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Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

Nicholas Dawidoff, The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World. New York: Pantheon, 2002. ix + 353 pp. $26 (cloth), ISBN: 0-375-40027-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carl Mosk, Department of Economics, University of Victoria.

Alexander — a.k.a. Sasha, Sashura, Shura — Gerschenkron, Professor of Economic History at Harvard from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s, loved parables. Indeed, it is apparent from this moving account penned by his grandson, Nicholas Dawidoff — author of several books and contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine — that he viewed his own life as a parable. Shura’s unpublished memoir was entitled “The Uses of Adversity.” There is little doubt that Shura extolled the virtues of character steeled through adversity, character forged through prodigious dedication and hard work. One of his favorite stories was of his dying weakened dog Tracy, who was being driven to the veterinarian’s office to be put down. Tracy kept fighting to climb up onto the back seat, only to keep falling back, Gerschenkron refusing to assist his efforts. A last extraordinary effort brought success. Dawidoff (p. 256) recounts Gerschenkron’s telling of the tale thusly: “This way he had accomplished something momentous, and all of his own. It was his achievement, to take with him into death. Greatness … was possible, but only possible if you made it possible.”

Shura’s early and middle years were surely filled with great adversity, great dedication and great effort, crowned with the most improbable and unexpected successes. He was twice uprooted and plunged into exile. In the early 1920s his family fled Bolshevik purges of the rich; in the late 1930s Shura and his Austrian wife, Erica, fled Nazi purges of Jews and Social Democrats, only to end up in Berkeley as a research assistant for Charles Gulick. Through all of this his commitment to reading and learning remained unabated, whether he read and wrote in German or English. During World War II his vast knowledge of Europe and Russia paid off: he was invited to work for the Foreign Affairs Section of the Federal Reserve. Then Harvard called.

At Harvard Shura became the Great Gerschenkron, simultaneously revered and feared for his boundless erudition, his unceasing search for knowledge, and his mastery of language after language. At Harvard, during the 1950s and 1960s, he developed the theory of how economic backwardness afforded advantages that might — or might not — be mobilized by late developers; and he put together the Economic History Workshop which became one of the intellectual crucibles of Cliometrics.

In Dawidoff’s telling Shura’s most important publication, the 1966 collection of essays, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective, embodied key concepts of his parable of character. With backwardness comes adversity, but also opportunities. The more backward a country, the more rapidly it could develop, and it did not necessarily have to blindly emulate earlier developers. It could exploit a “pattern of substitutes” for the “missing prerequisites for industrialization” enjoyed by the United Kingdom during the eighteenth century.

Character was also crucial to Gerschenkron’s ability to build a seminar that promoted the New Economic History. Dawidoff maintains that it was Shura’s colorful character — his studied cultivation of literature and chess; his recounting of his wartime days working in shipyards of Richmond, California as a shipfitter and flanger; and his extolling the joys of following the Red Sox on a transistor radio — that ultimately served as a magnet to the talented graduate students who poured into the Economic History Workshop.

But Dawidoff’s parable of Shura’s life is not simply a celebration of triumphant character won through adversity. He recounts a darker side: too much reading, too much erudition, prevented Gerschenkron from writing a one great book, a massive summation: no economic history of Russia issued from his pen, rather essays and collections of lectures in the main. And sometimes cultivating character became a con. True, Shura did charm Marlene Dietrich; true he played chess with — and was beaten by — Marcel Duchamp. But Ted Williams of the Red Sox was not a personal friend, even though Shura claimed that it was Ted Williams who informed him that Galbraith was “a high fly ball to shallow left field.”

Finally one comes away from reading this fine volume with a question about the parable most relevant to Gerschenkron. Might it not be: there’s nothing like good luck? Knowing German and Russian did not hurt during World War II and the onset of the Cold War; presiding over a seminar in Economic History at one of the most prestigious universities in the world during a period when university enrollments were soaring throughout the English-speaking world also didn’t hurt. That said, it would be churlish to completely reject Shura’s parable of character created through struggle with adversity as a theory, of economic development and the development of scholarship alike.

Carl Mosk is Professor of Economics at the University of Victoria. His most recent book is Japanese Industrial History: Technology, Urbanization and Economic Growth (2001). He is currently doing research on international political economy.