Life in lockdown requires something better than the news of the day. Avoiding the news to the extent that I can consistent with my responsibilities here, I have looked for historical and literary diversions as an escape. Who better to escape with than Harry Houdini?
I knew next to nothing about Houdini before I read Kenneth Silverman’s biography 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!!!. As part of his research for the book, Professor Silverman had himself strapped into a straitjacket and one New Year’s Eve also had himself locked into a canvas mailbag to see if he could get out.
I only read Silverman’s Houdini!!! because I loved his biography Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. Both Edgar A. Poe and Houdini!!! are fantastic books. Before these books Professor Silverman won the 1985 Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes for his biography of Cotton Mather, which is also necessary reading. His death in 2017 represented a great loss to American letters.
Houdini is the subject of a new biography by Adam Begley. Begley’s biography is published in the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series. I read and admired Begley’s biography of John Updike. In that book Begley integrated biographical detail with literary analysis in perfect proportion. Professor Silverman was in a class of his own, but Begley is a gifted writer in his own right.
I thought some readers might find Sam Leith’s Spectator podcast with Begley about Houdini an entertaining diversion (embedded below). Here is Leith’s introduction:
My guest on this week’s Book Club podcast — recorded as part of an online event with Circle Square (https://circlesq.co) — is the biographer Adam Begley. Adam’s work includes biographies of John Updike and the Belle Epoque photographer, cartoonist and aeronaut Felix Tournachon, aka Nadar. In his new book he turns his attention to the great escapologist Harry Houdini. I asked him what it was that made Houdini special, what challenges a lifelong myth-maker (aka inveterate liar) poses to the biographer, and how Adam tends to get on with his subjects. As Adam describes in our talk, you can watch a video of Houdini in action [below].
Begley takes the literary leftist’s obligatory potshots at Trump in the course of his interview with Leith. They belie the spirit of escape with which I entered the maze, but I warn you so you can discount them in advance if you take in the podcast. Free advice to Begley: you might want to make an effort not to alienate half your potential readership while promoting your new book.