Alexander Gerschenkron was a professor of economics at Harvard for decades. But an unusual one. He was a teacher of economic history, not a typical economist looking at charts, which he avoided. He had a mandatory class for graduate students called the Economic History of Europe. He believed that to know and understand anything, you had to know or understand everything. He realized that this was impossible but he tried as hard as he could – reading an enormous amount of material….continually. He was phenomenally bright and able to recall things that he read, and often to quote by memory from books read long ago. He was also a linguist, and was able to read, work in (and usually speak) almost 20 languages. He believed that everyone should do what he did – but never found anyone who did it.
To say that he did not suffer fools gladly would be an enormous understatement. He also abruptly broke with friends over seemingly small matters. But he was extraordinarily well respected because of his intelligence. This was not limited to economic history, by the way, but covered any number of subjects including Russian literature, about which he knew as much or more as anyone and concerning which he was once offered a professorship.
He was married to the same woman for his entire adult life. She was a very depressed person, who from everyone’s perspective was hard to deal with and be around. He defended her completely. They had two daughters. He was a fairly absent father.
When he was in his early 50s, he had a heart attack, and his health was never the same. When he was in his late 60s, he retired from teaching. He died at age 74, no longer leader of the pack, and never having accomplished his goal to write an important book.
Before coming to Harvard, he was at Stanford. But his life started in Odessa in 1904, and at age 13, with the coming of the revolution his businessman father and he moved to Austria, near Vienna. He went to school in Vienna. And then came the Nazis, and soon he was in England and then the United States. But Russia never left him. Nor did the importance of free speech and free scholarship, something he lost twice in Europe.
The story of his life is recounted in “The Fly Swatter”, written by journalist Nicholas Dawidoff, his grandson. It’s a very good book and follows his life in significant detail. Gerschenkron was a difficult man to get to know. In fact no one really knew him – they only knew his intellect. He refused to talk about his past at all. Yet it was there all the time.
The book was loaned to me by a friend. I recommend it. It’s a very good character study and of particular interest if you, like I, attended Harvard while Gerschenkron was there.