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Peter Gay, a Prolific Historian, Dies at 91

Award-winning author wrote seminal biography on Freud, traced European thought, Jewry

Jonathan Zalman
May 13, 2015
(W. W. Norton)
(W. W. Norton)

Peter Gay, who wrote more than 25 books over the course of his career, including seminal works about The Enlightenment, Sigmund Freud, Mozart, and Weimar Culture, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.

Gay was the Sterling Professor Emeritus History at Yale University, where he taught for 24 years before retiring in 1993. He won a National Book Award for 1966’s The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism, a two-volume study on the subject. Prior to joining the Yale faculty, Gay was a professor of history at Columbia University from 1962 to 1969; he earned both a masters degree (1947) and doctorate (1951) in political science from Columbia.

The son of a businessman, Gay was born in Berlin on June 20, 1923. The Washington Post reports:

As a child, Dr. Gay read German author Ernest May, and was later deeply impressed and influenced by the prose of Ernest Hemingway and E.B. White. Unintended inspiration came from an anti-Semitic teacher who declared, when Dr. Gay was about 12, that “Jews always exaggerate.”

The Froehlichs were assimilated, but no more welcome than other Jews in Hitler’s Germany. The family fled in 1939, first to Cuba and then to the United States. Dr. Gay changed his name upon becoming an American citizen in 1941, making a direct translation of “Froelich” into English.

According to the New York TimesThe Enlightenment and Voltaire’s Politics (1959) “sealed Mr. Gay’s reputation as one of the pre-eminent historians of his generation.”

Of The Enlightenment, Margaret Jacob, a history professor at UCLA, said: “That is the last great work to provide a synthetic account of the philosophes and their world. It was canonical. He just had an encyclopedic grasp of the subject.”

In 1988, Gay published the first “substantial” biography of Sigmund Freud since Ernest Jones’ three-volume The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, which was first released in 1953, the Times reports:

Freud and Mr. Gay were both assimilated, nonreligious Jews nourished by and trapped in a Germanic culture whose anti-Semitic undercurrents gathered strength around them. Their shared predicament provoked some of Mr. Gay’s most personal and anguished historical writing, notably the essays in “Freud, Jews and Other Germans” (1978) and the autobiographical “My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin” (1998).

“He belongs to that group of German Jews, like George Mosse, who began in one field and in the fullness of their intellectual development started asking hard questions about the world from which they had been exiled,” Mr. Gilman said.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.