Mary Sprague, a 21-year-old English major from Ellicott City, Maryland, has won the 2020 Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest undergraduate literary prize in the nation. She was among six finalists considered for the prize, worth $63,537 this year.
Sprague, who served as Editor-in-Chief of the student literary magazine and a copy-editor for the student newspaper, submitted a collection of short prose pieces most often about interpersonal relationships, sexuality, sexual assault, and isolation. During an online ceremony held Friday evening, Sprague read pieces from her portfolio, Diorama, articulating the intelligent wit and literary aesthetics that commanded the Committee’s attention.
“The Committee recognized in Mary Sprague’s work a vision and voice of language that is rarely seen and heard from an undergraduate, even amongst Washington College’s very talented writers,” noted Sean Meehan, Professor and Chair of English. “In a breathtaking portfolio, Sprague achieves a fusion of beauty and wit in prose that manages to move the reader toward a complex, aesthetic awareness all the while building a recognizable world that is familiar and alive with unforgettable images, such as a grandmother falling asleep before the ambient glow of a television. The Committee judged Sprague’s maturity as a writer to be amongst the most advanced it has observed in recent years, and eagerly looks forward to reading and hearing more from this promising writer in the future.”
Sprague was a prized student of James Allen Hall, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, who was struck particularly by her work in Strategies of Editing and Publishing, “where she wrote concise, laser-sharp, and supportive critiques of her peers’ work,” Hall says. “To be read by Mary was to see how one’s grammar, use of syntax, and deployment of craft helped establish the larger project. She is an integrative thinker, linking the micro to the macro, and vice versa.”
Her own work is equally compelling—sharp, witty, and compact.
Mary’s stories strike you literally from the first line,” Hall says. “‘You should be Jesus,” one starts, as a character tries to persuade another to star in a production. “Only make a mistake like that once,” another begins. There’s trouble and tension, drama and pathos, in these beginnings that unfold in Mary’s terse, economic micro fictions. Mary doesn’t waste a single word, and she gets at huge emotional resonance through dry comic effects, wit, attention to imagery, and dialogue. Her stories are hard-thinking, big-feeling, and utterly original. She reminds me of an early Amy Hempel. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.”
Sprague has family connections to Chestertown—her great uncle is WC-ALL history instructor Jack Stenger—and to Washington College, where her grandmother, Bernadette Stenger, worked in the College’s Miller Library for many years.
“My grandmother talked it up a lot,” recalls Sprague, who only began writing in earnest during a freshman creative writing class. “It turned out to be really, really fun, and I was inspired by the people at the Rose O’Neill Literary House and the community that was there.”
Sprague says her work has become more compact over the course of the past four years.
“I started out writing long pieces, but the prose poetry classes taught me that it’s ok to make short sentences and inhabit those small moments. I really like how small I can get things without losing any of their impact.”
Sprague is interested in working in the field of editing and publishing, or as a park ranger.
With the beneficence of Sophie Kerr’s half-million dollar bequest in 1968, Washington College has created a vibrant literary community that encourages student writers and brings a parade of distinguished visiting writer-lecturers to the Rose O’Neill Literary House. In addition to providing more than $1.65 million in Prize money throughout the years, the Sophie Kerr Endowment has brought literary stars such as Toni Morrison, Katherine Ann Porter, Edward
Albee, Jonathan Franzen, and Colum McCann to campus.
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