Gay was born in Berlin 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. Gay was the interim or of The American Scholar after the death of Hiram Haydn in 1973, and served on that magazine's orial board for many years.Sander L. Gilman, a literary historian at Emory University, called Gay "one of the major American historians of European thought, period".
Born in June 1923 as Peter Joachim Fröhlich in Berlin, he and his family fled from Nazi Germany in 1939 and arrived in the U.S. 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 received a BA in 1946 and at Columbia University where he received his MA in 1947 and his PhD in 1951. Gay taught political science at Columbia between 1948–1955 and history from 1955–1969. He taught at Yale University from 1969 until his retirement in 1993.
According to the American Historical Association's Award Citation, Gay's range of "scholarly achievements is truly remarkable". The New York Times described him in 2007 as "the country's pre-eminent cultural historian".
Gay's 1959 book, Voltaire's Politics: The Poet as Realist, examined Voltaire as a politician and how his politics influenced the ideas that Voltaire championed in his writings. Accompanying Voltaire's Politics was Gay's collection of essays, The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment (1964). 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 Awardin History and Biography. Annelien de Dijn argues that Gay, in The Enlightenment, 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. His 1968 book, Weimar Culture, was a study on the cultural history of the Weimar Republic.
Gay was also a champion of psychohistory and an admirer of Sigmund Freud. Starting in 1978 with Freud, Jews and Other Germans, an examination of the impact of Freudian ideas on German culture, his writing demonstrated an increasing interest in psychology. Many of his works focused on the social impact of psychoanalysis. For example, in A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis, he linked Freud's atheism to his development of psychoanalysis as a field. He wrote history books applying Freud's theories to history, such as The Bourgeois Experience: From Victoria to Freud. He also ed a collection of Freud's writings called The Freud Reader. His writing was generally favorable, though occasionally critical, toward Freud's school of thought.
Gay's 2007 book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy explores the modernist movement in the arts from the 1840s to the 1960s, from its beginnings in Paris to its spread to Berlin and New York City, ending with its death in 1960s pop art.
Gay died at his home in Manhattan on May 12, 2015, at the age of 91.
Gay was married to Ruth Gay née Slotkin (died 2006) in 1959 and had three stepchildren.
Awards and recognition
Gay received numerous awards for his scholarship, including the National Book Awardin 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.
Art and Act: On Causes in History— Manet, Gropius, Mondrian, 1976.
Freud, Jews, and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture, 1978.
The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, 5 vols., 1984–1998, including "The Education of the Senses" (1984), "The Tender Passion" (1986), "The Cultivation of Hatred" (1993), "The Naked Heart" (1995), and "Pleasure Wars" (1998).
^Rodrigo Brandão, "Can a Skeptic be a Reformer? Skepticism in Morals and Politics During the Enlightenment: The Case of Voltaire," Skepticism and Political Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (2015)