Peter Gay honored at weekend symposium

This past weekend a small group of distinguished scholars descended upon the Purple Valley to honor one of their own. Friends, colleagues and former students of Peter Gay, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, gathered in Griffin to participate in “Enlightenment, Passion, and Modernity: a Symposium in Honor of Peter Gay.”

The two-day symposium was an outgrowth of a forthcoming Festschrift, a volume of essays in honor of Professor Gay.

President of the College Harry C.Payne who studied under Gay, and Professor of History Thomas Kohut, organized the symposium in order to honor Gay and present him with the Festschrift. Meredith Hoppin, the director of the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences, also helped organize the symposium.

At the symposium, 13 of the 18 scholars who contributed essays to the Festschrift delivered shortened versions of their essays. Two to four essays were grouped together according to theme in sessions which included: “Paths to the Modern,” “Portraits of European Cultural Modernism,” “Structures of European Cultural Modernism” and “Culture, Politics, and Society in Twentieth Century Germany.”

Payne explained that the themes were intended to reflect the scope of Gay’s interests.

“The amazing thing is that Peter [Gay] could get up here and speak on almost anyone of these specific topics and do a better job then the rest of us,” Payne noted.

Gay, a native of Berlin who immigrated to the United States in 1941, is widely accepted to be one of the 20th century’s most influential cultural and intellectual historians of modern Europe.

“He is an extraordinarily accomplished cultural historian…and truly one of the great scholars of this, or any, generation,” Payne said.

Gay is the author of more then a dozen books examining the cultural history of France and Germany, and is best known for his two volume work “The Enlightenment: An Interpretation,” as well as for the five-volume “The Bourgeois Experience: From Victoria to Freud.”

Gay himself seemed a bit in awe of the attention lavished on him at the symposium.

“I’m actually kind of surprised,” Gay said when asked his opinion of the symposium and the book. “I never expected something like this. I am, however, extremely honored. And I think that it is going very well.”

The symposium began late Friday afternoon and lasted throughout the day on Saturday. Although only participants and faculty appeared for the opening presentation and dinner on Friday, Saturday’s sessions drew standing room only crowds, including faculty, guests, local residents and students.

Payne said he was pleased by the number or people who came out to honor Gay.

“I think this is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon,” he said. “We’ve got a sold out crowd.”

Kohut said, “I am just glad that all of us got the opportunity to show our appreciation for Peter. You, usually don’t get a chance to say thank you to the people that influence your life and career, and even when you do it seems inadequate. This was a truly wonderful way, I feel, to show respect, fondness and gratitude to Peter.”

The audience listened to lectures from highly distinguished scholars in fields ranging from the history of medicine, psychoanalysis and literary studies, to political and intellectual history. All of the scholars credited Gay for profoundly influencing their work and their lives.

Payne said organizers decided to make the symposium a public event when the realized the preeminence of the scholars who would be participating.

“As several very fine historians would be attending, we decided it might be pleasurable and interesting to have a public symposium, largely consisting of shorter versions of the papers in the volume, so that here could be a public celebration and a chance for this community to benefit from the presence of such a gathering of scholars,” he said.

John Valliere ’01, who attended some of the sessions on Saturday, said he decided to come despite his ignorance of Peter Gay’s work.

“I definitely thought that it was worthwhile,” he said. “I’m glad that the Williams community had the chance to see so many fine scholars. Personally, I don’t know much about Peter Gay, but he seemed to be a man of many interests, and that was great because it resulted in a wide range of topics being discussed. I’m glad I had the chance to attend it.”

Joseph Bourassa ’99 said he found the essay of Stefan Collini of Cambridge University, to be particularly interesting. The essay was entitled “The European Modernist as Anglican Moralist: The Later Social Criticism of T.S. Eliot.”

“The lecture about T.S. Eliot gave a breadth to Eliot’s vision which I had never experienced before,” Bourassa said. “Professor Collini portrayed Eliot not merely as a poet, but as a social activist, whose activism was closely tied to his poetry.”

Although he no longer teaches at Yale, Gay is far from ending his life as a scholar. He recently accepted a position as the head of a new humanities center at the New York Public Library.

When asked about his future writing plans, Gay responded, “As I am starting up a new humanities division of the New York Public Library right now, I am not working on any big projects. Talk to me in a year, though.”

The Festschrift was edited by Mark Micale, a professor at the University of Manchester, and Robert Dietle, a professor at Western Kentucky University, and will be published by Standford University Press.

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