Peter Gay ( June 20, 1923 – May 12, 2015) was an American historian, educator and author. He was Sterling Professor of History 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 authored over 25 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).
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 editor of The American Scholar after the death of Hiram Haydn in 1973, and served on that magazine’s editorial 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”
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. Accomapnying 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 Award in 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 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.
Gay died at his home in Manhattan on May 12, 2015, at the age of 91.