The Puritan preacher Cotton Mather — a prodigy who took his place at the pulpit at 16, wrote no fewer than 437 books, and argued for both the existence of witchcraft and the importance of smallpox inoculation — approached his sermons much as a painter might approach a canvas.
More than simple Sunday speeches, they were an opportunity to bend the minds of his Boston flock toward God in language that was artful and evocative, if sometimes bombastic.
Among Mather’s many Boswells, Kenneth Silverman approached biography in much the same way. Trading bombast for rigorous research, he wrote acclaimed biographies of American innovators as varied as Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Morse, John Cage, Harry Houdini and Mather himself, in a research-intensive process that Dr. Silverman described as “wrestling with an angel.”
Dr. Silverman, who died July 7 at 81, was a longtime English professor at New York University and a practicing magician on the stage and on the page, where he made the act of describing a person’s life in all its knotty complexity appear almost effortless. His first major biography, “The Life and Times of Cotton Mather” (1984), won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Bancroft Prize, awarded annually by Columbia University to two leading works of American history or diplomacy.
“The author seems virtually to have taken up residence inside Mather’s head and heart,” the historian John Demos wrote in a review for the New Republic, “and the reader is repeatedly invited to see the world as Mather himself would have done — looking out.”
While Mather was traditionally blamed for the bloodshed of the Salem witch trials (“his soft bookish hands,” the poet Robert Lowell once wrote, “are indelibly stained with blood”), Dr. Silverman offered a more nuanced account of the incident. Drawing from thousands of letters, diaries and unpublished works, he offered a portrait of the preacher as a man whose actions were driven by an all-too-human mix of religious faith, political ambition and social courtesy.
His research led him to unearth documents at rural auction houses and in hospital basements, and to dip into early Colonial court records that were slowly being organized by Massachusetts archivists. At one point, he sat next to technicians who were bathing centuries-old documents in what he described as “troughs of liquid nitrogen.” Their work enabled him to learn of a long-forgotten lawsuit over Mather’s handling of an indebted estate.
The aim, and quite often the result, was a work of literary art derived from a mass of unwieldy facts. The concluding passage of “Cotton Mather,” for instance, was a litany of objects that Dr. Silverman came across through his research. It made for an interesting biographical detail but in Dr. Silverman’s hands also suggested a larger sense of sacrifice and futility.
“However luxuriantly he lived in heaven, Mather had not lived affluently on earth, and had lost much,” Dr. Silverman wrote. “What he left behind, as set down in the inventory of his estate, was dingy and mean: pie plates, lumber, a crosscut saw, three old rugs, four old bedsteads, two old oval tables, two old chests of drawers, old china curtains, old quilt, old warming pan, old standing candlestick, red curtains motheaten, broken stone table, broken fireplace dogs, broken chairs, broken pewter, broken spoons.”
Kenneth Eugene Silverman was born in Manhattan on Feb. 5, 1936, to parents who emigrated during World War I from what is now Lithuania. His father was a plumber and building contractor who eventually bought the Hotel Wales on the Upper East Side, and his mother helped manage the property.
Dr. Silverman studied English at Columbia University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1956, a master’s degree two years later and a doctorate in 1964. He began teaching at NYU that same year and remained at the school until his retirement in 2001.
Dr. Silverman’s initial focus was on American Colonial poetry, and his career was launched by “A Cultural History of the American Revolution” (1976), a 700-page survey that “literally galvanized the past,” the literary scholar John Seelye wrote in The Washington Post, “sending electricity down Franklin’s Promethean kitestring.”
But two childhood interests, magic and Jewish identity, pushed him in new directions. Growing up, he was often beaten up because he was Jewish, said his daughter, Willa Silverman. He found refuge in part through performing card and coin tricks.
His interests culminated in his 1996 Houdini biography, which he titled with a bit of showbiz glamour: “Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King & Prison Breaker — Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini a Prisoner!!!”
The book was a “remarkable achievement,” the magician Teller wrote in a review for the New York Times, and a work of scholarship so extensive that Dr. Silverman published his sources and notes in a separate volume.
Dr. Silverman had lung cancer and died at a hospital in Manhattan, his daughter said. His marriages to Sharon Medjuck and Jill Bokor ended in divorce. Survivors include his partner of 34 years, Jane Mallison of Manhattan; two children from his first marriage; and three grandchildren.
Dr. Silverman’s books also included “Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance” (1991), about the author; “Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse” (2003), about the painter and inventor; and “Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage” (2010), about the composer.
At the time of his death, Dr. Silverman had completed a draft of a short biography of the poet Emma Lazarus and started work on a book about author Gertrude Stein, Mallison said. Above the desk where he worked was a quote from the painter Robert Rauschenberg, a kind of motto that spoke to the difficulty that Dr. Silverman said he encountered in writing each of his books: “You’re not going anywhere unless there’s a wall in front of you.”
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