Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1560
Peter Gay 1923-
(Full name Peter Joachim Israel Fröhlich; later changed to Peter Jack Gay) German-born American historian, biographer, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Gay's career through 2000.
Gay is noted for his numerous volumes of cultural history—often referred to as psychohistories—as well as a major biography of Sigmund Freud and several collections of essays on Freud's life and work. The German expatriate is known for his extensive training in psychoanalysis, which he brings to bear on a wide-ranging collection of historical scholarship in such works as Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988), his two-volume series on The Enlightenment (1966–1969), his five-volume series on The Bourgeois Experience (1984–1997), and numerous studies of Freudian theory and German history. Gay's writing is particularly noted for his use of rich historical detail based on extensive archival research. Despite being criticized for his unquestioning defense of Freudian theory and for occasionally failing to provide clearly defined historical arguments, Gay is widely respected for his impressive scholarship and ability to integrate many aspects of a given culture and historical epoch into a single volume.
Gay was born Peter Joachim Israel Fröhlich in Berlin, Germany, on June 20, 1923. He was the only son in a Jewish family that was supported by his father's work as a business representative in the glass and crystal industry. Gay recalls a loving and intellectually stimulating home environment, although his mother suffered from poor health due to tuberculosis. Adolf Hitler's rise to power during Gay's boyhood resulted in an oppressive range of restrictions on German-Jews and an increasingly anti-Semitic atmosphere. Gay's family was not religious and thought of themselves as German rather than Jewish, but regardless, their ethnic heritage made them a target for persecution under the Nazi regime. In his memoir, My German Question (1998), Gay recounts his teenage years in Nazi Berlin between 1933 and 1939. A turning point occurred during Kristalnacht, in November 1938, when Jewish businesses and neighborhoods in Germany were raided and looted. During the raid, approximately one hundred Jews were killed and many others were beaten over the course of one night. After Kristalnacht, Gay's family recognized the dangers facing them in Germany and arranged to emigrate to the United States in 1939. Initially, however, they fled to Cuba, where they stayed until 1941, and then finally moved to the United States. Gay's name was changed to Peter Jack Gay, and he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Gay attended the University of Denver, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1946. He attended graduate school at Colombia University, in New York City, where he received a master's degree in 1947 and a Ph.D. in 1951. Gay has also received extensive training in psychiatry and psychoanalysis. In 1959, he married Ruth Slotkin, a writer. Gay held a position as professor of government and history at Colombia University between 1951 and 1969. From 1969 to 1984, he served as a history professor at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. Gay won the National Book Award in 1967 for The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966).
Gay is perhaps best known as a biographer of Sigmund Freud, based on his celebrated Freud: A Life for Our Time. He has also produced several other volumes on Freud and analyzing Freudian theory in historical and cultural context. Freud, Jews, and Other Germans (1978) is a collection of essays covering German-Jewish intellectuals which argues that the Jewish people were more fully integrated into German culture than is generally thought. In Freud for Historians (1985), Gay argues that historians implicitly rely on theories of human behavior and that, therefore, Freudian theory is a useful tool for historical study. In A Godless Jew (1987), Gay explores Freud's views on religion and Jewish identity in relation to the development of psychoanalytic theory. Gay asserts that Freud's atheism, as well as his Jewish identity, were central to his theories of human psychology. Reading Freud (1990) is a collection of eight essays examining various aspects of Freud's life and work. The volume includes essays on such disparate topics as an analysis of Freud's choices in naming his six children, a discussion of Freud's conviction that Shakespeare was not the real author of the plays attributed to him, and a discussion of the debate over Freud's alleged relationship with his wife's sister.
Gay's reputation as an ambitious cultural historian is primarily based on his several multi-volume series. Gay's two-volume series on The Enlightenment examines the development of eighteenth-century thought, which considered man's capacity for reason to be their greatest achievement. Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism explores the development of Enlightenment thought by such major figures as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Montesquieu. Volume II: The Science of Freedom (1969) considers the social, cultural, and political context in which Enlightenment thought developed, culminating in the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. Gay's The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud is a five-volume history of European middle-class culture from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, published between 1984 and 1997. The series is an ambitious project, offering an overarching psychohistory of European bourgeois culture, drawing from a vast array of sources, including diaries, letters, novels, and newspapers. Gay's primary argument is that Victorian bourgeois culture was much more complex and contradictory than the accepted stereotype of a stuffy, repressed Victorian society. Volume I: Education of the Senses (1984) and Volume II: The Tender Passion (1986) both center on the topic of middle-class sexuality. In these first two volumes, Gay works to dispel myths about Victorian attitudes regarding sex, love, and marriage, arguing that more openness and passion was expressed by Victorian men and women in their private lives than has previously been taught. In Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred (1993), Gay examines the roles that aggression, violence, punishment, and prejudice play in Victorian bourgeois culture. In this work, Gay attempts to explain the culture of hatred which erupted in Europe in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. In Volume IV: The Naked Heart (1995), Gay focuses on the Victorian preoccupation with self-reflection and the interior, emotional life of the individual. He discusses the expression of this introspection in various primary documents, as well as in the developments of Freudian psychoanalysis, romanticism in the arts, and the cult of nature. In Volume V: Pleasure Wars (1997), Gay evaluates the emergence of modernism in the arts, focusing on aesthetic movements in literature, art, music, and architecture.
Gay has also written several works on German cultural history. Weimar Culture (1968) offers a cultural history of Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic—from the end of World War I in 1918 to the rise of Hitler in 1933. My German Question, Gay's memoir of his youth in Berlin, begins with Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and ends with the emigration of Gay's family in 1939 to escape Nazi Germany. Gay addresses the complex issue of German-Jewish identity in the 1930s, examining his own family's perception of themselves as assimilated German citizens, rather than as Jews. Gay also addresses the commonly posed question of why German-Jews did not anticipate the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism and flee Germany before the persecution began. Gay defends the choice that most German-Jews made to remain in Germany, arguing that because the Jewish people considered themselves to be thoroughly assimilated into German culture, they did not imagine that Hitler would attempt a mass extermination. In 1999, Gay published Mozart, a brief, analytical biography of the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Critics have generally applauded Gay for his ambitious, broad-ranging works of cultural history. However, while Gay has been noted for his extensive training in both history and psychoanalysis, some critics have frequently commented that his unquestioning adherence to Freudian theory tends to weaken his historical arguments. Reviewers have lauded Gay's scholarship in Freud: A Life for Our Time, complimenting his integration of biographical details, social history, and explanations of psychoanalytic theory into a well-rounded narrative. Gay has been simultaneously commended for his effective application of Freudian analysis to Freud himself, and disparaged for his unquestioning, often defensive, posture toward Freudian theory itself. For example, critics have commented that Gay's argument in Freud for Historians would have been stronger if he had included discussion of a broader range of psychological theories as applied to historical analysis, rather than limiting himself to Freudian theory. Commentators have agreed that Gay's five-volume series on The Bourgeois Experience was both ambitious and insightful in its historical and geographical range. Reviewers have noted the vast array of primary sources that Gay used to create a richly detailed picture of bourgeois society. However, several critics have concurred that each individual volume suffers from the sprawling scope of the subject, resulting in a lack of overall focus, a tendency for meandering discussion, and failure to provide a cohesive, overarching historical argument. Critics of his later volumes have commented that Gay's original aim—to dispel myths which oversimplify Victorian culture—had been effectively dispelled by the earlier volumes of the series. Thus, by the publication of the third volume, his primary argument had been generally accepted and no longer presented a fresh perspective for the reader. Critics have commended My German Question as a subtle and thoughtful work of self-reflection regarding the experience of German-Jews in Berlin in the 1930s. Mozart has received a lukewarm critical response, with several critics praising the book's brevity and clarity, but noting that Gay provided little original insight or new information on Mozart's life.