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The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World Hardcover – May 7, 2002

4.8 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"The last man with all known knowledge" is how one former colleague, New Republic editor Martin Peretz, remembers Harvard economist Alexander Gerschenkron (1904-1978) in this lively tribute to Gerschenkron and to a vanished era of scholarly standards that he embodied. Dawidoff (In the Country of Country) was deeply influenced as a child by his grandfather's affectionate, sometimes madcap tutelage ("Once he handed me a copy of Trevelyan's History of England, pulled out a stopwatch, and clocked me to see how many pages a minute I could manage. It is no small trick to acquaint yourself with Ethelred the Unready while... [a] man with a strong Russian accent is shouting out time splits"); he has carefully pieced together Gerschenkron's life through interviews with surviving family members, colleagues and former students. Gerschenkron was one of the most memorable figures on campus during his tenure in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, respected for his breadth of knowledge (an economic historian by training, he was also offered chairs in Italian literature and Slavic studies) and for being a great conversationalist and all-around "character" who battled mercilessly with Nabokov, John Kenneth Galbraith and every guest lecturer with Marxist leanings. Born in Odessa, Gerschenkron fled the Bolsheviks in 1920 and resettled in Vienna, only to flee the Nazis in 1938. It was the trauma of these upheavals, Dawidoff speculates, that made Gerschenkron refuse to talk about his past, even while his European experiences were clearly the driving force behind his scholarly interests and later his bitter opposition to the student protest movements. Indeed, given that those supposedly close to Gerschenkron Isaiah Berlin, physicist Philipp Frank, even Gerschenkron's sister insist that they hardly knew him, it's to Dawidoff's credit that this finely wrought book is not just a collection of amusing Gerschenkron sketches, but movingly conveys something of the man's inner life.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The biography of an economic historian might not sound like an especially lively read, but the story of Alexander Gerschenkron, written by grandson Dawidoff (The Catcher Was a Spy), is fascinating. Born in Russia in 1904, Gerschenkron fled the Russian Revolution and spent his teens and early twenties in Vienna. He and his wife might have stayed there indefinitely, but the Nazis made that impossible. The couple escaped to the United States in the late 1930s, and Gerschenkron, known by some as "the Great Gerschenkron," ultimately landed a teaching position at Harvard. He became famous on campus for his one-upmanship, his willingness to insult colleagues to their faces, and, most of all, his tireless scholarly habits. In the words of one colleague, "he knew everything, had read everything, and could talk about anything." Dawidoff offers an energetic and balanced study of his grandfather, and his book serves as a wonderful paean to scholarship, teaching, and the life of the mind. Amy Strong, South Portland, ME
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (May 7, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375400273
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375400278
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #728,815 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Maybe you had a grandfather who was quite wonderful, but you did not have a grandfather who was wonderful like Nicholas Dawidoff's grandfather was wonderful. Dawidoff's charming biography of his grandfather, _The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World_ (Pantheon) starts with his own memories of Alexander Gerschenkron. For instance, Gerschenkron, known as "Shura" within his family, had an arsenal of fly swatters, each of just the proper color and heft for its particular target. The baby blue flyswatter was just the thing for his particular enemy, the wasps, because they were vicious, and the mild color would make them let down their guard. If he were successful in swatting the wasp (not often), he would give "lengthy disquisitions on swatting technique." He would never allow the insect body to be cleaned up, for he "claimed they were deterrents, that other yellowjackets would encounter their unfortunate colleague and feel inclined to keep away themselves."
Shura was, to be sure, a character. But he was also brilliant in an obsessively academic way. He mastered some two dozen languages, but his field of expertise was not language. He was able to discourse on (and write academic treatments of) _Hamlet_ and _Dr. Zhivago_, but he did not teach literature. He was an economist, a quintessential Harvard professor who left a lasting mark on economic thought with his theory of "economic backwardness." He had a rather exciting early life, fleeing the Russian Revolution, and then fleeing the Nazis, before he found himself in the economic department of Harvard that was to be his academic home. He was a natural show-off.
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Format: Hardcover
Growing up Nicholas Dawidoff had a talkative and demonstrative larger-than-life maternal grandfather who had lived in, to paraphrase the Chinese curse, interesting times: his home town Odessa during the Russian revolution and Vienna (where he had to start over, learning German as a student) during the rise of Nazism. Alexander Gerschenkron (called Shura) had married a fellow student, Erica Matschnigg, in Vienna, whom he would deem "perfect," and who was his lifelong intellectual sparring partner. To save their lives they emigrated to the US. After a time Shura found work at UC Berkeley, The Federal Reserve Board in Washington DC, and then at his favorite place ever: Harvard. In addition this brilliant and cultured grandfather was kind and funny, educated, eccentric, and more than willing to act as a sort of a dad for his grandson, whose own father was mentally ill.
The one thing, though that Gerschenkron couldn't, or wouldn't, provide for family, friends, or colleagues - or his beloved and loving grandson - was so much as a shred of concrete information about his childhood, his youth, and anything remotely resembling his feelings. No one got into his inner life, and those who tried (and there were many) learned that it was at all times off-limits. So this book is a memoir but also a work of informed conjecture and detection.
Dawidoff, an insightful man and a compassionate reporter, draws a careful and reasoned portrait, "a biographical memoir, a work of reconstruction" that is a pleasure to read. The "dismal science," economics, has never seemed so vitally important and downright interesting as it does in this book.
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Format: Hardcover
Alexander Gerschenkron is the type of man many of us would like to be: smart, charming, interested in the world, charismatic, etc. His grandson, Nicholas Dawidoff, seemingly captured his life in a surprisingly honest and thoughtful manner. I say "suprisingly honest" because one could certainly understand if Dawidoff were to give in to hero worship -- given the important role his grandfather played in his upbringing. But Dawidoff saves the hero worship and the highly personal anecdotes for the opening and concluding chapters. The 300 or so pages in between give a very balanced depiction of a complicated man, and that's the stuff of great biography. The first half of the book is a real page-turner, chronicling Gerschenkron's difficult times as a young man in revolutionary Russia and fascist Austria. How could Dawidoff possibly keep up this pace once his grandfather settles down as an educator at Harvard? Well, he doesn't, through no fault of his own. Dawidoff's depiction of Gershenkron's latter life is beautifully written, but the exciting pace of the earlier pages simply can't be sustained. Dawidoff clearly spent a great amount of time interviewing Gerschenkron's colleagues and students, most of whom (although not all) were effusive in their praise. But the book tended to feel slightly repetitious toward the end with the ongoing remembrances and non-related anecdotes. For one so close to the story, Dawidoff managed to expertly review and analyze Gerschenkron's complicated doting relationship with his wife, Erica. Also, a wonderfully telling anecdote at the end of the book reveals not only Gerschenkron's character, but Dawidoff's patient understanding, as well. Although Gerschenkron was an expert chess player, somehow he managed to lose his queen to the 14-year-old Dawidoff. Gerschenkron swept his arm across the board, spilling all the pieces onto the floor. "Num, num," he said. "Let's go eat lunch."
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