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Peter Gay (born June 20, 1923) is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and former director of the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers (1997–2003). Gay received the American Historical Association's (AHA) Award for Scholarly Distinction in 2004. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, including The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, a multi-volume award winner; Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (1968), a bestseller; and the widely translated Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988).
Peter Gay was born in Berlin, Germany in 1923 and immigrated to the United States in 1941. From 1948 to 1955 he was a political science professor at Columbia University, and then a history professor from 1955 to 1969. He left Columbia in 1969 to join Yale University’s History Department as Professor of Comparative and Intellectual European History, and was named Sterling Professor of History in 1984.
Born in 1923 as Peter Joachim Fröhlich in Berlin, Gay and his family fled from Nazi Germany in 1939 and arrived in America in 1941. In Berlin he was educated at the Goethe-Gymnasium. His family initially booked passage on the MS St. Louis (whose passengers were eventually denied visas) but fortuitously changed their booking to an earlier voyage to Cuba. He came to the United States in 1941, took American citizenship in 1946, and changed his name from Fröhlich (German for "happy") to Gay. Gay received his education at the University of Denver, where he was awarded a BA in 1946 and at Columbia University where he was awarded an MA in 1947 and PhD in 1951. Gay worked as political science professor at Columbia between 1948–1955 and as history professor from 1955-1969. He taught at Yale from 1969 until his retirement in 1993. He was married to Ruth Slotkin (died 2006) in 1959 and has three stepchildren.
According to the American Historical Association's Award Citation, Gay's range of "scholarly achievements is truly remarkable". His 1959 book, Voltaire's Politics examined Voltaire as a politician and how his politics influenced the ideas that Voltaire championed in his writings. Gay followed the success of Voltaire's Politics with a wider history of the Enlightenment, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1966, 1969, 1973), whose first volume won the 1967 U.S. National Book Award in History and Biography.
Gay's 1968 book, Weimar Culture was a ground-breaking cultural history of the Weimar Republic. Starting in 1978 with Freud, Jews and Other Germans, an examination of the impact of Freudian ideas on German culture, Gay has become increasingly interested in psychology. Many of his works focus on the social impact of psychoanalysis. For example, he wrote A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis where he wrote about Freud's atheism and how in his view Freud's ability to develop psychoanalysis was due to his atheism. Gay is a leading champion of Psychohistory and an admirer of Sigmund Freud. He has written history books which apply Freud's theories to history, for example The Bourgeois Experience:from Victoria to Freud. He also edited a collection of Freud's writings called The Freud Reader.
De Dijn argues that Gay, in The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1966), first formulated the interpretation that the Enlightenment brought political modernization to the West, in terms of introducing democratic values and institutions and the creation of modern, liberal democracies. While the thesis has many critics it has been widely accepted by Anglophone scholars and has been reinforced by the large-scale studies by Robert Darnton, Roy Porter and most recently by Jonathan Israel.
Peter Gay has received numerous awards for his scholarship, including the National Book Award in History and Biography for The Rise of Modern Paganism (1967), the first volume of The Enlightenment; the first Amsterdam Prize for Historical Science from The Hague, 1990; and the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1992. In addition, he was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1967–68 and in 1978–79, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, Germany, and an Overseas Fellow of Churchill College University from 1970 to 1971. In 1988, he was honored by The New York Public Library as a Library Lion. The following year, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Professor Gay held an ACLS Fellowship in 1959–60. He has also been recognized with several honorary doctorates.