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Kenneth Silverman, Pulitzer-Winning Author, Dies at 81

In addition to visiting a dozen archives in the United States and Britain, Professor Silverman ferreted out material at a country auction in Amherst, Mass., and in the basement of a Veterans Administration hospital in Grafton, Mass.

“The author seems virtually to have taken up residence inside Mather’s head and heart; and the reader is repeatedly invited to see the world as Mather himself would have done — looking out,” John Demos wrote in The New Republic shortly after the book’s publication in 1984.

Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Anatole Broyard wrote, “Mr. Silverman has got hold of one of the most colorful men in American history, and he treats Mather with all the awe, sympathy and skepticism that he deserves.” He added, “It is a splendid day of judgment, in which Cotton Mather stands radiant in all his virtues and failings.”

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Mr. Silverman’s Pulitzer-winning book.

Kenneth Eugene Silverman was born on Feb. 5, 1936, in Manhattan to immigrants from what is now Lithuania. His father, Gustave, was a builder and plumber who invested in real estate and eventually bought the Hotel Wales on Madison Avenue. His mother, the former Bessie Goldberg, helped run the hotel and other properties her husband owned.

Ken, as he was known, began performing magic tricks as a member of the Peter Pan Magic Club, started by Abraham Hurwitz, the city’s “official magician” — a title conferred by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia — and the father of the puppeteer Shari Lewis. He later performed as Ken Silvers and for many years was a member of the Society of American Magicians.

After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, Mr. Silverman attended Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1956 and a master’s degree in 1958. He then taught for a year at the University of Wyoming before earning a doctorate in English at Columbia in 1964.

In 1957 he married Sharon Medjuck. The marriage ended in divorce, as did a second marriage. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his partner, Jane Mallison; a son, Ethan; a brother, Alexander; and three grandchildren.

Professor Silverman spent his entire academic career at New York University. He retired in 2001.

After editing the anthology “Colonial American Poetry” (1968), Professor Silverman wrote “Timothy Dwight” (1969), a brief study of the president of Yale in the late 18th and early 19th centuries who was a seminal figure in the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening.

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he produced a sweeping survey of early American culture and politics, “A Cultural History of the American Revolution: Painting, Music, Literature and the Theater in the Colonies and the United States From the Treaty of Paris to the Inauguration of George Washington, 1763-89,” for the bicentennial. In The New York Times, Alden Whitman called it “one of the best of the bicentennial books for the searching light it throws on the beginnings of the arts in this country.”

It was in biography that Professor Silverman found his métier. After dealing with Mather, he turned his attention to Poe in “Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance” (1991), Morse in “Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse” (2003) and the avant-garde composer Cage in “Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage” (2010).

It was more or less inevitable that he would find his way to Houdini, the master magician and escape artist, or, as Professor Silverman called him, “scholar, inventor, aviator, freak, bibliophile, publicity mill, film producer, psychic investigator, handcuff king.”

In the frantically titled “Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King and Prison Breaker — Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini a Prisoner!!!,” published in 1997, he outdid himself in wringing every last fact and facticule from the historical record.

“He has sifted through scrapbooks, diaries, letters, playbills, census reports, court transcripts, thousands of press clippings in half a dozen languages and even the minutes of the Hebrew Relief Society,” the magician Teller wrote in The New York Times. The research was so exhaustive that Professor Silverman published his sources in a separate volume, “Notes to Houdini.”

“As part of the research,” Ms. Mallison said, “he had me strap him into a straitjacket, and one New Year’s Eve he asked me to lock him into a canvas mailbag to see if he could get out.”

On certain matters, Professor Silverman nevertheless maintained strict silence. Adhering to the magician’s unwritten code, he refused to reveal the secrets behind Houdini’s most famous tricks. Historian and magician struggled. In the end, Pulitzer or no Pulitzer, the magician won.

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