Peter Gay Essay - Critical Essays

Gay, Peter


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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx (history) 1952

Voltaire's Politics: The Poet as Realist (history) 1959

The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment (history) 1964

The Age of Enlightenment (history) 1966

The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism (history) 1966

The Loss of Mastery: Puritan Historians in Colonial America (history) 1966

Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (history) 1968

The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of...

(The entire section is 256 words.)


John Weightman (review date 12 January 1967)

SOURCE: Weightman, John. “Cultivating the Enlightenment.” New York Review of Books 7, no. 12 (12 January 1967): 4, 6, 8.

[In the following review, Weightman argues that Gay fails to provide a wholly new historical perspective in The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism, but notes that the book offers an abundance of interesting information and discussion.]

The eighteenth-century movement of thought, which is referred to seriously or ironically as the Enlightenment, set out to destroy myths, but it long ago became a myth itself. Since it immediately preceded the Revolution of 1789, it was held to be responsible for that...

(The entire section is 2745 words.)

J. H. Plumb (review date 13 January 1967)

SOURCE: Plumb, J. H. “The Pursuit of Truth.” Spectator, no. 7229 (13 January 1967): 46.

[In the following review, Plumb asserts that Gay offers an important new perspective on the Enlightenment in The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism.]

It is a pity. This book, [The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism] so profoundly important, will not be read by LBJ nor McNamara nor Dean Rusk. Not that they will be singular. It will not find its way to de Gaulle's table or Wilson's bedside. It is an even greater pity that Baldwin, and Mailer and Capote will pass it by: too thick, too learned, too...

(The entire section is 1610 words.)

Peter Jacobsohn (review date 4 January 1969)

SOURCE: Jacobsohn, Peter. “Weimar's Dazzling Moment.” New Republic 160, no. 1 (4 January 1969): 25–26.

[In the following review, Jacobsohn offers a positive assessment of Weimar Culture, calling the work “a virtuoso performance.”]

Weimar [the subject of Weimar Culture] entered the American intellectual consciousness only very late—not, in fact, till well after its demise. During the 1920's, which marked the height of Weimar's cultural and intellectual achievements, Americans looked to Paris—the Mecca of the expatriates, the adopted home of Gertrude Stein, the beachhead of the avant-garde. Yet over the long haul, Berlin—which was the...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)

Richard Hanser (review date 17 February 1969)

SOURCE: Hanser, Richard. “Paradoxes of Weimar.” New Leader, no. 3 (17 February 1969): 24–26.

[In the following excerpt, Hanser argues that Gay neglects important elements of his subject in Weimar Culture and fails to effectively probe the heart of Weimar society.]

There was something terribly wrong with Weimar right from the start. Ben Hecht, then a foreign correspondent, observed the birth trauma of the Republic and cabled his managing editor: “Germany is having a nervous breakdown. There is nothing sane to report.” Leo Lania, another eyewitness chronicler of the period, wrote: “Days of madness had come to Germany.” Over and over, observers noted...

(The entire section is 1377 words.)

Elizabeth Wiskemann (review date 23 May 1969)

SOURCE: Wiskemann, Elizabeth. “Prelude to Hitler.” Spectator 222, no. 7352 (23 May 1969): 690–91.

[In the following review, Wiskemann observes that Weimar Culture functions as a “fascinating study” for those already well-read in the history of Weimar Germany.]

This book [Weimar Culture] is a fascinating study for anyone with any experience of the Weimar period, although one cannot help asking oneself what it would mean to a reader with none. Georg Grosz's odious portrait of Ebert is certainly expressive in all senses, but there is need of a reproduction of at least one of those depictions of devastating poverty by Käthe Kollwitz which one found...

(The entire section is 622 words.)

Corinna Adam (review date 6 June 1969)

SOURCE: Adam, Corinna. “Poor Weimar.” New Statesman 77, no. 1995 (6 June 1969): 807.

[In the following review of Weimar Culture, Adam provides a brief summary of Gay's history of the Weimar Republic.]

Poor Weimar: a beautiful city condemned because of one constituent assembly; a whip, now, to crack at deviant MPs or indecisive social democrats; a synonym, forever, for public violence and private despair; a word for failure.

The assembly was held there partly for security reasons. Berlin being too dangerous. But that was not all. Somehow, the Republic's founders hoped, the spirit of Goethe would preside. ‘Good’ Germany, the ‘other’...

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C. B. A. Behrens (review date 18 December 1969)

SOURCE: Behrens, C. B. A. “Shadows on the Enlightenment.” New York Review of Books 13, no. 11 (18 December 1969): 27–29.

[In the following review of The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom, Behrens discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Gay's discussion of the Enlightenment.]

David Chodowiecki, a hack illustrator of the eighteenth century, once produced a sketch to illustrate the Enlightenment which was reproduced in the Göttingen pocket calendar for the year 1792. It showed a hilly landscape, with a man on foot, a man on horseback, and a coach, all facing toward the rising sun. It was a pretty picture but suggested...

(The entire section is 2500 words.)

John Raymond (review date 24 April 1970)

SOURCE: Raymond, John. “Meet the Family.” New Statesman 79, no. 2041 (24 April 1970): 585–86.

[In the following review of The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom, Raymond praises Gay's work as a “masterful” study.]

In 1765 Horace Walpole, revisiting Paris after an age prolonged by the Seven Years' War, ‘to see French plays and buy French china,’ defined the philosophes in a letter to his cousin, General Conway:

Do you know who the philosophers are, or what the term means here? In the first place it comprehends almost everybody; and in the next, means men who, avowing war...

(The entire section is 1195 words.)

J. H. Plumb (review date 2 May 1970)

SOURCE: Plumb, J. H. “The Age of Optimism.” Spectator, no. 7401 (2 May 1970): 586–87.

[In the following review, Plumb argues that The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom represents an important “turning point” in historical accounts of eighteenth-century thought.]

For generations now the philosophers of the Enlightenment have suffered in public esteem because of the disrepute into which they fell during the nineteenth century. They were dismissed as superficial thinkers who could never resist a witticism; mockers who scoffed at the sacredness of belief; blind optimists who ignored the sinfulness and bestiality of man;...

(The entire section is 1328 words.)

K. M. Baker (review date June 1970)

SOURCE: Baker, K. M. Review of The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom, by Peter Gay. American Historical Review 75, no. 5 (June 1970): 1410–414.

[In the following review, Baker asserts that The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom offers impressive scholarship and engaging discussion of key issues, but fails to provide a convincing or original historical argument.]

With this second volume of The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Peter Gay completes the ambitious re-evaluation commenced with such verve in The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966). As one would expect, he again...

(The entire section is 2784 words.)

Joseph R. Strayer (review date 20 June 1970)

SOURCE: Strayer, Joseph R. “The Winner, Voltaire.” New Republic 162, no. 25 (20 June 1970): 29–30.

[In the following review, Strayer invents a fictional dialogue between the historical figures Lucian, Erasmus, and Voltaire, assessing Gay's treatment of their ideas in The Bridge of Criticism.]


Voltaire, I know that you taught us that historians like to play tricks on the dead, but don't you think that [in The Bridge of Criticism] Peter Gay has gone too far? He has taken advantage of a careless suggestion by Gibbon to set you and me and Erasmus into arguing about the nature of the Enlightenment. And by eavesdropping on our...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

James Sloan Allen (review date 17 January 1977)

SOURCE: Allen, James Sloan. “Pursuing the Elusive ‘Why?’” New Leader 60, no. 2 (17 January 1977): 20–21.

[In the following review, Allen asserts that Art and Act offers a useful new perspective on modernism and modernists.]

It is impossible to think of history and not think of causes. Do governments fail for nothing? Do people act by chance? Surely not. Yet the “imperious Why?” baffles us; as Peter Gay says, “cause is a conjurer, concealing tricks … that even the experienced student cannot wholly anticipate.” Some historians avoid coming to grips with the issue by leaving causation implicit in a sequence of developments: Ambitions precede...

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Richard Wollheim (review date October 1977)

SOURCE: Wollheim, Richard. Review of Art and Act, by Peter Gay. History and Theory 16 (October 1977): 354–60.

[In the following review of Art and Act, Wollheim comments that Gay provides a forceful contribution to the debates surrounding the modernist movement.]

In Art and Act Professor Gay has provided us with an extremely interesting, stimulating, and puzzling book. What is puzzling about the book, as well as, for that matter, what is interesting and stimulating about it, is fully foreshadowed in the subtitle, “On Causes in History: Manet, Gropius, Mondrian”; and a proper reading of that subtitle is a necessary preliminary to understanding...

(The entire section is 3444 words.)

George L. Mosse (review date 26 November 1977)

SOURCE: Mosse, George L. Review of Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, by Peter Gay. New Republic 177, no. 22 (26 November 1977): 40–41.

[In the following review of Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, Mosse observes that Gay's treatment of specific historical figures is convincing, but argues that the book fails to account for the virulent anti-Semitism which persisted in Germany throughout the first half of the twentieth-century.]

The present interest in German-Jewish intellectuals has tended to distort the past. Jewish intellectuals living in Vienna, Wilhelmian Germany or in the Weimar Republic became models for some of the radicals of the 1960s—symbols for...

(The entire section is 1106 words.)

Robert Alter (essay date March 1978)

SOURCE: Alter, Robert. “Modernism, the Germans, and the Jews.” Commentary 65, no. 3 (March 1978): 61–67.

[In the following essay, Alter argues that Gay provides convincing discussion of the specific figures covered in Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, but neglects to address important historical factors which do not support his thesis.]

This Jewish obstinacy! Enough to make an anti-Semite of a man! This pride of race, this feeling of solidarity! Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am “German” (perhaps, qui le sait)? Do you believe that Mozart composed as an “Aryan”? I know only two...

(The entire section is 6164 words.)

James Fenton (review date 19 May 1978)

SOURCE: Fenton, James. “Clues to the Holocaust.” New Statesman 95, no. 2461 (19 May 1978): 674–75.

[In the following review, Fenton examines the issues surrounding internalized anti-Semitism among German-Jews that are discussed in Freud, Jews, and Other Germans.]

One of the errors of the Whig interpretation of history, according to Butterfield, was a kind of retrospective modernisation of its subjects: Luther, for instance, was seen as the founder of the modern secular state—a development which Luther himself would have regarded with horror. It was the task of the historian, Butterfield argued, to show rather what divided Luther from our time, what made his...

(The entire section is 1390 words.)

Robert S. Rosen (review date 5 June 1978)

SOURCE: Rosen, Robert S. “Fleeing Tradition.” New Leader 61, no. 12 (5 June 1978): 19–20.

[In the following review of Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, Rosen discusses Gay's treatment of anti-Semitism and assimilation among German-Jews.]

Peter Gay acknowledges in the Preface of [Freud, Jews, and Other Germans] that these six essays, which begin just before the Wilhelminian Empire, are “deeply personal … a piece of autobiography, part of reckoning with my origins.” Since Gay was born around the middle of the Weimar period, however, the term “autobiography” is obviously not intended in any narrow, literal sense. The author will be encountered...

(The entire section is 1276 words.)

David Cannadine (review date 2 February 1984)

SOURCE: Cannadine, David. “The Victorian Sex Wars.” New York Review of Books 31, no. 1 (2 February 1984): 19–22.

[In the following review, Cannadine offers a positive assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses, noting that the work “promises to be one of the major historical enterprises of the decade.”]

“Historically,” Karl Marx once wrote, “the bourgeoisie has played a most important part.” Indeed, there was a period in historical writing, roughly coincidental with the first half of the twentieth century, when it seemed to play virtually the only part, credited as it often was with most...

(The entire section is 3718 words.)

Paul Robinson (review date 6 February 1984)

SOURCE: Robinson, Paul. “Sex, Please, We're Victorians.” New Republic 190, no. 5 (6 February 1984): 28–30.

[In the following review, Robinson offers a positive assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses, praising Gay's extensive use of primary historical sources.]

Peter Gay is among the most productive and venturesome of living historians. He is best known as a student of the European Enlightenment, on which he published five books between 1959 and 1970. More recently he has written extensively on the culture of modernism. In his new book he assaults the terrain lying between these two enterprises:...

(The entire section is 2089 words.)

Charles Solomon (review date 26 February 1984)

SOURCE: Solomon, Charles. “More of Mabel's Love and Victorian Affairs.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 February 1984): 4.

[In the following review, Solomon offers a negative assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses, describing the work as “fragmented, unfocused, and curiously inconclusive.”]

Gay, having written at length about Weimar Germany and the Enlightenment, turns his attention to the manners and morals of the 19th-Century middle class. Here [in The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses] he examines bourgeois sexual attitudes and mores, the first...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Phoebe Pettingell (review date 5 March 1984)

SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Victorian Lust and Love.” New Leader 61, no. 5 (5 March 1984): 13–15.

[In the following excerpt, Pettingell offers a mixed assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses, calling the work a “disappointment.”]

By now you have probably heard of Peter Gay's Education of the Senses—a study of the 19th-century “bourgeoisie's sensual life, the shape that its libidinous drives assumed under the pressure of its moral imperatives.” The sensational topics of sex and hypocrisy have certainly aroused the critics. Most have concentrated on descriptions of orgasm from the diary...

(The entire section is 1613 words.)

Paul Johnson (review date June 1984)

SOURCE: Johnson, Paul. “Sex and Society.” Commentary 77 (June 1984): 68–71.

[In the following mixed review, Johnson argues that The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses contains several new and interesting details, but notes that the work is presented as a collection of miscellany that lacks a defined subject, theme, and structure.]

We are promised that this [The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses] is the first installment of “a project of enormous scope,” a “multivolume study of the European and American middle classes from the 1820's to the outbreak of World War...

(The entire section is 2747 words.)

Anthony Storr (review date 8 March 1986)

SOURCE: Storr, Anthony. “Shrinking the Past.” Spectator 256, no. 8226 (8 March 1986): 30–31.

[In the following review of Freud for Historians, Storr observes that Gay appears to be a “Freudian fundamentalist” who defends Freudian theory against all criticism.]

Peter Gay is Sterling Professor of History at Yale; author of Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, and other books on 19th-century history and culture which are both erudite and elegantly written. He is also a dedicated Freudian, who is convinced that psychoanalytic interpretation can fruitfully be applied, not only to the understanding of historical figures, but also to group behaviour and...

(The entire section is 1127 words.)

Anthony Storr (review date 14 June 1986)

SOURCE: Storr, Anthony. “The Victorians in Love.” Spectator 256, no. 8240 (14 June 1986): 29–30.

[In the following review, Storr compares The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion to the first volume of the series, arguing that the second volume is “better organized and easier to grasp as a whole” than the first.]

This [The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion] is the second volume of a massive enterprise. Professor Gay has as his object the delineation of middle-class culture from the beginning of the 19th century to the outbreak of the first world war. Since Gay is a convinced...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)

Noel Annan (review date 20 November 1986)

SOURCE: Annan, Noel. “In Bed with the Victorians.” New York Review of Books 33, no. 18 (20 November 1986): 8–9, 12, 14.

[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion, Annan praises Gay's wide range of primary source materials, insightful psychological analyses, and richly detailed examples.]

[In The Bourgeois Experience] Peter Gay has set himself the monumental task of reinterpreting Victorian middle-class life. In this volume [The Tender Passion] he has chosen the ever interesting topic: What did the Victorians do in bed? Was bourgeois marriage—that institution which demanded...

(The entire section is 4482 words.)

Philip Pomper (review date summer 1987)

SOURCE: Pomper, Philip. Review of Freud for Historians, by Peter Gay. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 1 (summer 1987): 150–52.

[In the following negative review of Freud for Historians, Pomper asserts that Gay's work “lacks either a compelling thesis or a novel approach.”]

Gay's book [Freud for Historians] serves several purposes. In it he completes his trilogy of works on the historian's craft; continues the interminable struggle against detractors of Freud, psychoanalysis, and psychohistory; and shows how psychoanalysis augments several areas of historical inquiry. Gay's central concern is to bring to the forefront an important...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

Philip Pomper (review date winter 1988)

SOURCE: Pomper, Philip. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion, by Peter Gay. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 3 (winter 1988): 519–20.

[In the following review, Pomper offers a mixed assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion.]

In Education of the Senses, the first volume of his ambitious project, Gay studied the vicissitudes of the instincts, particularly libido, in the shifting cultural environments of the bourgeois nineteenth century. In The Tender Passion he continues what promises to be a massive study, the later volumes of which will...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Antony Copley (review date February 1988)

SOURCE: Copley, Antony. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion, by Peter Gay. History 73, no. 237 (February 1988): 95–97.

[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion, Copley comments that the volume is impressive for its rich detail, but that it is ultimately unsatisfactory as a work of historical scholarship.]

In his first volume [of The Bourgeois Experience] (reviewed ante lxxxi, 1986, pp. 93–95), Peter Gay took sex as his theme, in this his second, love, but as love is defined as ‘the conjunction of concupiscence with...

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Wilfred M. McClay (review date March 1988)

SOURCE: McClay, Wilfred M. “Hymn to Freud.” Commentary 85, no. 3 (March 1988): 77–79.

[In the following negative review, McClay describes A Godless Jew as a “hymn to Sigmund Freud.”]

As anyone acquainted with his work knows, Peter Gay is an enthusiastic partisan of the Enlightenment. From earliest writings, he has consistently championed the rational disenchantment of the world, and looked to the likes of Voltaire and Diderot, Feuerbach and Marx, and above all, Sigmund Freud, as his ancestral heroes. And there is something to be said for this stance, when it is taken in moderation and modesty, for it can foster a healthy resistance to the fashionable...

(The entire section is 1612 words.)

P. E. H. Hair (review date April 1988)

SOURCE: Hair, P. E. H. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses and Volume II: The Tender Passion, by Peter Gay. English Historical Review 103, no. 407 (April 1988): 443–47.

[In the following positive review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses and Volume II: The Tender Passion, Hair comments that Gay's series is “on the whole as sensible and well-balanced as it is good-hearted and thoughtful.”]

As the gamekeeper mounted Lady Chatterley, he had momentary doubts: was it a transcendental exercise or a cosmic joke on humanity? The candid reviewer...

(The entire section is 2597 words.)

Eugene Kennedy (review date 10 April 1988)

SOURCE: Kennedy, Eugene. “Sigmund Freud: Was He Enlightenment Incarnate or an Artist of the Trompe L'Oeil?” Chicago Tribune Books (10 April 1988): 1, 5, 9.

[In the following review of Freud: A Life for Our Time, Kennedy praises Gay's biography in its application of Freudian analysis to Freud himself, but criticizes Gay for attempting to defend Freudian theory against all of its detractors.]

The distinguished cultural historian Peter Gay begins this remarkable biography of Sigmund Freud [Freud: A Life for Our Time] with a quotation that captures well the mood and spirit of the entire work. The words are those of Freud himself about Leonardo da Vinci:...

(The entire section is 1327 words.)

Howard L. Kaye (review date May 1988)

SOURCE: Kaye, Howard L. “Becoming Sigmund Freud.” Contemporary Sociology 17, no. 3 (May 1988): 372–75.

[In the following positive review, Kaye describes A Godless Jew as an “elegant essay” which helps to clarify questions regarding Freud's attitudes about religion and Jewish identity in relation to his theories of psychology.]

Writing in 1951, Parsons and Shils claimed that along with Weber and Durkheim, it was Freud who was the most significant theorist for the discipline of sociology. How times have changed! Even a cursory glance at contemporary sociological scholarship suggests that Freud has now fallen from the ranks of the living social theorists,...

(The entire section is 2019 words.)

Peter J. Swales (review date 8 May 1988)

SOURCE: Swales, Peter J. “Protecting Freud's Image from Sigmund.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 May 1988): 1, 13.

[In the following negative review of Freud: A Life for Our Time, Swales criticizes Gay for his largely unquestioning assessment of Freudian theory.]

In the interest of promulgating his controversial theories, Sigmund Freud saw fit to report and interpret myriad events from his own life, mind and dreams. But he was exceedingly selective when doing so and, later in life, was sharply averse to submitting to a candid biography. Hence, even now, almost half a century after his death—and despite the fact so much is known about the events of his...

(The entire section is 1640 words.)

William J. McGrath (review date 18 August 1988)

SOURCE: McGrath, William J. “Oedipus at Berggasse 19.” New York Review of Books 35, no. 13 (18 August 1988): 25–29.

[In the following review of Freud: A Life for Our Time and A Godless Jew, McGrath argues that Gay's works on Freud expand our understanding of Freud's life, but fail to address criticism of Freudian theory or to adequately discuss the historical context in which Freud worked and lived.]


On the title page of Peter Gay's Freud is a drawing of Oedipus contemplating the riddle of the Sphinx, an appropriate emblem for the biography of a man bent on understanding life's great enigmas. Gay sees this...

(The entire section is 5443 words.)

Samuel B. Thielman (review date 29 September 1988)

SOURCE: Thielman, Samuel B. Review of A Godless Jew, by Peter Gay. New England Journal of Medicine 319, no. 13 (29 September 1988): 877.

[In the following review, Thielman offers a positive assessment of A Godless Jew, describing it as “a careful assessment of Freud's attitude toward religion.”]

Within the past decade, the literature on Freud and religion has become more objective, sophisticated, and thoughtful. Early works on Freud's attitude toward religion often sought either to defend religion against psychoanalysis by attacking Freud, or to deflect criticism of psychoanalysis by assuming that differences between the devout and the analysts were...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Anthony Storr (review date 1989)

SOURCE: Storr, Anthony. “Freud Revisited.” Hudson Review 41, no. 4 (1989): 723–27.

[In the following review, Storr argues that Freud: A Life for Our Time is superior to previous biographies of Sigmund Freud, but is still not a definitive work.]

The appetite for books about Freud shows no sign of diminishing, and Gay's massive biography [Freud: A Life for Our Time] is a notable addition to the literature. Peter Gay is Sterling Professor of History at Yale; a graduate of the Western New England Institute of Psychoanalysis, an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the indefatigable author of some sixteen books on cultural...

(The entire section is 2478 words.)

Benjamin Goodnick (essay date winter 1989)

SOURCE: Goodnick, Benjamin. “Two Jews—Freud and Gay.” Judaism 38, no. 1 (winter 1989): 103–11.

[In the following essay, Goodnick discusses the works of Gay and Sigmund Freud in relation to Jewish identity.]

Sigmund Freud continues to be a spring of living waters where writers still quench their psychological thirst and fructify their intellectual fields. Whether because of the fascinating features of his history and personality, the vast impact of his creativity on our culture, the hidden depth to which he has exposed and touched our individual, sensitive psyches, or the novel applications of his hypotheses, any new Freudian work excites our interest.


(The entire section is 3789 words.)

Thomas H. Thompson (review date March 1989)

SOURCE: Thompson, Thomas H. “Gay's Freud.” North American Review 274, no. 1 (March 1989): 63–69.

[In the following review of Freud: A Life for Our Time, Thompson argues that, while Gay's biography is impressive, it fails to provide a well-rounded account of Freud's life.]

Peter Gay, in the Preface to his new book [Freud: A Life for Our Time], wistfully wonders why Sigmund Freud seems to be held to a higher standard of thought and conduct than other heroes of culture equally learned and famous. As he says, “… unlike other great figures in the history of Western culture, Freud seems to stand under the obligation to be perfect.” In the case of...

(The entire section is 6089 words.)

Steven Weiland (review date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Weiland, Steven. “Psychoanalytic Biography: Lost Objects and Subversive Effects.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28, no. 2 (spring 1989): 270–82.

[In the following review of Elizabeth Young-Bruehl's Anna Freud: A Biography and Gay's Freud: A Life for Our Time, Weiland praises Gay for smoothly integrating biographical detail, historical context, and discussion of Freudian theory into a single narrative.]

As a form of historical inquiry the primary goal of biography has been accuracy and the primary problem inclusiveness. The question for a biographer with a sure grasp of the facts is what principles of proportion should guide their use in a life...

(The entire section is 5422 words.)

Thomas T. Lewis (review date May–June 1989)

SOURCE: Lewis, Thomas T. Review of Freud: A Life for Our Time, by Peter Gay. Humanist 49, no. 3 (May–June 1989): 44.

[In the following review, Lewis offers a positive assessment of Freud: A Life for Our Time, commenting that the work is “probably the most scholarly one-volume biography of Freud in any language.”]

A distinguished Yale historian as well as a trained psychoanalyst, Peter Gay has written what is probably the most scholarly one-volume biography of Freud in any language. In addition to fascinating material on Freud's personal life, the book [Freud: A Life for Our Time] includes analysis of Freud's writings and ideas. Gay has done...

(The entire section is 298 words.)

Edith Kurzweil (review date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Kurzweil, Edith. “Contextualizing Freud.” Partisan Review 56, no. 3 (summer 1989): 486–89.

[In the following positive review, Kurzweil praises Freud: A Life for Our Time, complimenting Gay's clear explanations of Freud's theories and the wealth of new information presented.]

Reviewers of this brilliant book [Freud: A Life for Our Time] who accept psychoanalysis, such as Richard Wollheim, appreciate Mr. Gay's ability “to conjure up a scene, a panorama, a story line by using some telling detail” of Freud's life and work. But detractors of psychoanalysis, such as Thomas Szasz (writing in The Wall Street Journal,) have used the book...

(The entire section is 1231 words.)

Sam B. Girgus (essay date June 1991)

SOURCE: Girgus, Sam B. “Oedipus Texts: Freud, Feminism and American Studies.” American Quarterly 43, no. 2 (June 1991): 347–57.

[In the following excerpt, Girgus offers a positive assessment of Reading Freud.]

It is an apocryphal story, filled with subtle ironies and nuances for the student of Freud. With the Statue of Liberty in view as their ship approaches New York, Freud turns to Jung and says: “They don't realize we're bringing them the plague.”1 Ironically, Freud himself was, in a sense, plagued by the reception of his work and ideas in America. Psychoanalysis found in the United States an environment that proved conducive to its growth in...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)

Eugene Taylor (review date 1 June 1991)

SOURCE: Taylor, Eugene. “Dr. Freud or Dr. Fraud?” Commonweal, no. 11 (1 June 1991): 379–80.

[In the following review of Reading Freud, Taylor praises Gay's volume of essays for its fine scholarship and skillful prose.]

Why more Freud? After all, Professor Gay has already brought us five different works either about or including the Inventor of Psychoanalysis, and then topped that with his award winning biography Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988), which he followed with an anthology of readings. By his own direct statement, and by reading between the lines, the author of this little text [Reading Freud] gives us three reasons for yet an...

(The entire section is 971 words.)

John E. Toews (essay date September 1991)

SOURCE: Toews, John E. “Historicizing Psychoanalysis: Freud in His Time and for Our Time.” Journal of Modern History 63, no. 3 (September 1991): 504–45.

[In the following essay, Toews discusses the development of psychoanalytic theory in its historical and cultural context, and addresses the strengths and weaknesses of Gay's Freud: A Life for Our Time in conveying this context.]

[Freud: A Life for Our Time,] Peter Gay's massive new biography of Freud is subtitled: “A Life for Our Time.” Although Gay does not discuss the intended meaning of the subtitle, even a casual reader of his text will soon become aware of at least two ways in which Freud's...

(The entire section is 21579 words.)

Richard Sennett (review date 7 November 1993)

SOURCE: Sennett, Richard. “The Passions of Polite Society.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 November 1993): 3, 12.

[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred, Sennett maintains that Gay's work “provides a magisterial portrait,” but comments that the work's theme is unfocused.]

During the last decade Peter Gay has given us an entirely new picture of our great-grandparents. While we may have envisioned them as living in the soft-focus gentility of a Merchant-Ivory film, the Yale historian has shown them to have been far more open to erotic and violent experience. Gay has done so in three...

(The entire section is 1315 words.)

Forrest McDonald (review date 15 November 1993)

SOURCE: McDonald, Forrest. “Victoria's Secrets.” National Review 45, no. 22 (15 November 1993): 56–57.

[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred, McDonald addresses a number of alleged weaknesses in Gay's historical scholarship.]

To the educated middle class in the nineteenth century, it was a commonplace that virtue must be taught and learned—that “natural” man, contrary to the Rousseauean myth, was a savage and not a noble one. So assuming, vast numbers of writers, preachers, philosophers, and scientists devised theories and rules of conduct and social conventions that would tame...

(The entire section is 1345 words.)

Noel Annan (review date 13 January 1994)

SOURCE: Annan, Noel. “The Age of Aggression.” New York Review of Books 41, no. 1–2 (13 January 1994): 42–44.

[In the following excerpt, Annan questions the value of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred as a work of historical scholarship.]

Was the nineteenth-century bourgeois citizen a staid, buttoned-up, law-abiding creature? Not according to Peter Gay [in The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred]. One emotion above all others, he claims, governed the behavior of the middle classes in America, Britain, France, and Germany: aggression. Whether it was politics,...

(The entire section is 2650 words.)

Roy Porter (review date 22 April 1994)

SOURCE: Porter, Roy. “The Times' Ire.” New Statesman & Society 7, no. 299 (22 April 1994): 37, 39.

[In the following review, Porter offers a mixed assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred.]

There's a temptation to say of this book: this made me real mad! That wouldn't be quite right, but there's something deeply frustrating about it all the same. Written by one of America's top historians, it contains a mass of fascinating material yet fails to form a satisfying whole.

The trouble stems in part from the larger and wildly ambitious enterprise of which The Cultivation of Hatred is...

(The entire section is 1182 words.)

Tom Taylor (review date autumn 1994)

SOURCE: Taylor, Tom. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred, by Peter Gay. Historian 57, no. 1 (autumn 1995): 165–66.

[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred, Taylor praises the breadth of Gay's subject and engaging treatment of his topic, but criticizes the volume for its diffuse focus and lack of cohesive argument.]

Starting with a lengthy description of the duelling rituals of German students and continuing through the bullying of Theodore Roosevelt, the debates about capital punishment, the political satire of Gilbert and...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Paul Smith (review date 9 February 1995)

SOURCE: Smith, Paul. “Hoping to Hurt.” London Review of Books (9 February 1995): 13.

[In the following review, Smith describes The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred as “an ambitious undertaking,” praising the volume's vast array of primary sources and detailed information.]

Peter Gay's The Cultivation of Hatred completes his Freudian psychoanalysis of the bourgeois 19th century by bringing aggression to bear alongside the forces of sexuality which form the subject of the preceding volumes, Education of the Senses and The Tender Passion. That aggression and sexuality are intimately...

(The entire section is 2605 words.)

Richard Jenkyns (review date 30 November 1995)

SOURCE: Jenkyns, Richard. “Victoria's Secret.” New York Review of Books 42, no. 19 (30 November 1995): 19–21.

[In the following review of Patricia Anderson's When Passions Reigned and The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, Jenkyns comments on the vast scope and wealth of interesting details in Gay's work.]

Sixty or seventy years ago the word “Victorian” was used by many cultivated people as a term of abuse: it seemed self-evident that the Victorians' art was either hideous or odiously sentimental, and their prudishness a moral deformity. Walking through Kensington Gardens, the philosopher and historian R. G....

(The entire section is 4006 words.)

Rudolph Binion (review date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Binion, Rudolph. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, by Peter Gay. Journal of Social History 30, no. 2 (winter 1996): 556–57.

[In the following mixed review, Binion describes Gay's treatment of his topic in The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart as “rummaging through cultural history.”]

The Naked Heart is the fourth volume of a continuing series by Peter Gay named The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Both titles are misleading. The Naked Heart is about cultural trends and personalities far more than experience, let alone experience...

(The entire section is 1663 words.)

Boyd Gibson (review date 25 September 1996)

SOURCE: Gibson, Boyd. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, by Peter Gay. Christian Century 113, no. 27 (25 September 1996): 909–10.

[In the following positive review, Gibson describes The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart as a creative interdisciplinary study.]

Peter Gay characterizes his five-volume study of the 19th-century bourgeoisie as a “symphonic treatment.” His fourth volume [The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart] is an engaging and creatively orchestrated interdisciplinary movement of that symphony. As a historian he...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Timothy Lang (review date autumn 1996)

SOURCE: Lang, Timothy. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, by Peter Gay. Victorian Studies 40, no. 1 (autumn 1996): 158–60.

[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, Lang comments on the “panoramic vision” Gay brings to his subject matter.]

Peter Gay is best known today for rethinking the cultural history of the bourgeoisie and for his firmly held conviction that psychoanalytically informed history is both desirable and feasible. For almost two decades, Gay has been engaged in a project of truly Victorian proportions aimed at rescuing the...

(The entire section is 1209 words.)

Michael D. Pratt (review date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Pratt, Michael D. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, by Peter Gay. Historian 59, no. 2 (winter 1997): 463.

[In the following review, Pratt offers a positive assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart.]

This book [The Naked Heart] is the fourth volume of the author's projected five-volume study of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. In this volume, Peter Gay seeks to reveal the inner life of a people whose consciousness, for all appearances, was focused steadily on the external world. This was, after all, the age of expansion and progress,...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Philip Hensher (review date 17 May 1997)

SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “The Self is Always with Us.” Spectator 278, no. 8807 (17 May 1997): 35–36.

[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, Hensher argues that although Gay brings together a huge range of disparate historical material, the volume leaves out important topics and lacks a coherent overall argument.]

Peter Gay's multi-volume history, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, has a great deal in common with the all-inclusive intellectual edifices which his subjects so keenly produced. The 19th century produced uncountable numbers of huge books, summarising the whole of...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)

Nina Auerbach (review date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Auerbach, Nina. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars, by Peter Gay. American Scholar 67, no. 2 (spring 1998): 168–70.

[In the following review, Auerbach asserts that Gay's five volumes of The Bourgeois Experience admirably explain the complexity of Victorian culture, although she observes that Pleasure Wars, the fifth in the series, is less focused and less detailed than the earlier volumes.]

On the jacket of this fifth and final volume of Peter Gay's The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, the publisher assures us that: “No one reading this concluding volume of Peter Gay's...

(The entire section is 1491 words.)

Diana Schaub (review date June 1998)

SOURCE: Schaub, Diana. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars, by Peter Gay. Commentary 105, no. 6 (June 1998): 71–73.

[In the following review, Schaub criticizes The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars for failing to provide a cohesive picture of bourgeois culture.]

“Victorian” and “bourgeois” have become distinctly less acceptable as synonyms for hypocritical and philistine in the wake of the Yale historian Peter Gay's monumental reexamination of 19th-century European and American culture. His revisionist history has taken shape in five volumes bearing the collective title...

(The entire section is 1387 words.)

John Grigg (review date 20 June 1998)

SOURCE: Grigg, John. “A Class Performance.” Spectator 280, no. 8863 (20 June 1998): 32–33.

[In the following review, Grigg offers a mixed assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars.]

There are few sillier notions than that the bourgeoisie is a bastion of philistinism and the supreme obstacle to human progress. Anyone who looks at the evidence can see that the idea is absurd. The word bourgeois is linked, etymologically, with the words city and civilisation, and it is no coincidence that in modern times the advance of humanity has owed far more to the middling sort of people—citizens—than to monarchs, patricians or...

(The entire section is 881 words.)

Gordon A. Craig (review date 13 August 1998)

SOURCE: Craig, Gordon A. “The Good, the Bad, and the Bourgeois.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 13 (13 August 1998): 8–20.

[In the following review, Craig praises Gay's five-volume series on The Bourgeois Experience and applauds his scholarship in both Volume V: Pleasure Wars and his memoir, My German Question.]


In the first half of the nineteenth century, the curriculum of Rugby School in England was dominated, as was true of other public schools, by instruction in Greek and Latin. In addition, however, all students from the first to the sixth grade read history, both ancient and modern, which was interlarded with...

(The entire section is 5482 words.)

Amy E. Schwartz (review date autumn 1998)

SOURCE: Schwartz, Amy E. Review of My German Question, by Peter Gay. Wilson Quarterly 22, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 100.

[In the following review of My German Question, Schwartz praises Gay's memoir for its focus on the psychological effects of Nazism on both Gay's personal development and on the population of German-Jews in Berlin.]

Historian Peter Gay introduces this memoir [My German Question] of his youth in Nazi Berlin and his family's forced emigration with an epigraph from Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Dr. Faustus: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” In adding to the sky-high stack of Holocaust-related memoirs of...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Alvin H. Rosenfeld (review date 30 November 1998)

SOURCE: Rosenfeld, Alvin H. “The Story of a Poisoning.” New Leader 81, no. 13 (30 November 1998): 15–16.

[In the following review, Rosenfeld offers a positive assessment of My German Question, describing it as “gripping reading.”]

When the eminent American historian Peter Gay left his native Berlin in 1939, his name was Peter Joachim Israel Fröhlich. “Israel” was a gift from the Nazis, a symbolic brand imposed on Jewish males under the racial laws that singled out the Jews and set them apart. If not for those laws and the ultimate repudiation they represented, the Fröhlich family would have been content to blend into the mainstream of German...

(The entire section is 1280 words.)

Heinz R. Kuehn (review date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Kuehn, Heinz R. “A Separation of Spheres.” Sewanee Review 107, no. 3 (summer 1999): R80–R85.

[In the following review of My German Question, Kuehn praises Gay for his intense self-reflection expressed in the memoir and the discussion of his psychological survival strategies as a youth in Nazi Germany.]

This is not an autobiography; it is a memoir that focuses on the six years, 1933 to 1939, I spent as a boy in Nazi Berlin. … This book records one man's story, the story of a poisoning and how I dealt with it.

These are the first sentences in Gay's preface to My German Question. He wrote...

(The entire section is 1307 words.)

Howard L. Kaye (review date July–August 1999)

SOURCE: Kaye, Howard L. “Peter Gay's The Bourgeois Experience: The Return of the Repressed.” Society 36, no. 5 (July–August 1999): 90–93.

[In the following review, Kaye describes the five volumes of Gay's The Bourgeois Experience as “sprawling and fascinating,” but argues that the series as a whole lacks cohesion.]

With the recent publication of Pleasure Wars, Peter Gay has brought to completion his remarkable attempt to recapture the complex inner lives of the much maligned middle classes during the extended nineteenth century from the end of the French Revolution to the outbreak of the First World War. When the project began over a...

(The entire section is 3103 words.)

Anja Amsel (review date July–September 1999)

SOURCE: Amsel, Anja. Review of My German Question, by Peter Gay. Political Quarterly 70, no. 3 (July–September 1999): 355–56.

[In the following review, Amsel offers a negative assessment of My German Question, asserting that the memoir offers little new information to the existing body of Holocaust literature and fails in “touching the heart” of the reader.]

A subtext to the official histories of Germany in the thirties is the considerable collection of personal memoirs, autobiographies and diaries of survivors of the Nazi regime. The gamut embraces people who were in opposition to the system, those who admit to Nazism at the time and who have now...

(The entire section is 1079 words.)

Edith Kurzweil (review date 1 August 1999)

SOURCE: Kurzweil, Edith. “The Crack-Up.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 August 1999): 7.

[In the following review, Kurzweil argues that The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars is a “superb and exhaustive tableau” of the development of modernism in the arts.]

No one reading this last of Peter Gay's five volumes on the 19th century middle classes [The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars] (just now making its appearance in bookstores in paperback) will be inclined to bash the bourgeoisie any longer, at least not much. This superb and exhaustive tableau of the tortured highways and byways...

(The entire section is 1675 words.)

Robert Winder (review date 18 October 1999)

SOURCE: Winder, Robert. “A Perfect Music.” New Statesman 128, no. 4458 (18 October 1999): 53–54.

[In the following review, Winder offers a positive assessment of Mozart, praising its brevity and clarity.]

In recent years our biography machine has been calibrated to extra large, turning out fat works which sought to suggest, through sheer weight of words, both the magisterial stature of the subject and the insatiable curiosity of the author. Dickens, Tolstoy, Woolf, Lawson, Jenkins, Shaw, Botham—if they couldn't run to 600 pages, they weren't cutting the mustard. They seemed almost modelled on those roomy 19th-century novels that no one wrote any...

(The entire section is 1226 words.)

Jason Cowley (review date 24 January 2000)

SOURCE: Cowley, Jason. “Stolen Identity.” New Statesman 129, no. 4470 (24 January 2000): 57–58.

[In the following review, Cowley praises My German Question as a “dignified memoir” which convincingly addresses the question of why German-Jews didn't foresee the dangers facing them in Nazi Germany.]

Who, at some time, perhaps on catching a glimpse of themselves in a shop window, has not thought: who on earth is that? Who has then not gone on to wonder about the person they might have become, perhaps wanted to become, the person who occupies the shadowy margins of another, imaginary life. Peter Gay, the distinguished American cultural historian, has long...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

Johan Ahr (review date February 2000)

SOURCE: Ahr, Johan. Review of My German Question, by Peter Gay. Modern Judaism 20, no. 1 (February 2000): 116–23.

[In the following review, Ahr offers a positive assessment of My German Question, describing it as “an eloquent memoir whose strengths far outnumber its weaknesses.”]

The prolific Peter Gay, long Professor of History at Yale University, currently Director of the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, usually points his readers in the direction of the heroic, where civilization can be exalted. With the publication of My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin, an eloquent memoir whose strengths far...

(The entire section is 3123 words.)

Joseph Kerman (review date 23 March 2000)

SOURCE: Kerman, Joseph. “The Miracle Worker.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 5 (23 March 2000): 32–35.

[In the following review, Kerman compares Gay's Mozart with three other recent biographies of Mozart.]


Peter Gay's Penguin Life of Mozart [Mozart,] tells the story with grace and organizes it with dexterity. It is not pitched at a very high level, and the author has not found anything very distinctive to say about his subject. Gay is a distinguished historian of the Enlightenment, but his remarks on social or intellectual forces that might illuminate the life and works of Mozart are familiar and strike no sparks....

(The entire section is 4465 words.)

Doris L. Berger (review date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Berger, Doris L. “Poisonings.” Review of Politics 62, no. 2 (spring 2000): 365.

[In the following review, Berger offers a positive assessment of My German Question.]

Peter Gay's memoir [My German Question] will be welcomed by all who have admired his work over the past forty years. From his early studies of Eduard Bernstein (1958) and Voltaire (1959), to his essay on Weimar Culture (1968), his textbook on Modern Europe (1973, with R. K. Webb), and his many volumes on Freud and on The Bourgeois Experience (published from 1978 to 1998), Gay has had an enormous impact on how North Americans understand central and western Europe....

(The entire section is 1247 words.)

Noah Isenberg (review date spring–summer 2000)

SOURCE: Isenberg, Noah. “Thanks for All the Memories.” Salmagundi 126–27, (spring–summer 2000): 285–97.

[In the following excerpt, Isenberg praises My German Question for addressing the difficult and complex issues faced by Jews in Nazi Germany.]

Between 1933 and 1945, as National Socialism ran its course in Germany, Austria, and beyond, approximately half a million German-speaking émigrés found their way out of the fascist storm that engulfed Europe. Some fled immediately after Hitler's stunning ascent to power, in January 1933, or after the ominous burning of the Reichstag a mere four weeks later. Others waited, hoping that the Third Reich would...

(The entire section is 2916 words.)

Edgar Feuchtwanger (review date autumn 2000)

SOURCE: Feuchtwanger, Edgar. Review of My German Question, by Peter Gay. Journal of Jewish Studies 51, no. 2 (autumn 2000): 366.

[In the following review, Feuchtwanger argues that My German Question adds an insightful personal narrative to the existing body of historical studies on Berlin in the 1930s.]

Peter Gay's account of his boyhood in Nazi Germany [My German Question] is written with the sensitivity for hidden meanings and implications one would expect of him. His motive in writing his autobiographical reminiscences was, however, not only to recall and analyse his experiences, but to put on record his views on two central and connected...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Further Reading


Brock, Michael. “Forbidden Fruits.” History Today 37 (January 1987): 55–56.

Brock argues that Gay's ambitious project tends to meander and lacks a clearly structured, overarching argument in this review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion.

Collins, Anne. “The Sex Lives of Proper Victorians.” Macleans 97, no. 10 (5 March 1984): 54–55.

Collins offers a positive assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses.

Heinegg, Peter. “Downhill since Victoria.” America 186, no. 15 (6 May...

(The entire section is 488 words.)