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Kenneth Silverman

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Kenneth Silverman
BornKenneth Silverman
February 5, 1936
Manhattan, New York
DiedJuly 7, 2017 (age 81)
CategoriesBooks by Kenneth Silverman

Kenneth Silverman (1936-2017) was a professor emeritus at New York University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer.


Dr. Kenneth Silverman, was a Life Member of the Society of American Magicians and a 33 year member of the Parent Assembly #1 of New York.

Kenneth Eugene Silverman was born in Manhattan, New York 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.

Two childhood interests, magic and Jewish identity, pushed him in two 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.

As a young man, Silverman was interested in magic. He was a member of the Peter Pan Magic Club mentored by Abe Hurwitz in the late 1940’s. Coincidentally he lived across the street from Houdini’s boyhood home on E 75th Street in New York. 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!!!” His “Notes to Houdini ”contained additional material and was published for the magic fraternity by Kaufmann later that same year.

Ken 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 year and remained at the school until his retirement in 2001.

As an 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 own research-intensive process was described by Ken as “wrestling with an angel”

His 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 kite string.”

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. Cotton Mather, was a socially and politically influential New England Puritan minister, known for his prolific support for the Salem Witch Trials.

Silverman died of lung cancer in Manhattan on July 7, 2017.



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