Peter Gay Has Died

by John Holbo on May 13, 2015

New York Times obituary.

I guess I’m the one who should make this little post, since for the last couple weeks I’ve been talking, a bit, about his classic book, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. I didn’t know very much about the man, myself, before reading his obit this morning. I haven’t really thought much about his legacy – how much of what he wrote was valid, or is still valid in light of subsequent historiography. But he has had an influence on me. In sophomore (?) year of college I heard about him from a Freudian psychology prof. I struggled through The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. It was maybe the first ‘proper’ intellectual history I read. I found it fascinating. But I had such screwy ideas at the time that the details didn’t really stick. Maybe I should go back and give it a reread in honor of the man. Well, maybe not the whole thing …

Any thoughts about Peter Gay?



Henry 05.13.15 at 3:08 am

He came to teach in Georgetown for a half semester once and I sat in on his seminar; highly learned, but rather obviously phoning it in, and pulled a Bartleby when he was informed that he was actually expected to grade the papers of the Ph.D. students whom he was teaching.


nick s 05.13.15 at 3:34 am

I read some of his 18th century stuff in my time, which was not his time, and it was clear then that it was influential in the way that so many of those 50s and 60s texts were: a platform to be danced upon until you could see the splinters.


Bruce Wilder 05.13.15 at 3:47 am

I had such screwy ideas at the time that the details didn’t really stick.

At the time . . .

I admired his Enlightenment a great deal, but I doubt that it was the sort of work, where the details are really intended to matter. He used details to create a colorful impression, but it is the impression the reader was intended to remember.


Elf Sternberg 05.13.15 at 4:32 am

The Education of the Senses came out when I was in high school, and I badgered my librarian to get us a copy. All I can recall now is that, if you write Victoriana, the stories of Mabel Loomis Todd are wonderfully inspirational.


geo 05.13.15 at 4:46 am

The final section of volume 1 of The Enlightenment, “David Hume: The Complete Modern Pagan,” is particularly good. Gay identified deeply with Hume, as he did later with Freud. He found in them, as he did in Richard Hofstadter, to whom he was very close, an ideal he aspired to: skeptical, stoical, disenchanted, urbane — the quintessential 1950s American liberal intellectual.

Gay’s concluding paragraph on Hume was, to a Catholic youth wondering if he could survive his loss of faith, profoundly moving. It held out a chastened hope, which sustained me through much subsequent turmoil. I salute Gay’s melancholy, mocking shade.


bill benzon 05.13.15 at 11:41 am

I read most of his five volumes on Victorian sexuality as they came out, but I don’t remember very much about them, though I’ve got a quote or two here and there in this or that publication. I remember a reviewer of one of those volumes remarking that Gay had all the data and Foucault had all the ideas. That seems to point in the right direction.


Don Metz 05.13.15 at 12:49 pm

I met Peter and Ruth in the ’70s when Peter began his tenure at Yale. They hired me to design a house for them near New Haven and we became close friends. Peter loved learning about architecture. His curiosity and excitement during the design process always inspired me to go to the next step, to reach farther. He was a man of many skills and a good friend. R.I.P Peter.


Hogan 05.13.15 at 4:12 pm

This bit from the back matter of The Enlightenment has always stuck with me:

The central question in the historiography of the Renaissance is: did the Renaissance exist? The debate continues. I find myself in wholehearted agreement with those recent scholars who, while refining and modifying Burckhardt, accept his major premise: I agree that there was a Renaissance, and only one Renaissance, and that it took place in the Renaissance.


Aneesa 05.13.15 at 9:51 pm

RIP Mr. Gay, my Mother was his caretaker, he passed away as she held his hands and took his last breathe. He was a wonderful man to whom will be greatly missed not only by his family but extended families & friends.

Now you may rest in paradise with Ruthie.

Bibi & Aneesa


Harold 05.14.15 at 2:20 am

I have read and re-read The Enlightenment: the Rise of Modern Paganism. It is a wonderful read.


Harold 05.14.15 at 2:40 am

The Party of Humanity — that was the other one. So good.


LFC 05.14.15 at 3:33 am

I’ve read very little Peter Gay (probably thumbed through a bit of The Bourgeois Experience and maybe read a shortish piece or two, though my sense, possibly incorrect, is that he preferred to write in the long form). He was on the PhD committee of an old friend of mine a long time ago (first part of ’80s). He was prolific with a capital P and obvs. had wide interests and learning. Even if one does not share his very favorable view of Freud, Gay’s biography of Freud is, I’m sure, worth reading if one is interested in its subject. And Harold’s plug, above, for The Enlightenment makes me think I should take a look at it.


Harold 05.14.15 at 3:46 am

The one to read, in addition to Gay, though it is written with a deceptively light touch — even lighter than that of Peter Gay — is Paul Hazard’s The Crisis of the European Mind, 1680-1715. New edition has an introduction by Anthony Grafton.

I would like to read some of Peter Gay’s other books, also.

Speaking of the 18th c., last year I read Marc Fumaroli’s When the World Spoke French, which I liked very much, despite awkwardness of the translation in spots. After a while you didn’t notice it.


Jo Walton 05.14.15 at 3:31 pm

I absolutely loved his books on the Enlightenment. After I read them, I realised he was the same Peter Gay whose memoir of escaping from Nazi Germany I’d read. Suddenly I came around a dark corner and there was the Holocaust staring me in the face, not just the statistics but the individuals lost and the huge loss to all of us that that was. Peter Gay only just made it, we are so lucky he survived and wrote those wonderful scholarly thought-provoking books — and it’s so painful think of all the other people who didn’t, and what they might have given us. Death is a terrible thing, but how much better that he died now than then.


BillWAF 05.15.15 at 3:45 am

It is well known that when Gay was teaching at Columbia he was rather dismissive of the work of E.P. Thompson. The man was dated long before he died. He was seemed incapable of understanding what the medical model had done to Freud.

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