The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World

by Nicholas Dawidoff
ISBN: 0375400273

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A Review of: The Fly Swatter
by Brian Charles Clark

Harvard economist Alexander Gerschenkron is a household name-if, that is, you happen to be an economic historian. Or, as is the case with the author of The Fly Swatter, a member of the Gerschenkron household. Nicholas Dawidoff is Gerschenkron's grandson, and he's written a fine, if impressionistic, biography of his famous grandfather.
Gerschenkron was born in Odessa, Russia in 1904 and grew up to be, in his grandson's words, "typically Russian... in a nation of show-offs." Russians are strong as bears, which "led to an epidemic of Russian hernias," strong talkers and strong intellects. All his life Gerschenkron was reckless, inclined to leaping off, if not tall buildings, then, for instance, high walls, yelling (in Russian, of course), "Two deaths cannot happen to one person and one death cannot be avoided."
The civil war that followed in the wake of the 1917 Revolution tested even the most reckless of Russians. In Odessa, the civil war lasted from 1918 to 1920, and left the locals grotesquely impoverished. Eventually the Gerschenkrons left Russia for Vienna. A star student in Russia, in Vienna the young Gerschenkron had a little catching up to do, as he knew no German. It took him a of couple years, but Gerschenkron managed to master German well enough to be placed in school with his age group. Before long, he spoke and wrote German like a native: "A German waitress asked him if he came from Austria. I can always tell,' she said." Gerschenkron went to the head of his class.
In 1924 Gerschenkron enrolled in the University of Vienna's program in economics. He had briefly considered studying at the Sorbonne, but he had a problem in Vienna: he was in love with a girl named Erica. After a cold start, he eventually won Erica's hand; they married in 1928. It wasn't an easy time: Inflation was ravaging Austria and Germany, anti-Semitism was blossoming in the once peaceable kingdom of Vienna, and, unlike the gymnasium of his high school years, the University of Vienna demanded almost nothing of its students. Vienna in the 1920s was an intellectual cauldron; the right was gaining venomous strength, but the left was also strong and active. A life-long liberal, Gerschenkron studied with some of the great liberal political, philosophical and economic thinkers of the early twentieth century: Max Adler, Heinrich Gomperz, and Karl Mller-not to mention Sigmund Freud and his circle. But the forces of fascism were growing, and, in later years, Gerschenkron would look back and describe his years at the University as years spent in a "mill... a vapid place of crushing dullness."
The liberal party, the Social Democrats, was suppressed, both through propaganda and through violence, before finally being declared illegal. The Viennese said of the times, things were "desperate but not serious." By 1938, of course, things got very serious, as Germany annexed Austria. Fleeing Austria was no longer a matter of simply packing up and crossing the border. Greater Germany had become a closed society-and Gerschenkron had a Jewish grandmother, and was in great danger. He sent his wife and infant daughter on ahead, and then, in a story Dawidoff tells with great drama, managed to cross into Switzerland "on a dog visa."
Eventually, the Gerschenkrons made their way to the U.S., to Berkeley. Alexander worked for a U.C. Berkeley professor, Charles Gulick, and collaborated with him on a book, Austria from Habsburg to Hitler. "It was a very good book," labor economist Walter Galenson told Dawidoff; "Gulick was no better able to write that book than the man on the moon.... It had all the earmarks of [Gerschenkron's] work." Berkeley passed Gerschenkron up for a teaching position, but he persevered. He was on his "third life" and his third "native" language. Word of his expertise in English, and his penchant for hard work spread, and he soon got translating jobs. Meanwhile, Gerschenkron spent his nights reading and writing. Then the U.S. entered World War Two. With his job at Berkeley, as ghost writer and translator, going nowhere and paying little, Gerschenkron went to work in the Richmond shipyards. Later in the war he went to work for the Federal Reserve Board. In Washington, D.C., Gerschenkron encountered for the first time Republicans. He didn't like what he found: he called them "jellyroll tycoons, the sort of ungracious elite he had despised in Europe." Worse, he "disliked the increasing propensity through the late 1940s and 1950s among Republican politicians to describe those who disagreed with them in terms of who was a better or more loyal American." By this time, Gerschenkron was a fiercely loyal American-and he disagreed strongly with the Republicans.
At the Fed, Gerschenkron did some important work on the economy of the Soviet Union. This work resulted in a report that gave him his first brush with fame. The New York Times, the Herald, and other big dailies picked up the story, and Gerschenkron's name was news. Editors from important economics journals started contacting him, asking for articles. Eventually an offer came from Cambridge: would Gerschenkron like to be a professor at Harvard? "I'm going to be a Harvard professor!" he crowed to Erica. She barely looked up from her knitting, saying, "That's nice."
The Harvard years form the bulk of Dawidoff's biography-cum-memoir, and it was there that Gerschenkron earned the appellation "Amazing." He wasn't just an economics historian; he was a polymath and polyglot. He loved literature, and learned languages (perhaps as many as twenty) in order to be able to read a book in the original. While he wasn't a quantitative economist, like John "A Beautiful Mind" Nash, he was a powerful mathematician: he grasped equations the way he did languages. But "advanced mathematics, computers, game theory-all the many clever mechanisms humankind developed to grapple with its world-could not really compete with what [Gerschenkron] considered humanity's most absorbing and elusive invention: history."
Dawidoff is a fluid and accomplished writer (this is his third book), and The Fly Swatter is clearly a labor of love. He spent years collecting stories about his notoriously reticent grandfather from family members and colleagues. Usually Dawidoff indicates, through the use of direct quotes, the source of a story-but not always, and there were times when I wondered, How does he know that?' The book, alas, has no scholarly apparatus, and no index, so while it blurs the distinction between memoir and biography, it really must stand as memoir, which is a bit odd, considering Gerschenkron died when the author was a teenager. Dawidoff also spends a great deal of time lionizing his grandfather's liberal politics, especially in a chapter on the eruption of violence at Harvard in the 1960s, but making sure we understand he wasn't too liberal (in a long speech broadcast live on the radio, Gerschenkron famously chewed out the Harvard radicals). This would be fine if it were balanced by an equal amount of time spent on Gerschenkron's intellectual output. But, strangely, the economic studies Gerschenkron produced (mostly essays), are mostly only mentioned in passing, as if we wouldn't be interested. This is strange because Dawidoff claims, and Gerschenkron's students back him up, that his grandfather was the sire of American economic history studies.
The strength of this book lies in its characterology. The amazing Gerschenkron looms large, affable, and bear-like. His grandson's love illuminates Gerschenkron's character. I have to stop and wonder why I have never heard of this man before?

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