Daniel Mark Epstein ’70 H’20 is among Kenyon’s best-known writers, with the international bestseller “The Ballad of Bob Dylan” and more than a dozen books of poetry to his name. Along the way he has cultivated an impressive who’s who of pen pals in the literary world, reaching out as an admirer and peer to share inspiration and struggle. He kept every word.
His personal correspondence with giants such as Philip Roth, Annie Dillard and Joyce Carol Oates is like reading conversations between the smartest writers you wish you knew.
Now, thanks to Epstein’s decision to donate his papers to Kenyon — a collection that includes correspondence valued at $150,000 — his words among famous friends can illuminate the writing and scholarship of others.
Epstein himself has written seven biographies, including three of President Abraham Lincoln, and knows firsthand just how valuable such personal papers can be. In researching his biography of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Epstein was one of the first writers to have access to her correspondence. “The experience of actually having the letters in front of you, or the diaries, it’s as close as you can get to having the person in the room, it’s a great privilege,” he said.
Epstein, who is an affiliated scholar in American studies at Kenyon, was determined to share that privilege. His collection includes his own drafts, handwritten so you can see every edit, and preserved for posterity. “I did have the sense that a student might want to know how a poem was made,” he allows.
Kenyon’s 19th president, Sean Decatur, noted Epstein’s stature in the College’s long line of literary excellence along with his gratitude for the gift. “His papers will provide rich material for Kenyon faculty and students, as well as for literary scholars from around the world; it will also enhance Kenyon’s well-deserved reputation as a cross-disciplinary writer’s college.”
The Kenyon Archives include a wide range of materials and artifacts documenting the history of Kenyon College, its founders, students, faculty, staff and alumni and are used to develop creative and innovative ways to support a wide variety of teaching and learning experiences.
Archivist Abigail Tayse is working on processing the large collection and is especially looking forward to the Millay papers, since the poet is a favorite of hers. “We hope the Kenyon community will enjoy making discoveries and maybe even finding inspiration for their own work or even to reach out to those whose work they admire and create new relationships,” she said.
Epstein’s collected poems will be published by the Louisiana State University Press in 2025, the same publisher who publishes the collected poems of John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren: coincidentally both poets with Kenyon affiliations.
Epstein is particularly pleased that his papers found a home at Kenyon. Several other institutions expressed interest, but the new temperature-controlled archives in Chalmers Library and the opportunity to keep the 18 boxes of material in the same location was too appealing.
“[Anywhere else] I wouldn’t have the satisfaction of knowing that my papers are cared for. This was also an opportunity for me to give an in-kind gift to Kenyon that I probably could never manage in terms of a cash gift,” he said.
The collection, which includes 13 boxes of manuscripts, three boxes of correspondence, one of diaries and journals (held under seal until 2060) and one of what he calls ephemera, is a literary treasure trove. For pure cool factor, there’s even a rare Bob Dylan autograph — captured by happenstance when Epstein was just 14 and his sister slipped out a side door at a concert and stumbled into the singer.
Poet Tess Gallagher writing about her late husband Raymond Carver’s death.
Letters from William Buckley, who published Epstein in the National Review (“I don’t know why, I’m not a conservative,” Epstein noted).
“Very funny letters” from Harry Crews, an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
A “rich correspondence” with poet and fiction writer Donald Hall — talking about poetry and “making a career as a poet, what it’s like to transition from being a young poet and mid-career, and how people get interested in you when you’re very old because they’re not jealous of you anymore.”
Poet Denise Levertov musing on everything from whether it is OK to send your kids to a private school to Greek mythology.
Additional correspondence with Annie Dillard, Anne Tyler, Laurie Moore, Philip Roth, Guy Davenport, John Barth, Anges DeMille, Richard Wilbur, Mark Bowden and more.