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4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Intriguing Biography of a Grand Economist, 1 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World (Hardcover)
Dawidoff - The Fly Swatter

I came across The Fly Swatter because of reading Deirdre McCloskey's collection of essays How to Be Human: Through an Economist. In the collection she wrote an essay about Alexander Gerschenkron, the professor who had been her PhD supervisor. Dawidoff is Gerschenkron's grandson and in this book his biographer.

Gerschenkron, or Shura, as we are told to call him relatively early in the book, lived a fascinating an tumultuous life taking him on a path from revolutionary Russia from which he and his family fled to to Austria, then from Austria to the United States. And it is in the United States that Gerschenkron found a home where he could be an intellectual, could pursue his fascination with economics, could teach a multitude of influential students and future economists at Harvard, could affect public policy, could write on subjects as varied as literature in translation (speaking over 20 languages allows one to do this) and the benefits of economic backwardness. Finally, he could hold forth to all comers at his lunch table at Harvard where many an attendee left impressed and marvelling at his breadth and depth of knowledge.

Dawidoff charts all the routes of Gerschenkron's life, from his peculiarities and precocity as a child in Russia; his struggles with learning German, working out the intricacies of the gymnasium school and making friends in Austria; then his and his family's difficulties in their move to the United States, a change that left his wife bereft but which left Shura to flourish in an intellectual milieu the likes of which he had never before encountered. Within the tale of Gerschekron's life Dawidoff lures you in with the endeavours that made Gerschekron the man he became. Adolescent Gerschenkron closeting himself in an Austrian room to learn German in three months. Adult Gerschenkron passing off as a St. Bernard to escape the German anschluss. Immigrant Gerschenkron working on the docks in California as his contribution to the war effort, criticising Vladimir Nabokov's translation of Onegin so devastatingly that Nabokov pilloried a character remarkably similar to Gerschenkron in his next novel, and giving a speech so compelling at Harvard during the late 1960s that many of those who opposed him had to applaud him.

Rarely does one come across an interesting biography of an economist, possibly because many economists have not led particularly interesting lives, or because they did not have much interesting happen to them. Gerschenkron was a fascinating man, especially among economists, because of his versatility and his breadth of interest and much that was interesting befell him in his life. Few economists these days focus on learning languages to read texts outside of English. Fewer still can quote large tracts of poetry, history, and theory from memory. Yet fewer are offered professorships in studies outside their discipline (McCloskey, who provided the original suggestion, may be the exception that proves the rule). Gerschenkron could. His life was working, reading and more working and reading. In the end he also did not achieve as much as he wished to achieve. His striving for a final book, a book incorporating his masterwork on backwardness and his broad studies in economics, history and literature never produced a complete theory, an ultimate work. Perhaps, such was his breadth of knowledge that the gaps he saw were too many and, with the death of his wife, the effort too great to write his work regardless, the gaps be damned. We shall never know, but Dawidoff tells a good story of its possibility.
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