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The Rise of Modernism
© 2017 Tamzin B. Smith
As Washington College prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sophie Kerr’s literary legacy, students in Professor Elizabeth O’Connor’s Rise of Modernism class take a fresh look at Kerr’s work.
In the last half-century since Sophie Kerr’s death, the prevailing wisdom in literary circles has been that the prolific author wrote light fiction for popular audiences. Her short stories appeared in popular magazines of her day, including Saturday Morning Post, Harper’s, and the Women’s Home Companion. Her novels with female heroines met with little critical acclaim and gradually fell out of print. As successful as she was, her literary reputation has tarnished with age.
But, says Elizabeth O’Connor, an assistant professor of English who teaches modernism, “we’ve very much underestimated her.” Like other middle-brow modernists who appealed to lower- and middle-class female audiences, Kerr was overlooked “partly because she was a woman, but also because she didn’t market her work to the more high-brow literary avant garde.”
Tracing the beginnings of modernism from the 1890s to 1922, O’Connor’s class read the works of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, George Egerton, Sarah Grand, and Sophie Kerr, a woman historically excluded from modernist literary canon. On the syllabus were two of Kerr’s short stories, “This Little Girl” and “Rose and Louise were Friends” published in 1915 and 1917, respectively, and later appearing in Confetti: A Book of Short Stories, published in 1924.
English major Brooke Schultz ’18 found Kerr’s stories to be “a lot more readable and funny” than the work of her contemporaries. She was also struck by Kerr’s feminist focus.
“Sophie Kerr wrote over 500 short stories. She was churning out work for public consumption. There’s a misconception that if someone is that prolific, and they’re wildly popular with a broad readership, their literary value must not be that great,” Schultz says. “But I thought her feminism was really cool. She was telling stories about women going out and doing their own thing. And while there are flaws in her feminism, which tended to focus exclusively on white, privileged women, she was putting ideas out there about career women and the importance of the creative arts.”
In her “deceptively simple” stories of female relationships and romance, O’Connor says, Kerr was also weaving in elements of modernism. As Emily Holt ’19 notes, elements of modernist literature “symbolized that the world was changing, and Sophie Kerr was relatively progressive in her ideologies. Reading Sophie Kerr in the context of a larger social scheme, she represented a tremendous change in literature and society as a whole. She’s a really interesting woman, and we got to spend a whole class period in Miller Library looking at the historical relevance of her work.”
“Some think that Kerr’s work was not experimental at all,” O’Connor says. “But she using some of those same experimental modernist techniques—the unreliable narrator, time-shift, the compression and expansion of time—that were coming into vogue by the 1920s.”
Schultz, who wrote her final paper for the class on Sophie Kerr, intends to expand her examination of Kerr’s works for her senior capstone project. Because there is little to no critical articles written about her, Schultz will be doing primary research, reading her novels, considering the other modernist writers whom Sophie Kerr read, and examining the author’s papers here at Washington College and at Columbia University. She also wants to write the true Sophie Kerr story: a biography of a woman who has been largely forgotten—even on the Washington College campus.
“It’s strange that we have an archive dedicated to her, but I’ve never read her before,” Schultz says. “Washington College offers this great prize for writers that comes from her generosity, yet we ignore the person. She should be included in the literary canon, especially at our school. Here, because of the Sophie Kerr legacy, we can go beyond what we could read at any institution, and that makes WC special.”
Holt, who hopes to follow Kerr’s footsteps by pursuing a career in writing and publishing, thinks Sophie Kerr deserves to be more widely read, especially in the Washington College community.
“I’m interested in reading a wider scope of her work. I’ve recommended her work to my parents. For someone who may one day vie for the Sophie Kerr Prize, it’s the respectful thing to do.”