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Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography
The most interesting lives are not always the best-known lives, and this is the account of a truly fascinating person. The stories of Alexander Gerschenkron—his great escapes, his vivid wit, his feuds, his flirtations, and his supremely cultured mind—are the stuff of legend.
Born in 1904 into the progressive Odessa intelligentsia, Gerschenkron fled the Russian Revolution at sixteen and settled in Vienna, immersing himself in the charged civic and intellectual life of another doomed city. Escaping the Nazis in the late 1930s, he made his way to Massachusetts, evolving from a political exile and social outcast into a man referred to by The New York Times as “Harvard’s scholarly model,” and by his peers as “The Great Gerschenkron”—the Harvard professor who knew the most.
Gerschenkron was a dazzling thinker, and his professional theories complemented his personal preoccupations. He was particularly interested in people—and economies—that cleverly overcame the large forces conspiring to hold them back; there were uses, he said, to adversity. Colleagues admired his vigorous ethical code and considered his personality to be perhaps even more original than his work. Gerschenkron was an uncompromising man who feuded with everyone from Vladimir Nabokov to John Kenneth Galbraith, who played chess with Marcel Duchamp, who enjoyed an intimate interlude with Marlene Dietrich, and who was a confidant of both Isaiah Berlin of Oxford and Ted Williams of the Red Sox.
Or was he? Layers of mystery and contradiction are at the core of this brilliantly recreated life, this prism through which we look back across some of the most important and unsettling moments of the twentieth century. With The Fly Swatter, best-selling author Nicholas Dawidoff gives us an intelligent, beautifully written, deeply felt biographical memoir of a real-life American character.
“A captivating memoir… showing personal triumphs over adversity. . . . The boy can do it.” —Sylvia Nasar, The New York Times Book Review
“Wonderfully rich and precise. . . . Do me a favor… read the first paragraph.” —Erik Lundegaard, The Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer
“Exquisitely written. . . . [C]ertain to charm away the idle hours.” —Trevor Butterworth, The Washington Post Book World
“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.” —Daniel Akst, Smithsonian
“An absorbing, psychologically nuanced and overall balanced appraisal of a complex man who lived in complex times. . . . A widely researched, meticulously documented portrayal.” —Marion Abbott, San Francisco Chronicle
“Dawidoff’s captivating family memoir is a tribute to his twice-exiled grandfather, the Harvard economist Alexander Gerschenkron, retracing his tortuous path to Cambridge and recounting the intellectual passion that earned Gerschenkron the title ‘the last man with all known knowledge.’” —The New York Times Book Review
“This is a splendidly crafted book: partly a valuable estimate of Gerschenkron’s place in the history of theory, partly a study of academic life and politics in the 20th century and above all a thoughtful and often charming personal memoir.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Nicholas Dawidoff has written a wonderful book, full of humor, love, and understanding.” —The New York Sun
“It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say this loving memoir is the most fascinating in its class.” —Chicago Tribune
“A loving, carefully researched, effortless-seeming book—a delight to read. The story of the great Alexander Gerschenkron as told by his grandson combines the smallest and most telling personal details with an exhilarating wide-angle view of twentieth-century intellectual life.” —Ian Frazier, author of Family and Great Plains
“The Fly Swatter is a terrific book for many reasons. Amateur students… will appreciate Dawidoff’s discussion of economic theory. Historians will likewise enjoy his chronicle of a human character moving through world events. . . . Dawidoff’s unusual perspective as a grandson might be most compelling for another set of readers.” —The Austin Chronicle
“One marvelous memoir.” —Booklist
“To give birth to one’s own grandfather is no mean feat, but that is exactly Dawidoff’s great triumph. The Fly Swatter is a densely imagined, beautifully written book.” —Peter Carey, author of True History of the Kelly Gang
“If [Alexander Gerschenkron] has access to a celestial computer and can download (or perhaps upload?) Nicky Boy’s moving tribute, he must be proudly savoring every word.” —The New Leader