NEW YORK (AP) — Peter Gay, a popular and prize-winning historian who meticulously traced the rise of secular Western thought, from a prize-winning history of the Enlightenment to a best-selling biography of Sigmund Freud, has died.
Gay died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan, his stepdaughter Elizabeth Glazer told The Associated Press. He was 91 and died of “old age,” Glazer said.
The German-born Gay wrote more than 25 books, including a five-part series on the 19th century bourgeois and two volumes on the Enlightenment. He also wrote about Mozart, 19th century fiction, 20th century cinema, and, in his highly regarded “Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider,” about art and intellectual life in Germany before Hitler’s rise.
Western Europe was the setting for much of his work and Freud was Gay’s recurring subject. An urbane and non-believing Jew, like Freud, Gay found in him not only a compelling life and body of work, but an approach to history. Gay studied psychoanalytic training at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis and he advocated Freudian techniques for historical scholarship, rejecting fears that the field would be reduced to formulas about childhood desires and neuroses.
“Freud was not a historian, but he knew that men’s minds, even their unconscious minds, change across time and differ across class,” Gay once wrote. “Concern for individuality, that mark of the historian, pervades all of Freud’s writings.”
Gay wrote several works on Freud and summed up his findings in the best-selling “Freud: A Life For Our Time.” Freud’s integrity had been questioned and his theories challenged, but Gay praised his “long and unrivaled career as the archaeologist of the mind.” In “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy,” published in 2007, Gay invoked Freud as a hidden influence upon some of the most important artists of the past century.
“If much of the Freudian view of the human animal present and past appears to be fairly commonplace today, that is so because for a century much of the respectable world has made its progress toward him,” Gay wrote in the book’s preface.
Gay is also credited, through a series of essays and books in the 1950s and ’60s, with changing the image of Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire from impractical idealists to astute visionaries able to work within the systems they helped overturn. Although criticized for focusing too narrowly on Western Europe, Gay helped define the era itself as a completion of the revival of ancient Greek culture that began with the Renaissance.
Gay won the National Book Award in 1967 for “The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. The Rise of Modern Paganism” and received a gold medal in 1996 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2004, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the American Historical Association, which praised him as a scholar who “incarnates the life of the mind.” A longtime professor at Yale University, he retired from the school in 1993.
He was born Peter Froehlich in Berlin in 1923, his father “a striving bourgeoisie” and self-made man, his mother a clerk and “undisputed beauty” who suffered from tuberculosis and from psychosomatic illnesses that made a lasting impression on her son. Gay was a perpetually underweight child who preferred books to food, giving in to such superstitions as believing that a cherry pit could cause appendicitis. He read the Westerns of 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, when Gay was around 12, declared that “Jews always exaggerate.”
“I have often wondered whether my unremitting search for precision in my writing was fueled by this outburst,” Gay wrote in the memoir “My German Question: Growing up in Nazi Berlin.”
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. Gay, who changed his last name upon becoming an American citizen, attended the University of Colorado as an undergraduate and received a master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia University.
Gay wrote in a fluid, assured style and drew upon a vast knowledge of history, culture, philosophy and psychology. In his memoir, however, he noted that his extensive scholarship on European culture included little about the Nazis.
“The truth is, I must confess, that I have deliberately refused to dwell on the mass murder of Europe’s Jews,” he wrote. “We all have our defenses to help us get through life and these happen to be mine. I am not proud of them, but I see no need to apologize for them.”
Gay taught history at Columbia from 1962-69, then joined Yale as a professor of comparative and intellectual European history. In 1959, he married Ruth Slotkin, who had three children from a previous marriage to the sociologist Nathan Glazer. Ruth Gay, an award-winning author of books about Jewish life, died in 2006.
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