ALEXANDER GERSHENKRON  (1904-1978) was a Harvard Professor of Economics from the late 1940’s to the 1970’s. He was known particularly as a historian of economics and among other things postulated the ‘Backwardness Theory’. His paper Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (1962) was and is to the best of my knowledge, unsurpassed in its clarity of argument and groundbreaking perspective. The essay, which is grand tour of European History, Culture, and Economics (among other things), postulated that the more backward an economy the more it will pass through certain marked stages of development, in other words that there would be a heavy reliance of banks and state funding and that general consumption in such an economy would be restricted because of the necessity to invest in capital projects.

Gershenkron was a man of letters. His writings and essays were lauded as masterpieces of erudition and powerfully concise writing, and his lectures were simply legendary in terms of scope, breadth of learning and entertainment value. He actually rewrote them from scratch year ofter year as his knowledge increased and sheer memory for detail and statistics required revisiting the substance and essence of what he had been teaching (primarily economic history)

I started reading about Gershenkron, when I came across Nicholas Davidoff’s memoir of his Grandfather (who was Gershenkron)  – called THE FLY SWATTER which is beautifully written, and though a memoir of a beloved family member and someone who profoundly influenced him, does not stint to give a complete picture of  a complex and profoundly fascinating character.


An emigre from the Russian Communist and the Nazi regimes, and truly world class intellect who, because of history was deprived of an early academic fulfillment, he found a home for himself in the US, strongly identified as an American, and with his family made a life for himself as a Harvard man.

Gershenkron, known as ‘Shura’ to his family, was a polyglot’s polyglot. He spoke 20 languages, read hundreds upon hundreds of books a year (he had for instance devoured Charles Dickens in five different languages)  and filled his days and for that matter nights with the pursuit of knowledge. His light was invariably on, and when he did sleep, he rose extremely early to resume his work. In THE FLY SWATTER, Davidoff talks about Shura’s attempts (p.193) with Erica his wife, to find about 100 different translations of Hamlets quatrain to Ophelia ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’.

Everything fascinated him. He was an intellectual butterfly, flitting from one subject to another as he devoured facts, figures, novels, poems, and articles. So wide ranging was his knowledge that he was offered chairs in three different departments at Harvard, something that probably caused a bit of a shock in the departments concerned despite the fact he turned the job offers down. This is because Gershenkron was a difficult person. He was an intimidating, overwhelming, exacting uncompromising personality. He was capable of using his abilities to dismantle an argument or a thesis from the root and leave his debating partner flattened, the ground taken from under them. And this he did – a lot. To put it mildly he did not suffer fools – at all.

For Shura (Gershenkron) the pursuit of academic and intellectual truth was the ultimate ideal and nothing came in the way of that. Those who were shoddy with their facts or bad with their statistics or did not work as hard as they should received from him a verbal spanking they would never forget.

But this pursuit was flawed. Shura was excessively competitive. He had to know more. He had to have read more than you, be more accurate, more dedicated. His work was peppered with obscure quotes in obscure languages because no one would have that range of knowledge at their fingertips. And he knew that.

The double experience of exile, from Russia, then Austria, and particularly the loss of his exceptionally brilliant little brother, had damaged him – perhaps more than he or others even realized. He became excessively defensive and insecure, a kind of prisoner of his own need for exactitude but his capacity for competitiveness actually inhibited his development. His books were collections of essays. This was  a form he preferred to a full length work for a few reasons. Shura feared death because of his bad heart – in fact he had been told by his doctor once he had only a year or two to live. Nevertheless its also true that lots of thinkers and writers have worked on large tomes despite death beckoning. Anthony Burgess wrote three novels the year after being told he had an inoperable brain tumor. Looking at the essay form it is easy to see it is more controllable. It has a definite end in sight and holds none of the pitfalls of a lengthy work’s capacities for bad avenues of argument and wrong conclusions and pedestrian styles of prose hidden inside lengthy chapters. This would be something unthinkable for Alex Gershenkron, the consummate defensive perfectionist.

Instead of the big books he produced brilliant essays replete with facts figures and obscure quotes and references sometimes in a dozen languages.

Gershenkron never produced the ‘great work’, the summation of his career. This big book was something friends, colleagues, and rivals were always looking for. He was one of those few minds well capable of producing groundbreaking ideas, a Marx, a Keynes, producing world shifting theses. But no one outside rarefied academic circles ever heard of him. Underneath that towering ego, that ruthless frankness, those cutting critiques, that devastating capacity for thought and recollection of facts, figures, and whole tomes, was an enormous intellectual timidity.

It is a truism that the more one knows the more one longs to really know. Or to put it another more conventional way, the more one knows the more one knows one does not know. In other words as knowledge accrues, there is an increasing consciousness of all the gaps in what one knows, all the suppositions that fill the holes where truth and certainty lies. Truth, if it can be defined, if it exists, is an infinity multiplied by an infinity. We are constantly operating on the edge of the unknown, trying with our little knowledge and our enormous capacity for error. all our knowledge is marked by a great horizon of finitude. Its marked by the edge of our lives and the fact that we will never really know everything, and we are going to die.

Gershenkron, through the many losses, disappointments and bereavements he suffered knew all too much about human finitude. This led him to a kind of writers block from which he never escaped. It was almost like the novelist who never finishes his or her novel. He was the thinker who never knew enough to start or even finish his great book.

A kind of humility is needed to really work at creating something new, whether in the field of economics or history or poetry or physics. Uncertainty and ignorance and groping in the twilight between ignorance and knowledge one tries to work and make something anew from what we know, and more to the point, what we know we don’t know.

The implication from this is a kind of negative judgement on what Gershenkron achieved in his life. Not at all. He was known as ‘The Great Gershenkron’ for a reason. Revered, feared, and honored, he was as I said, the polyglot’s polyglot. Everybody learned from him. And everybody should have known his name.