Harold W. Hurst - January 2010

 

Sophie Kerr
Portrays the Eastern Shore
by
Harold W. Hurst

   Probably few other twentieth-century authors wrote as much about Maryland’s Eastern Shore as Sophie Kerr (1880-1965), a native of Denton in Caroline County. Her literary contributions included over 500 short stories, as well as 23 novels and numerous articles that appeared in the popular magazines of the period. Most of her novels and other writings dealt with the problems of independent-minded, career-oriented women like herself. But four works – The Sound of Petticoats (a series of short stories), Painted Meadows, One Thing is Certain, and Maria-Mareea – are novels about life on the Eastern Shore.
    After decades of a career as editor and manager of such publications as The Pittsburgh Chronicle and Telegraph and the Woman’s Home Companion, she retired in 1951. Her legacy of $593,000 was left to Washington College in Chestertown, located on her beloved Eastern Shore. Her bequest has been used to fund an annual prize for the graduating student who shows the greatest promise for future literary endeavors.
    This article does not analyze the style or themes of Sophie Kerr’s writing, or evaluate her role in the literary world at large. The purpose here is to focus on her colorful descriptions of the distinctive mores, habits, social life, religion and cooking of Maryland’s eastern counties, a region she knew and loved so well.
    The Eastern Shore was, and is, a unique part of the Atlantic coastal region. As in early New England, the settlers were of British extraction. Unlike in New England, however, there was little immigration into the area in the 19th century. The population (at least until recently) has remained largely of English stock, except, of course, for the African-Americans who are descended from the slaves brought to the area in the Colonial era.
    The place names of the region hint of the English origins of the early settlers – Cecil, Kent, Caroline, Talbot and Dorchester counties and towns named Oxford, Cambridge, Chestertown and Easton. Rivers are the exception – they bear Indian names like Nanticoke, Choptank and Pocomoke.
    Sophie Kerr, in an essay in The Sound of Petticoats, notes the passion for British sports such as horse racing, fox hunting, cockfights and ring tournaments. She describes the people as “agreeable, pliable, acquiescent and gentle,” and also notes that they are individualistic and independent-minded – Anglo-Saxon traits.
    Kerr constantly labels the Shore area as part of the South. On an introduction page of Painted Meadows she describes the scene of the book as “a small Southern town not far below the Mason-Dixon Line.” The time is the middle 1890s, an era of “big sleeves, high collars, buggy rides, homemade cake, the two-step, free silver argument, Whistling Rufus and Sweet Bells Out of Tune.”
    The social order portrayed in Painted Meadows and Sound of Petticoats is similar to that of the Southern states. The tip of the social pyramid was occupied by planters, some of whom did not fare well after the Civil War. They remained attached to the land, however, and some survived by adopting agricultural diversification and new farming techniques.
    Members of the planter class continued to entertain lavishly and indulge in such pastimes as magnificent dinners, elegant balls and outdoor sports. Women in Kerr’s novels appeared to dominate the households, manage the servants and keep a close eye on their daughters, who were supposed to marry within their own class. Gentlemen of good standing were sought after, while ordinary farmers and Northerners were considered outside of the accepted circle.
    Gentlemen of the upper class liked their outdoor sports and often partook of a toddy with the “mellow aroma of old whiskey and lemon, iced and sugared.”
    In general, women in the Kerr novels are pictured as self-reliant and independent, often driven by more energy than their menfolk possess. In Painted Meadows she writes, “there is really no executive in the world like the middle-aged small town Southern matron when she finds a situation to manage.”
    Below the landed gentry were the middle-level yeomen farmers who gained ascendancy after the Civil War. These people were industrious and hard working. Most were Methodist in religion and voted the Democratic Party ticket. Class distinction was not, according to Kerr, “distinct or precise,” for everybody knew everybody else, and in these small towns, ties rooted in acquaintance and kinship were formidable.
    Lower class whites, often referred to as “white trash,” occasionally pop up in the Kerr novels. They are poor, shiftless types who “live in back streets and alleys in slovenly houses fringing the Negro quarter and out in the country off the main roads.” This social class also existed in some parts of the old Confederacy.
    Outsiders, especially working-class immigrants, were often looked down upon. The novel Maria-Mareea depicts the life of an Italian immigrant girl from Baltimore who worked in the summer months at a canning factory in a small Shore town, probably modeled on Denton. Maria Gianelli catches the eye of a lad from a respectable farm household. The family opposes the marriage but the couple ties the knot anyway. Later the young man dies and Maria inherits the house and land and makes good as one of the most successful farmers in the county.
    Eastern Shore residents cast a wary eye on Northerners who moved into the area. Rich Northerners, complains a planter in Sound of Petticoats, bought up local estates and ruined the tone of the neighborhood.
    Occasionally, however, Sophie Kerr renders a wholesome portrayal of Yankee newcomers. A Northern-born bachelor who owns a hardware store in the short story Cupboard Lovers marries a local girl largely because he thinks she is a good cook. The marriage turns out well and his business and social standing become securely established in the community.
    African Americans have always formed about one-third of the total population of the Eastern Shore. In Kerr’s novels, they appear largely as servants in white households. Bearing quaint names like Toothpick, Aunt Zilley, Dilsey, Lizzie and Doreen, they do the cooking and housework for the mistress as well as taking care of the children. Some are entrusted with family secrets and wield considerable power in the household.
    But, in general, the attitude toward blacks is condescending. One lawyer from a prominent family declares that “Darkies always lose their heads in a pinch” and they “go to pieces when you need them the most.” The racial mores of the Eastern Shore approximated those of the Southern states. This was true until recently.
    Methodism was the prevailing religion of the Eastern Shore during most of Sophie Kerr’s lifetime. Her novels portray Methodists as pious churchgoers with a narrow view of life and an intense intolerance for drinking, Sunday amusements and dancing. A chief feature of the denomination was the camp meetings held in the summer months. These revivals promoted fervent preaching, enthusiastic hymn singing and nightly calls for repentance and a promise to lead a new life free of sin. Thousands attended these events, which were social as well as religious affairs.
    Kerr describes the Bethel camp meeting in great detail in Sound of Petticoats. A worldly woman with an urbane outlook, her views of the services are somewhat detached. But she depicts with great accuracy the structure of the camp site that included hundreds of back-benchers placed around a central platform from which the preacher and choir performed the revival events.
    Around the seats were “lightwood knots” that gave off a dim radiance during the evening services. A big kerosene lamp hung over the preacher’s stand. Ms. Kerr writes, “A revival was an electric affair, but out of doors, in semi-darkness, and with a packed multitude awaiting the word, their bodies touching, and communicating magnetism, a revival becomes an intense drama, enormous in potentialities.”
    Social life in the small towns of the Eastern Shore was lovingly depicted in the Kerr novels. Weddings were magnificent affairs, often conducted at home in the front parlor. Wedding dresses were described in detail. At Lucy Dean’s wedding in Maria-Mareea the women wore “silk dresses, long looped golden chains of jet and gold, wide bracelets, cameos and hair brooches – men wore tight boots, black broad cloth, high collars and gala neckties.” The wedding feast was sumptuous, but the men had to sneak out to the barn to get a drink of hard cider, something not available indoors.
    Church suppers and community entertainments provided occasional breaks to the ordinary routine of everyday life. At one affair a traveling troupe performed the Count of Monte Cristo while at the same event a local choir sang the cantata Esther.
    Ring tournaments were important events on the Eastern Shore, as they were in the Southern states. At these events young men mounted their favorite horse and carrying a long lance, charged a course about one hundred yards in length over which were placed three rings hung from a wire overhead. The man who picked off the most rings was declared winner and allowed to crown the queen of the tournament.
    A hark back to the days of chivalry, the contestants were often designated as “knights.” On the Shore they carried such titles as Knight of Cordova, Knight of Betterton, Knight of Goldsborough and Knight of Queen Anne.
    These sporting events drew large crowds from all over Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Dorchester counties. The main affair of the season, they were important social as well as sporting occasions. At one tournament described in One Thing is Certain, the crowd is served luncheon by the ladies of the Episcopal church while black women offer fried oysters cooked in an open fire near the grandstand. Women wore their best attire to these events.
    Young men are often represented as possessing a “wild streak” in the Kerr novels. They spend time shooting pool at the local hotel and do plenty of drinking. In Painted Meadows some of the men find their way to a “shanty boat,” which serves as a brothel.
    Shivarees were not uncommon on the Shore in the 19th century. These events, in which pranksters serenaded houses with drums and horns, were held outside houses of newlywed couples. Sometimes they were used to show distaste for people who defied local custom. In Maria-Mareea the respectable Dean family house is humiliated by local toughs who protest the marriage of Wesley Dean to a lower class Italian girl.
    Oh, how Sophie Kerr extols the glories of Eastern Shore cooking! Page after page of her novels describe the delectable cuisine thatgraced the tables of manor houses, community events and church suppers. Outsiders were often intrigued by the local cooking. In one household, for instance, the guests were served fricasseed chicken, soft-shell crabs, scalloped potatoes, lima beans, milk-rising bread, hot beaten biscuits and raspberry pie with cream, all with freshly roasted coffee.
    Breakfast in the same house might include home-cured ham, fresh eggs fried in butter, rolls and cornmeal pancakes with apple jelly.
    At a Baptist church supper the fare featured oyster pies, fried chicken, slices of boiled ham, crab-meat salad with green mayonnaise, scalloped potatoes, hot-raised rolls, sweet-pickled peaches, grape and crab apple jelly, and pound cake, angel cake, chocolate layer cake and watermelon cake.
    One family tried to impress a French guest by serving pea soup with yellow dumplings, ham soaked and boiled in cider, steamed vegetables, coleslaw in hot mustard, hot corn bread, strawberry ice cream and angel food cake under chocolate frosting.
    Of course, modern diet faddists and calorie counters would look with horror on such meals, loaded as they are with rich gravies, butter, cream, sugar and salt. The list of no-nos for such people would include the bewildering array of breads and biscuits served at these tables.
    Despite her busy career in Pittsburgh and New York, and a long absence from her native region, Sophie Kerr never forgot the early years spent in the small towns on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Her novels cast a nostalgic eye on the social life of the region in the 1890s and early 1900s. According to her, in this period “the small Southern towns that lay outside of the direct progress, as defined by railroads and commerce, were closed principalities and powers unto themselves, complete strongholds of individualism.”
    Even today, some rural areas and small towns on the Eastern Shore retain some of the characteristics depicted in Sophie Kerr’s novels. The people are still mostly of English stock, Methodist in religion and conservative in politics. Friendliness and small town folksiness still prevail.
    Ms. Kerr, by her own admission, was not a high-brow author, but her warm and colorful fiction is permeated by a keen sense of irony and her endearing sketches of the people and social life of the region are hardly matched elsewhere. Her novels provide a marvelous glimpse into the social life of a unique region of the United States.