The Fly Swatter:
How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World
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Arriving as an American immigrant today, Alexander Gerschenkron might find himself driving a taxi. But in an era before the academy succumbed to credentialism, a man like Gerschenkron, possessing a degree in economics—but no doctorate—from the University of Vienna, could still end up a tenured professor at Harvard. There, from the 1950s on, he would influence a generation of economic historians. He would also be offered appointments in Slavic studies and Italian literature (posts he turned down) and teach himself Icelandic for sport. He played chess with artist Marcel Duchamp, flirted with actress Marlene Dietrich and feuded with his colleague John Kenneth Galbraith, among other illustrious adversaries.
Gerschenkron’s biographer and grandson, Nicholas Dawidoff, derives his title, The Fly Swatter, from his grandfather’s tendency to apply ferocious energy, a kind of psychic overkill, to endeavors great or small. Take, for instance, insect control. "Some men just kill a fly," writes Dawidoff. "My grandfather had an arsenal of swatters.... [He] never allowed his victims to be cleaned up. He claimed they were deterrents."
Gerschenkron’s major contribution to economics was to emphasize the ways in which adversity can be helpful to a country’s development, a process that mirrored his own life. He fled the Communists after the Russian revolution of 1917. After remaking himself into a Viennese, he fled the Nazis in 1938 and immigrated to America.
At first, he swept floors and worked in a boatyard, before managing to get hired as a lecturer at Berkeley. In 1948, in his mid-40s he won the Harvard appointment. Determined to demonstrate his singular abilities, the driven instructor commenced a period when he "was sleeping only every other night and inviting those who wanted a word with him to stop by his office at six in the morning."
He gained renown as the rumpled economist who knew "all about everything—German historiography, the emigration theory in Romanian history, the complexities of infinitely divisible time. He understood Kant, Chekhov, Aristotle and Schopenhauer better than people teaching them at Harvard for a living." He had perhaps 20 languages at his command.
Dawidoff’s book is both a study of the immigrant experience and a vivid picture of mid-century intellectual life at America’s preeminent university. But most of all it is a touching portrait of a complex and staggeringly learned individual, written by one of the few people he allowed to touch his heart. The author, along with his sister and several cousins, spent childhood summers with his grandfather in New Hampshire, sojourns Dawidoff recalls with profound affection: "Each night, without fail, he tucked us all in and slipped us each a piece of unwrapped milk chocolate. He said it was our reward for brushing our teeth."