Kenneth Silverman, RIP

Kenneth Silverman, the award-winning biographer of Cotton Mather, has died. He was 81.

With his 1984 biography, Silverman showed Mather was a man, not a metaphor, not a cartoon villain, not a crude foil for American history. His work was especially notable for depicting the richness of Mather’s intellectual life and the daily, lived-out struggle of his physical existence.

For example: “However luxuriantly he lived in heaven,” Silverman wrote in one passage, “Mather had not lived affluently on earth, and had lost much. 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.”

The New York Times praised the book, reporting, “An immense richness is what one feels first of all in reading ‘The Life and Times of Cotton Mather.’ 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.”

According to the New Republic, “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.”

Mather scholarship, including that sponsored by the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany, has not been uncritical of Silverman’s work. Nevertheless, we owe a great deal to Silverman. He invited readers to think about Mather in all his complexities and contradictions. Generations of scholars accepted that invitation.

The Life and Times of Cotton Mather won the Pultizer and the Bancroft prizes. Silverman, a professor of English at New York University from 1965 to 2001, went on to write biographies of Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel F. B. Morse, John Cage, and Harry Houdini. His biography of Houdini, called 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!!!, is especially well regarded. At the time of his death, he had completed a new biography of Emma Lazarus.

Silverman had lung cancer and died in New York City on July 7.

— Daniel Silliman