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Epstein remembered for literary contributions

Seymour Epstein, critically acclaimed author of more than a dozen novels, passed away Nov. 5 at the age of 93.

Epstein taught in the University of Denver’s English department from 1968–84 and is remembered as a prolific writer, a passionate champion of literature and a loyal, witty friend.

Epstein’s novels include The Dream Museum (Doubleday 1971), Caught in that Music (Viking 1967) and Looking for Fred Schmidt (Doubleday 1973). But according to Bill Zaranka, DU provost emeritus, Epstein was “first catapulted into the public eye” in 1964 when his book Leah was published.

“Sy could take the most ordinary incidents of a person’s life and turn them into high art,” says Zaranka, who was also among Epstein’s creative writing students in the late 1960s.

Thanks to Leah (Little Brown 1964), Epstein was awarded the prestigious Edward Lewis Wallant Award by the University of Hartford in 1964. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965, and was named DU’s University Lecturer in 1981.

In 2010, Leah was re-released by Montemayor Press, which described the book this way: “Leah is a significant achievement in many ways: as a portrait of a thoughtful woman searching for love; as a vivid description of mid-Twentieth Century Manhattan; as an understated masterpiece of urban fiction; and as a male author’s remarkable exploration of a female character’s psyche — an exploration as successful in its own way as Flaubert’s of Emma Bovary and as Tolstoy’s of Anna Karenina.”

Zaranka says Leah’s re-release meant a lot to Epstein, particularly because Epstein was growing increasingly concerned with “the fate of literature.”

“He was obsessed with what he thought was being lost to American civilization and culture through the death of fiction and poetry and literature in favor of other things, such as social media, movies and reality TV,” Zaranka says. “Sy grew up in an age when it was an event when a short story appeared in a magazine.”

However, Zaranka is quick to note that Epstein’s obsession by no means dimmed his inclination to put pen to paper.

“Whereas there was discouragement, there was never surrender.”

According to Miriam Epstein, Seymour’s wife of 54 years, Epstein was originally offered a one-year lectureship at DU and “he thought it sounded interesting.” The couple moved from New York to Denver in 1968.

“We thought it would be a nice place to live for a year,” she says. “But we really liked it, and when DU asked him to stay, we just decided to stay.”

She adds that Epstein always thought of himself as a New Yorker.

Epstein retired in 1984 but served as professor emeritus and taught until 1986. The Epsteins have two sons who both live in Denver: Alan and Paul.

Perhaps because of his cosmopolitan background, Epstein is also remembered as a sharp dresser.

“He was an extraordinarily dashing man who always dressed formally,” Zaranka says. “I remember one year, we got the biggest kick when a student said that Sy was ‘not only a great teacher but Seymour Epstein dresses like a gentleman.’”

Epstein’s former student, Eleanor Swanson (PhD ’80), currently teaches English at Regis University. Epstein served as Swanson’s dissertation adviser and then, throughout the rest of his life, her mentor and friend. When Leah was re-released last year, he presented her with a signed copy.

“He was still writing and talking about writing when he handed me the reissue of Leah, which had first come out more than 40 years earlier,” she says. “He was 93 years old and he was still writing.

“That’s really something.”

A memorial gathering in memory and honor of Seymour Epstein will take place at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the home of Alan Epstein, 935 S. Elizabeth St. in Denver. In lieu of flowers, gifts or donations in Epstein’s memory can be made to the DU Creative Writing Program or to Doctors without Borders.

(Little Brown 1964)
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