern Shore, positioning themselves amid the morning graduation ceremonies in the hopes of capturing the perfect surprised smile, the perfect elated quote, from the senior who receives the largest undergraduate literary award in the world.

Little known outside academic and literary circles, the Sophie Kerr Award honors the Washington College graduating senior who has shown the greatest promise in literary endeavors. This year's prize, the 33rd, will be a check for $55,000.

Given the dollar figure, it's not surprising that the photos and quotes tend toward the ecstatic. For the next week or so, the lucky young man or woman is courted by the local and national media. His or her plans to tour Europe or attend graduate school or rent a cabin in the woods are suddenly fascinating fodder for news reports. But to me, none of the winners--most of whom settle into regular life with nary a reason to trouble the press again--are as intriguing as the woman for whom the award is named. Like those who profit from her largess, Kerr was a writer, a prolific one, but I never came across her name in a literature class or happened upon one of her books in a secondhand store. All I've ever known of her came from the thumbnail descriptions afforded her in the annual stories about the prize. So, before the rest of the press settles for profiling this Sunday's winner, I decided to give the author herself a once-over. I went looking for Sophie Kerr.

In some ways, she wasn't hard to find. Kerr led a public life, and her movements are easy to trace. She was born in the Caroline County town of Denton in 1880 to a horticulturist father and a housewife mother. The house where she spent her childhood, at the corner of Fifth and Kerr avenues, still stands. Young Sophie graduated from high school in 1895; she went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Hood College in Frederick and a master's from the University of Vermont. She married John DeLoss Underwood, a civil engineer, in 1904 and divorced him four years later. Kerr went into journalism, first as woman's page editor for the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph and later as managing editor of Woman's Home Companion magazine. She was a commercially successful author, publishing more than 500 short stories, 23 novels, countless magazine articles, and a play that ran on Broadway and was later made into a film, 1934's Big Hearted Herbert. She died of a heart attack in New York City in 1965 and was buried in her parents' burial plot in Denton.

That's the easy stuff, the facts of her life. But that's not what I wanted to know. I could take the beautiful drive along the Eastern Shore, stop in Caroline County to visit the Denton house and the family plot. I could travel to New York, check to see what's left of her brownstone in Murray Hill. But what of it? Those structures can tell me little of the woman and her literary life. What I wanted to know is: What did Kerr write? Why did she write? And what inspired her to leave $573,000 to Washington College in order to promote the literary life?

So I decided to start with her work, which has fallen out of favor since the 1930s and '40s, when her novels were regularly reviewed in TheNew York Times Book Review. Kerr's books have been out of print for years, but the Enoch Pratt Free Library has a few editions in its circulating collection. There's a cloth-covered copy of Jenny Devlin, her 1943 novel in support of the war effort. The Pratt's edition has a summary of the book pasted inside the cover, and the frontispiece identifies the book as a "War Edition: Complete text--reduced size in accordance with paper conservation orders of the War Production Board." Then there's a collection of Kerr's Eastern Shore short stories, gathered into a single volume under the wonderful title Sound of Petticoats. There's Breaking the Ties That Bind, an anthology of popular stories by women that includes an installment of Kerr's "Eve Goes On." This serial, published in Ladies' Home Journal in 1928, follows a young woman in her first job as she faces unfair labor practices and workplace discrimination against women.

To get a look at Kerr's complete backlist required a visit to the Library of Congress. There, in the enormous, stately polished-wood-and-marble Main Reading Room, I requested her books--three at a time--and waited at a numbered desk until staffers delivered the goods. The Library of Congress has 21 of Kerr's books and endless rolls of microfilm containing her magazine work, including her regular appearances in The Saturday Evening Post. Still, I imagined Kerr wasn't the sort of author Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he created this monument to reading and research.

I had been told that Kerr wrote romances. As the books arrived, I realized that she didn't--at least not the kinds of bodice rippers we've come to associate with the genre. Kerr wrote stories about plucky heroines, young women who rose to the challenge and went for the gusto. They had big dreams and lots of charm and tons of blond curls. For the most part, they were smart and unassuming and hopelessly, wonderfully kind, but they had ambition. Even her seemingly vapid heroines had hearts of gold and wills of iron hidden under all their finery.

I quickly skimmed Kerr's 1938 novel Adventure With Women. It seemed a trifle, a simple, utterly predictable novel with a happy ending and a moral to boot. George, a handsome young businessman, has come of age in the house of his grandmother, Mary. The two have an easy and close relationship until George meets the woman of his dreams, a talented concert pianist. The two women clash on sight, and their dislike escalates until one day when Mary catches her granddaughter-in-law's hand in the door, nearly ending the younger woman's musical career. As the two women trade accusations, George leaves, declaring that he loves them both and cannot be forced to choose between them. The women reconcile and George returns, realizing "that he had been able to bring to account these two high-spirited women only because beneath their willfulness, there was true character and grace and because he loved them and they loved him."

I had to stifle giggles when I'd come across lines dialogue like " 'Don't be fresh,' Mary sniffed at him," and " 'I must be goofy,' he thought desperately." I couldn't help rolling my eyes at the predictable ending, as George found his strength and the women found their kindness. But wait: This sort of lighthearted silliness allowed Kerr to handle heavy issues without weighing down the story. George marries a feminist, a young woman who insists on her right to have a career and a husband. George is fine with his wife's decision, even impressed by it, but his grandmother reacts with horror, fearing the threat this young woman represents to her way of life and equally concerned about what the neighbors will say. (This is the 1930s, remember.) Kerr adeptly addresses the class and gender issues without sacrificing momentum, without losing track of the humanity of her characters.

Not all of Kerr's stories hide social issues within a romp. My favorite of her novels is The Blue Envelope, published in 1917. Its tone brings to mind the Nancy Drew mysteries that would follow 13 years later. Besides the requisite romance, the story is a big adventure, one that pits a good woman against the unknown evils lurking out in the world.

A young woman who had believed herself to be an heiress learns that she is actually a penniless waif whose guardian has been financing her self-indulgent lifestyle. On the eve of her 18th birthday, she is told that she must learn a skill and support herself on her working-girl's wages. She moves from Maryland's Eastern Shore to New York, where she takes up with other Thoroughly Modern Millie types. She completes secretarial school, finds a job with an eccentric, brilliant young chemist, and is soon embroiled in international intrigue. As she travels to Washington, D.C., to deliver to the government a secret formula for a new kind of gunpowder, she becomes the victim of the most pleasant kidnapping ever. She winds up on a small farm, from which she escapes thanks to her wits and goodwill. In the end, she returns to her employer, formula intact. It turns out that he's wealthy, has loved her all along, and wants to promote her from secretary to wife.

The book's wonderfully naive dialogue once again betrays Kerr's lighthearted and optimistic nature. "To turn an old bachelor's household topsy turvy by putting a frivolous little chit like me in it was downright cruelty to bachelor and chit," our heroine tells herself as she embarks on her big adventure. But Kerr doesn't ignore the real world in search of sweetness and light. At the book's opening, our heroine has lost both of her parents and, when she moves to the big city, she encounters radicals and (gasp!) Communists.

The best thing about this particular book (and many of her others) is Kerr's tone. She no doubt wanted the book to be successful, but she's completely sincere in her efforts. She's not dumbing it down or playing to the audience. Kerr is totally committed to her stories and her characters. She plays certain events for laughs, but she never plays her heroine for a fool.

Because I came to her work very aware of her commercial success, I suppose I expected Kerr to be a hack, a writer of light fiction who churned out books as fast as her readers could pay for them. (The "romance" thing may have had something to do with it.) But, reading Kerr's books, I couldn't help being pulled inside her gentle vision of the world. She won me over forever with her prologue to the collection Sounds of Petticoats:

If you have not had the luck to be born on the Eastern Shore you cannot know its people. . . . You will like them, you will enjoy their amiable easy society and their racy wit, you will admire their unconscious perfect resistance to neurotic pressures. . . . They are essentially independent. That old Baltimore gibe: "You can always tell an Eastern Shoreman by his shoes--he's too lazy to polish the heels" used the wrong adjective. If an Eastern Shoreman only polishes that part of his shoes he can himself see it is not because of laziness but because he doesn't care a hoot who in Baltimore or elsewhere sees his unpolished heels.

In interviews, Kerr often explained her reasons for writing "light fiction" and at times dismissed herself for creating entertainment rather than literature. I'm guessing she was judging by someone else's standards. She revealed a good bit more about her own life's ambitions in "The Art of Beginning Where You Are," an essay that appeared in Vogue and was collected in 1954's The Arts of Living, an anthology of biographical essays from the magazine: "It has always been a fancy of mine that I'd like to live at least six lives simultaneously. One life for the necessary work of earning my living, hard concentrated work without petty interruptions or irrelevancies. One life for reading and study and meditation on what I'd read and studied. One life for doing things with my hands. . . . " She goes on to detail how she juggles those "lives," and concludes "that I must work more regularly and without interruptions." It seems the work itself and the accompanying ability to support herself motivated Kerr far more than any pursuit of literary stature.

The simplicity of Kerr's stories in no way speaks to the simplicity of her intellect, as I learned when I visited her archives at Washington College. Kerr only willed the school her money, but the executor of her estate, Mary Elizabeth Taylor, left the rest of Kerr's possessions to Washington College in her own will. It's an odd assortment of things: a needlepoint flower, a painting of a French medieval woman, a cigarette holder, a cat mat for Kerr's beloved pet Zuzu, a bill of lading from a chair she had shipped from Brussels, to her home in New York. There's a sheet listing each individual item of silver she owned and a copy of the Denton High School yearbook from a year long after she graduated, for which she wrote a reminiscence.

But once again, the practical matters of Kerr's life reveal little of what I wanted to know. She clearly had money, but given the size of the endowment she left to Washington College, that's old news. I turned again to her books, this time the ones she possessed rather than the ones she penned.

A quick once-over of Kerr's personal library, now under lock and key in the Washington College Library, evinces a keen mind and an eager intellect. She owned the full set of Marcel Proust's seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past, in the original French. She owned a well-worn biography of Collette, books by and about the Brontë sisters, the collected correspondence of George Sand and Gustave Flaubert. From the looks of the books' spines and covers, she actually read The Poems of John Keats and The Life of Tolstoy. All of her books look used, the Velveteen Rabbits of the library's shelves.

Most of what Washington College can tell me about Kerr exists not in the physical possessions she left behind, nor even in the copies of her novels the library keeps in its noncirculating collection. What Washington College can tell me about Sophie Kerr is that she considered literature, or at least writing, a worthy pursuit. When she died in 1965, she stipulated that the money she left the school be invested. Each year, the resulting interest would be divided, with half going to the graduating senior who showed the most literary promise and the other half going to the English department to support literary events, scholarships, student-driven literary periodicals, and books for the library.

There's a lot of confusion as to why Kerr willed most of her fortune to Washington College. One story has it that she intended to leave her fortune to Hood, her alma mater, but she learned that the school used dissected cats in anatomy classes. As Zuzu's guardian, Kerr could hardly support such a practice. One explanation might be that Washington College awarded Kerr an honorary doctorate in 1942, but she received the same honor from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., in 1948 without giving that school half a million dollars. Her executor, Taylor, had a simple explanation for Kerr's choice: "She liked the college and loved the Eastern Shore."

According to Bennett Lamonde, an English professor who has taught at Washington since 1965, Kerr's gift is worth much more than the dollar amount of the annual interest. Her gift turned the Chestertown school into a haven for writers, and that reputation has drawn other donors. In 1992, Washington received a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund literary events, including the annual Sophie Kerr weekend, an event for high school students interested in writing. Washington College alum Betty Brown Casey donated the funds in 1985 for O'Neill House, an all-purpose literary building that houses a printing press, private working spaces assigned to aspiring student writers, and a small publishing company.

The annual Sophie Kerr Lecture Series draws big names to the small campus. There are famous stories about famous writers, including the time poet/novelist James Dickey refused to read for longer than 10 minutes. Posters from these appearances grace the walls of the O'Neill House; if students don't like a writer's lecture, they hang his or her poster upside-down.

And, of course, the prize itself draws aspiring student writers to the campus. Of the 1,100-member student body, 120 students belong to the Writers Union, the largest student club on campus. This year, 23 students--9 percent of graduating seniors--submitted work to the Sophie Kerr competition. But if the Kerr Award encourages students to write, it hasn't inspired many to learn more about their school's benefactor. Only a couple of Kerr's books are in the college's library and they aren't read in classes. "Over the years, I think we've talked about her [with students] but I don't think there's any intention in that regard," Lamonde says. "Some of us who have been around awhile assume everyone knows about her. When students ask, we'll tell them about her."

What bothers me about Kerr's absence from the Washington College campus is not that I believe college students need to read light fiction from the 1930s. It's that Kerr's legacy is more than her published work or the money she left to the college. Kerr was an independent woman who supported herself on her earnings, not her husband's money or a family inheritance. She was a no-nonsense career woman who should be held up as a role model. She was well-educated, earning a master's degree long before that was commonplace. She was disciplined, she was savvy, and she pursued her own goals with a single-minded devotion. And no matter how "light" her fiction may have been, she made a career out of writing about women's lives.

"I write only to entertain," Kerr once told an interviewer. "I certainly have no message for the world; it is just light fiction." But her fiction does have a message, and a clear one. Her heroes and heroines are optimistic but ambitious, hard-working and big-dreaming young adults who need only a helping hand, a timely assist, to allow them to achieve. They don't depend on help from others, but it comes to them anyway, thanks to their big hearts, generous spirits, talent, and hard work. In the title story of Sound of Petticoats, a young man returns from the Civil War to find his late father's farm nearly ruined and his ungrateful, ill-mannered mother and sisters unwilling to take any part in the chore of restoring it. No matter. Tommy puts his head down and works hard, hearing few kind words and many unkind ones from his family. A neighbor, aware of the young man's plight and understanding his determination, makes a deal--he will trade Tommy livestock for the firewood the young man chops down along his property. It's hardly an even exchange, but it's a manageable one. The neighbor is able to help; Tommy is able to retain his pride and, eventually, rebuild his farm. It's not charity; it's a reward for hard work and goodwill. Like many of Kerr's stories, "Sound of Petticoats" asks the reader to believe that there is some justice in the world and, beyond that, a whole lot of kindness. Good things come to those who labor and believe.

Kerr published her last book in 1951, but each year her spirit alights upon Chestertown. When she included Washington College in her will, she ensured that her favorite storyline would be rewritten each May, played out again and again as another hard-working, gifted student receives a helping hand. All Kerr provides is the money (and, indirectly, the publicity that accompanies it); the student must draw on the same skills that brought him or her the award in order to make something happen.

None of the winners have become household names, giving rise in the press to the notion that the award is something of a curse. I suspect Sophie Kerr wouldn't care very much. A quick glance through a list of the 22 winners reveals a number of people who make their living off their love of words--the editor of a college alumni magazine, a technical writer, the director of a literary press. There's no reason to assume Kerr expected or even wanted her beneficiaries to become celebrities; she simply wanted to free them to pursue literary endeavors. None of her books end with her characters becoming famous; they all end happily nonetheless.

If Kerr created the Washington College gift as a way to maintain her own celebrity, I'd say she missed the forest for the trees. Her name comes up in news reports once a year, but the young prize winner receives all the attention. (None of the Kerr books I found at the Pratt had been taken out in five years.) But I don't think the gift was about keeping her name before the public. I think it was Kerr's bid to keep her ideas at work, to ensure that her love of writing and the writing life would live on long after she was gone. If so, it worked.

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