Daniel Mark Epstein

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Daniel Mark Epstein
Born (1948-10-25) 25 October 1948 (age 70)
Washington, D.C., United States
OccupationPoet, playwright, biographer

Daniel Mark Epstein (born October 25, 1948) is an American poet, dramatist, and biographer. His poetry has been noted for its erotic and spiritual lyricism, as well as its power—in several dramatic monologues—in capturing crucial moments of American history. While he has continued to publish poetry he is more widely known for his biographies of Nat King Cole, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bob Dylan and Abraham Lincoln, and his radio plays, "Star of Wonder," and "The Two Menorahs," which have become holiday mainstays on National Public Radio.

Early life[edit]

Daniel Mark Epstein was born in Washington D.C., the son of businessman Donald David Epstein, and Louise Tillman, a homemaker.[citation needed] His younger sister is the journalist Linda Stevens. Epstein grew up in West Hyattsville, Maryland, suburban Washington, and his mother's home town of Vienna on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Many of his poems, plays, and short stories are inspired by life in Dorchester County and Vienna in the mid-twentieth century. He began writing poetry when he was in grade school. Some poems he wrote in his early teens came to the attention of Elliot Coleman, the legendary founder of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Coleman invited him to Baltimore, and offered advice and encouragement. Epstein was educated in the public schools of Prince George's County and at Kenyon College where he worked with poet John Crowe Ransom, graduating with Highest Honors in English in the 1970s. He briefly attended graduate school at the University of Virginia with the support of a Woodrow Wilson and Danforth Foundation grant, but left after a semester to pursue a career as a writer.[1]


Epstein quickly established his reputation as a poet in the early 1970s by publishing poems in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, and other prominent journals. These were collected in the volume No Vacancies in Hell, published by Liveright in 1973. The success of this first book, a second book of poems titled The Follies, and his verse drama Jenny and the Phoenix, produced at the Baltimore Theatre Project in 1977, drew the attention of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. They awarded Epstein the Prix de Rome (Rome Prize) that year.[2]

During his fellowship at the American Academy in Rome he wrote more verse drama as well as many of the poems that would be included in The Book of Fortune, published in 1982.[3] While Epstein was still in Italy his third book, Young Men's Gold, was published to wide acclaim, one critic calling the title poem "quite possibly the best long poem since Ginsberg's 'Howl' " and the reviewer from The New Republic comparing the love poems to those of John Donne.[4] He returned to America in 1979 as one of the most widely read poets of his generation.[5] He was soon under contract to the Keedick agency for a speaking tour, with Oxford University Press to translate Euripides, and accepted a position as visiting Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University. Jenny and the Phoenix was optioned by Joseph Papp for production at The Public Theatre in New York. In Baltimore he became active in a vibrant poetry scene that included such poets as Lucille Clifton, Anselm Hollo, Andrei Codrescu, and David Franks.


Epstein taught poetry and playwriting at the Johns Hopkins Seminars until 1982. While he continued teaching part time, at Randolph Macon, Towson State University, and The Maryland College Institute of Art, his ongoing work in the theatre and a contract to write a textbook for D.C. Heath made an academic career impractical. The failure of Epstein's Off-Broadway play The Midnight Visitor in 1981[6] darkened his prospects as a playwright. In the mid-eighties he began publishing prose essays and short stories that were popularly syndicated and anthologized. The first of these, "Star of Wonder", about a boy whose parents insist upon celebrating both Hanukah and Christmas inspired hundreds of passionate letters in a dozen city newspapers when it first appeared in syndication. Later broadcast yearly on NPR’s All Things Considered, it became one of the best known holiday stories since "A Christmas Carol".[7]

"Star of Wonder" is the title story of a collection of holiday tales published in 1986. On the strength of that book the author secured a two-book contract with Addison and Wesley: To Write an Autobiography, Love's Compass, and a biography of the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Sister Aimee. The publication of these books, the first in 1990 and the second in 1993, offered the poet a chance at a second career, as a biographer and historian.


While much of Epstein's best poetry was published in the 1980s and 1990s (Spirits, The Boy in the Well) his poetry has been eclipsed by the success of the biographies of Sister Aimee,[8] Nat King Cole,[9] and Edna St. Vincent Millay.[10] Epstein was welcomed as a sympathetic and fair biographer, with an instinct for the fine detail and historical milieu; his biographies are considered in some cases definitive, but in all cases important contributions to American studies.[11] Critics sometimes challenge the biographer’s premises. Eric Foner, in The Washington Post, praised Lincoln and Whitman for its “revealing character study of Whitman and a penetrating analysis of his wartime poetry,” but questioned the poet’s influence on Lincoln’s prose. All of these books were reviewed in the major media—the Nat King Cole biography on the cover of the New York Times Book Review section—and have remained in print through multiple editions. During this decade, as in the 1980s, Epstein contributed a number of book reviews to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other newspapers. He also published translations of Plautus’s Trinummus from the Latin, and Euripides’ The Bacchae from the Greek.


Most of this period was devoted to the writing of a trilogy of books about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and Whitman (2004), a dual biography of the poet and the president was praised by The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal for its "natural sense of detail and period" and its "passionate vividness." The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage (2008)[12] was named one of the ten best books of the year by the Chicago Sun Times and the Wall Street Journal, whose reviewer remarked it "may be the best Lincoln book in a generation."[13] Epstein's short book on Lincoln's private secretaries, Lincoln's Men, was published the following year.


An amateur musician, the writer returned to the subject of music, and his life-long passion for folk music in particular, to write the biography of Bob Dylan on the occasion of the folk rock idol's seventieth birthday.[14] Published in 2011 it was the first of Epstein's books to reach an extensive international audience, in editions published in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and other languages.[15] Since then he has been researching and writing a book about Benjamin Franklin's relationship with his son William, the last royal governor of New Jersey. Patriots and Renegades: The War in Ben Franklin's House is scheduled for publication in 2016.

Dawn to Twilight: New and Selected Poems will be published in the autumn of 2015. In an interview with Mara Meisel of the Pittsburgh Press in 1984 Epstein said: “I still have doubts about how permanent my poetry is going to be. But I always had confidence that poetry was the most important thing in my life…No great poet has not had an extraordinary command of the language, all of history and the manners and morals of his age. How are you going to say something that’s going to be significant to people if you aren’t well-grounded in history and in a broad sense of human nature?”[16]

Personal life[edit]

In 1976 he was married to Wendy Roberts. They had two children, Johanna Ruth Epstein and Benjamin Robert Epstein. They were divorced in 1993. Epstein married Jennifer Bishop in 1993, and they had two sons, Theodore John and Nathaniel David Epstein. Epstein and Bishop were divorced in 2012. Since the early 1970s Epstein has been an active member of B'nai Israel Synagogue in Baltimore.


Magazines (poems published in)[edit]



  • Prix de Rome, The American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1978
  • Emily Clark Balch Award, for best poem of 1981, from The Virginia Quarterly, 1981
  • New York Times Notable Book, for Nat King Cole, 1999
  • New York Public Library Honoree, “Books to Remember” for What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, 2001
  • Maryland Library Association’s Author of the Year, 2002
  • Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2006



  1. ^ Daniel F. Goldman, “Poet of History, His and Ours” Baltimore Sun, November 18, 1973.
  2. ^ Mark Bowden, “Baltimore Poet Awarded Famed Rome Fellowship,” The News American, February 8, 1977
  3. ^ Carl Schoettler, “Poet Dan Epstein Returns With a Taste for Rome,” The Evening Sun, October 16, 1978
  4. ^ Jeffrey Hart, “Young Men’s Gold by Daniel Mark Epstein,” The New Republic, September 16, 1978
  5. ^ Susan Wood, “A Garland of Verse,” the Washington Post, December 3, 1978
  6. ^ Mel Gussow, “Stage: Mystery in Verse,” The New York Times, December 20, 1981
  7. ^ Isaac Rehert, “Daniel Mark Epstein: Poetry as a Profession,” The Sunday Sun, October 25, 1987
  8. ^ Herbert Mitgang, “Evangelists of 2 Eras,” The New York Times, April 15, 1993
  9. ^ Margot Jefferson, “Unforgettable,” The New York Times Book Review, December 26, 1999
  10. ^ Thomas Mallon, “Hustler With a Lyric Voice,” The Atlantic, October, 2001
  11. ^ Lorrie Moore, “Burning at Both Ends,” New York Review of Books, March 14, 2002
  12. ^ Janet Maslin, “The Real Lincoln Bedroom,” The New York Times, July 3, 2008
  13. ^ Andrew Ferguson, “The State of Their Union,” The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2008
  14. ^ Rob Fitzpatrick, “The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein,” The Sunday Times of London, May 15, 2011
  15. ^ Julien Bisson, “Une Autre Face de Bob Dylan,” L’Express, July 25, 2011
  16. ^ Mara Meisel, “Guest Poet Knows Hard, Lonely Fight Against Self-doubt,” The Pittsburgh Press, February 1, 1984