Hayden White 1928-
(Full name Hayden V. White) American historian, critic, essayist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of White's career through 2000.
A prominent American historian, White is known for his analysis of the literary structures of the works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians and philosophers. In several of his works, White argues that historical studies are best understood not as accurate and objective representations of the past but as creative texts structured by narrative and rhetorical devices that shape historical interpretation. White's first major work, Metahistory (1973), presents a detailed outline for the study of the different narrative and rhetorical strategies found in the works of nineteenth-century European historians such as Leopold von Ranke and Jacob Burkhardt. Influenced by eighteenth-century scholar Giambattista Vico and literary critic Kenneth Burke, White proposes a theory of tropes, or symbolic modes, that constitutes the deep structure of historical thought. White elaborated and modified his arguments from Metahistory in two collections of essays, Tropics of Discourse (1978) and The Content of the Form (1987). Although his work has drawn criticism from historians and literary critics alike, White is widely respected for raising vital questions about the latent assumptions that inform all kinds of historical interpretation.
Born in Martin, Tennessee, in 1928, White received his undergraduate degree from Wayne State University in Michigan in 1951, his M.A. from the University of Michigan in 1952, and his Ph.D. in 1956. After serving as an instructor of history at Wayne State from 1955 to 1958, White worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, in 1958. White later became professor of history at Rochester and served as the departmental chairperson from 1962 to 1964. During his tenure there, White published an early essay, “The Burden of History” (1966), which raised many of the questions about the discipline of history that would be the focus of his later works. White left the University of Rochester in 1968 to take a position as a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he remained until 1973. In collaboration with other scholars, White served as an editor of the two-volume work The Emergence of Liberal Humanism (1966, 1970), The Uses of History (1968), and Giambattista Vico (1968). White's early work about Vico, an Italian scholar of history and literature, would inform his later writings on historical discourse. In 1973, White accepted a position as director for the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he was named Kenan Professor from 1976 to 1978. While at Wesleyan, White produced his first major work, Metahistory, and continued to publish essays about problems of historical knowledge and the relations between history and literature in journals and edited volumes. White left Connecticut in 1978 to accept a position as professor of the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he has since remained. In two collections of his essays, Tropics of Discourse and The Content of the Form, White continued to explore and expand upon the issues raised in his earliest works about the writing of history, or historiography. In Figural Realism (1999), a collection of essays written since publication of The Content of the Form, White elaborated on his arguments about tropes and responds to some of his critics.
All of White's works share a concern with combining literary criticism and historiography in order to develop a deeper understanding of historical discourse and cultural perspective. In Metahistory, White sets out the interpretive framework that guides much of his later work. Arguing for a sustained examination of the figurative features of historiographical texts, White asserts the importance of four tropes of consciousness that shape the work of the historian at every stage. Following Vico's work on rhetoric, White associates these four modes of historical consciousness with four figures of speech: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. Each of these figures has its own characteristic way of organizing pieces of information into a larger whole. White argues that this poetics of history, and not historical evidence alone, determines in advance a historian's perspective and interpretation. Thus, for White, the power of these different modes of representation highlights the non-scientific nature of the discipline of history. If one assumes a base level of honesty and skill on the part of the historian, White finds no reason to privilege one historical account over another based only on historical evidence. White asserts that the kind of history one chooses to tell is based on moral and aesthetic values that stand in sharp contrast to some objective, neutral understanding of historical evidence alone. White's Metahistory reveals a relativism that collapses the distinctions not only between historiography and the philosophy of history, but also fiction and historiography. For White, fictitious and historiographical events are both conveyed through similar representational strategies and hence, at this formal level, no differences exist between these two kinds of discourse. Along with this relativism, White's arguments in Metahistory have been criticized for their adherence to a formal, literary structuralism and a lack of attention to historical context. In the three collections of essays published since the appearance of Metahistory, White has sought to elaborate and modify his approach and to respond to his critics. In Tropics of Discourse, White strives to develop a less relativistic stance by arguing that the deep structures that define human consciousness have a certain stability that allows for the creation of sound representations of human perceptions of reality. He also suggests that it is not possible for some pieces of historical evidence to be represented within particular tropological structures, and hence the historian needs to rely only on those modes of discourse that will most accurately reflect the evidence in question. Although White's arguments in Tropics of Discourse placed some distance between his work and that of poststructuralist theorists with whom he had been associated, they also raised tensions within his own approach. White's next collection of essays, The Content of the Form, places less emphasis on the almost existential separation between life and narrative found in his early work, emphasizing instead the role ideology plays in the representation of historical processes and events. In Figural Realism, White again employs his theory of tropes to examine the work of Proust and Freud, arguing that history cannot serve as neutral ground for the interpretation of varied texts. White also examines the difficulties and ethical problems posed in finding effective ways to represent the Holocaust.
Since the publication of Metahistory, White's works have been criticized along fairly consistent lines. While White is widely respected as a thorough and wide-ranging scholar, many have faulted him for problems posed by his methodology. Historians have sharply criticized White for his alleged epistemological and moral relativism caused by his conflation of historical and fictional narrative, as well as his denial of the objective value of historical evidence. Some historians also have objected to White's use of literary history, and strongly contest his assertions about the impossibility of creating realistic representations of history. Critics have accused White of adhering to a rigid formalism that denies the plurality of forms of historical writing. In addition, White has been attacked by historians for his lack of attention to historical context within his own works. These and other criticisms from fellow historians have meant that White's work has limited his influence on the practice of writing history. In general, historians have not closely followed White's work since the publication of Metahistory, and have paid little critical attention to his efforts to respond to charges of relativism or developments in other areas of his thought. Despite encountering opposition within the field of history, White's works have enjoyed a warmer reception among literary theorists and critics, who find his efforts to highlight the literary quality of historiography compelling. Literary theorists commend White's attention to the role of figurative language in historical writings, but some have criticized his willingness to classify texts into rigid and seemingly self-contained rhetorical or narrative categories. Other commentators have noted White's consistent lack of attention to feminist or post-colonial theories that, like his own work, seek to challenge the limits imposed on historical and cultural understanding by dominant modes of narrative. These critics argue that these and other newly emerging theories may provide White with some of the alternative forms of representation that he has argued for throughout his career. Despite these sustained critiques, White continues to be widely respected among scholars in a variety of fields and for raising thought-provoking questions that have influenced the direction of historical inquiry in the late twentieth century.
The Emergence of Liberal Humanism: An Intellectual History of Western Europe, Volume I: From the Italian Renaissance to the French Revolution [with Willson H. Coates and J. Selwyn Schapio] (history) 1966
The Uses of History: Essays in Intellectual and Social History [editor] (essays) 1968
Giambattista Vico: An International Symposium [editor; with Giorgio Tagliacozzo] (nonfiction) 1969
The Emergence of Liberal Humanism: An Intellectual History of Western Europe, Volume II: Since the French Revolution [with Willson H. Coates and J. Selwyn Schapio] (history) 1970
The Ordeal of Liberal Humanism [editor; with Willson H. Coates] (nonfiction) 1970
The Greco-Roman Tradition (history) 1973
Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (history) 1973
Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (essays) 1978
Representing Kenneth Burke [editor; with Margaret Brose] (nonfiction) 1982
The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (essays) 1987
Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (history) 1999
SOURCE: A review of Metahistory, in Canadian Historical Review, Vol. LVI, 1975, pp. 192–93.
[In the following review, Grosskurth offers a positive assessment of Metahistory, which she hails as a “deliberately provocative book.”]
Professor Hayden White of Wesleyan University is nothing if not bold. He has an amplitude of mind which does not quail before the expectation of offending the most formidable of foes. In an article published last year in History and Theory, ‘Foucault Decoded: Notes from Underground,’ he pointed out the delusions under which French structuralists were deceiving themselves. Undisturbed by the murmurs of irritation,...
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SOURCE: A review of Metahistory, in American Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 4, October, 1975, pp. 961–63.
[In the following review, Ermarth offers a positive assessment of Metahistory.]
Metahistory is a daring, ingenious, and sometimes bewildering tour de force. White has produced a profoundly original “critique of historical reason,” based not upon the usual fare of idealist metaphysics or the logic of predictive science but upon linguistics—a discipline that may become the novum organon of the twentieth century. The author presents a unified field theory of history, which takes its departure from the linguistic structures and figurative...
(The entire section is 919 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Metahistory, in Comparative Literature, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 178–81.
[In the following review, Pierson praises Metahistory as “a bold and imaginative book” and outlines the book’s key points of contention that will likely be debated by scholars.]
The discipline of history has remained relatively free from the close critical scrutiny which, in recent years, has been laying bare the metaphysical and methodological foundations of such neighboring disciplines as literary criticism, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and sociology. Significant inquiry into the nature of historical thinking has been confined largely...
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SOURCE: A review of Tropics of Discourse, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 93, No. 5, December, 1978, pp. 1037–43.
[In the following positive review of Tropics of Discourse, LaCapra provides a close analysis of White's theoretical assertions and directs constructive criticism toward problematic aspects of White's philosophical assumptions.]
No one writing in this country at the present time has done more to wake historians from their dogmatic slumber than has Hayden White. One cannot over-emphasize his importance for contemporary historiography in general and intellectual history in particular. In the recent past, intellectual history has departed from...
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SOURCE: A review of Tropics of Discourse, in World Literature Today, Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer, 1979, p. 565.
[In the following review of Tropics of Discourse, Champagne commends White's insights into history's roots in storytelling.]
Addressed to the problem of whether historical writing can remain concerned with the past and with an objective view of facts, this collection of essays [Tropics of Discourse] presents history as a narrated story, a literary document with its origins in the human imagination. The title is based upon the etymology of “tropics” and “discourse” and is intent upon suggesting the “ways or manner” of “moving to...
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SOURCE: “The Problem of Reading,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 568–72.
[In the following excerpt, King offers a positive evaluation of Tropics of Discourse.]
It is increasingly apparent that our dominant model of theoretical self-understanding derives from linguistics and rhetoric. As in Saul Steinberg's whimsical sketches, we spin out a complexly dense fabric of sounds, letters, sentences, and paragraphs which constitute the possibility of individual and collective life. We discover ourselves in a text-world, “spoken” by a Discourse over which we have only illusory control. In the beginning was the Word, not man who is its...
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SOURCE: “The Presuppositions of Metahistory,” in History and Theory, Vol. XIX, No. 4, 1980, pp. 39–54.
[In the following essay, Mandelbaum examines the thesis of Metahistory and finds flaws in White's failure to differentiate between the work of historians and philosophers of history, as well as his misconception of historical data, reductive application of linguistic tropes, and acceptance of relativism.]
In the introductory chapter of his Metahistory, Hayden White explicitly sets forth the main presuppositions underlying that work. If one were to examine these presuppositions in the light of his other writings, one might uncover his reasons...
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SOURCE: “Hayden White and History,” in London Review of Books, September 7, 1987, pp. 17–18.
[In the following excerpt, Bann discusses the lasting significance of Metahistory and offers a positive assessment of The Content of the Form.]
In publishing his compendious work Metahistory in 1973, Hayden White gave currency both to a term and to a programme. His subtitle, The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, indicated the broad area of his investigations, but gave little sense of the radical originality of this programme, which was quite simply the re-examination of historiography in its written form. White had discovered a...
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SOURCE: “Recent Books on Narrative Theory: An Essay-Review,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 559–70.
[In the following excerpt, Raval offers a positive assessment of The Content of the Form.]
Contemporary narrative theory is concerned with the analysis of narrative discourse and narrativity in order to explain the many forms and structures of storytelling in world literature and their implications. It also focuses on possible relations existing among mythic, historical, and fictional narratives, and it reflects on the possibility and implications of reconceptualizing these relations for literary, cultural, and historiographic theory....
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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 102, No. 5, December, 1987, pp. 1191–196.
[In the following review of The Content of the Form, Flores provides an overview of White's conceptual assertions, which he then applies to examples of White's own stylistic phrases in the book.]
For most cultures, narratives are relatively unproblematic vehicles for transmitting honored traditions, and the critique or rejection of narrative (by recent historians, novelists, or theorists) may signal a cultural crisis of epochal proportions. In The Content of the Form Hayden White offers eight analytic essays on the work of several...
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SOURCE: “The Kingdoms of Theory and the New Historicism in America,” in Yale Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, March, 1988, pp. 207–36.
[In the following excerpt, Gunn discusses trends in contemporary historical theory and issues raised by White in The Content of the Form.]
Theory has become ubiquitous in literary and cultural studies, and it is sometimes difficult not to feel under siege. The study of verbal texts, like the study of cultural forms of almost any kind, has in many ways become a beleaguered enterprise in which the establishment of methodological and theoretical credentials now often takes precedence over all other intellectual procedures. “The aim of...
(The entire section is 1429 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2, June, 1988, pp. 192–94.
[In the following review, Tambling finds shortcomings in The Content of the Form.]
In this compilation of essays from 1979 onward [The Content of the Form], Hayden White engages four recurrent themes, though they are not set out as such: the relationship between history and narrative, the relationship between historical and fictional narrative, the place that interpretation has within the writing of history, and the Nietzschean theme of the uses and disadvantages of history for life, considering, predominantly, its political and ideological...
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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, p. 516.
[In the following review of The Content of the Form, Gross commends White's insightful ideas, but suggests that his “dense” and “formidable” prose may limit his audience.]
Hayden White begins “Foucault's Discourse: The Historiography of Anti-Humanism,” the longest of the eight substantial essays in The Content of the Form, with the observation that the work of Michel Foucault “is extraordinarily difficult to deal with in any short account.” The same is certainly true of White's own work. White describes his book as “some...
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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in History and Theory, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, October, 1988, pp. 282–87.
[In the following review of The Content of the Form, Dray commends White's book, but objects to his view of history as political propaganda.]
This book brings together eight of White's essays published between 1979 and 1985, all concerned in one way or another with theory of narrative and the problem of representation in the human sciences. It is thus a sequel to, or an updating of, his reflections on the same range of topics in Tropics of Discourse, and earlier in Metahistory. Four of the essays deal directly with problems...
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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in American Historical Review, Vol. 93, No. 4, October, 1988, pp. 1007–08.
[In the following review, LaCapra offers a positive assessment of The Content of the Form.]
The present book might be considered the third part of a trilogy whose two earlier installments were Metahistory (1973) and Tropics of Discourse (1978). Metahistory took the form of a systematic treatise that laid down the principles for Hayden White's poetics of historiography. Tropics of Discourse was a collection of essays that played significant variations on those thematic principles. The Content of the Form is...
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SOURCE: “Narrative Questions,” in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter, 1989, pp. 247–49.
[In the following review of The Content of the Form, Thomas finds shortcomings in White's rhetorical style and habit of positing significant questions that he has not fully resolved and cannot adequately answer.]
Although a historian, or perhaps because he is a historian, Hayden White has gained authority with literary critics, especially students of the novel, because his explorations into the relationship between narrative and historical representation have forced them to reconsider traditionally accepted distinctions between literary and historical...
(The entire section is 1657 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1, April, 1989, p. 180.
[In the following review, King offers a positive assessment of The Content of the Form.]
Over the last twenty years the philosophy of history has seen a radical shift in focus. No longer is the main point of contention whether history is a science; now it is whether and to what extent history and fiction are more alike than they are different from each other. The person most responsible for this is Hayden White, beginning with his magisterial Metahistory (1974) and continuing in his first collection of essays, Tropics of Discourse...
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SOURCE: “Narrative and History,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 538–39.
[In the following review, McCallum offers a positive assessment of The Content of the Form.]
No one who has read Hayden White's two previous books—Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe and Tropics of Discourse—can doubt his contribution to the reconceptualization of history. In Metahistory White drew on the formulations of narrative tropes in the literary theories of Northrop Frye and Kenneth Burke to examine the discursive strategies which underpinned a series of nineteenth-century histories by...
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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 377–79.
[In the following positive review, Engebretsen summarizes White's theoretical analysis and assertions in The Content of the Form. ]
The eight essays in this book will be familiar to White's readers, since all have appeared previously. Together, however, they provide more than a convenient collection of White's recent writing; they continue the argument developed in Tropics of Discourse and applied so successfully in Metahistory that history (and the human sciences generally) is thoroughly rhetorical. Rather than stylistic...
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SOURCE: “Narrativity and Historical Representation,” in Poetics Today, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 591–605.
[In the following excerpt, Rigney examines questions of narrativity in The Content of the Form and concludes that White's historiographic interpretation does not sustain a persuasive argument.]
In an exuberant passage written in 1966, Roland Barthes celebrated the universality of narrative (le récit). Narrative may be manifested in any number of different forms, he wrote, and may be communicated through any number of different media (film, painting, theatre), but it is to be found in every culture, at every period, in every place:...
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SOURCE: “Fiction and History: A Common Core?,” in International Studies in Philosophy, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 47–63
[In the following essay, Cebik examines the philosophical basis for conflating historical writing and literary fiction, as suggested by White's theoretical model of historical discourse and typological schema.]
In the last decade, a fad has swept across philosophic discussion of narrative discourse. In boldest terms, the fad consists of treating historical and fictional narrative on a par. Each has equal standing before the bar of human knowledge; each has equal if not identical epistemic standing.
The fad has many...
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SOURCE: “Hayden White's Critique of the Writing of History,” in History and Theory, Vol. 32, No. 3, October, 1993, pp. 273–95.
[In the following essay, Kansteiner examines the development of White's theoretical perspective, methodology, and postulations in Metahistory, Tropics of Discourse, and The Content of the Form, while discussing the critical reception of White's work among historians and literary theorists. ]
Recently, in the pages of this journal, F. R. Ankersmit has developed a postmodernist perspective on the writing of history.1 He argues that history always displays some postmodern characteristics...
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SOURCE: “Searching for an Audience: The Historical Profession in the Media Age—A Comment on Arthur Marwick and Hayden White,” in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 31, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 215–19.
[In the following essay, Kansteiner discusses the different historiographic perspectives of Marwick and White, and suggests that a new historiographic approach is needed to deal with questions raised by popular visual media, notably films and documentaries.]
The exchange of arguments between Arthur Marwick and Hayden White, published in recent issues of this Journal, is certainly not remarkable for having introduced new perspectives into the debate about the...
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SOURCE: “Narrative History as a Way of Life,” in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 31, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 221–28.
[In the following essay, Roberts examines the opposing theoretical positions of White and Arthur Marwick and defends Marwick's perspective of narrative history.]
Hayden White writes [in the essay ‘Response to Arthur Marwick,’]: ‘Historians have systematically built into their notion of their discipline hostility or at least a blindness to theory and the kind of issues that philosophers have raised about the kind of knowledge they have produced.’1 His explanation for this blindness seems to be in terms of a set of personal...
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SOURCE: “Hayden White (And the Content and the Form and Everyone Else) at the AHA,” in History and Theory, Vol. 36, No. 4, December, 1997, pp. 102–10.
[In the following essay, Partner relates her observations and experiences during a January 1997 meeting of the American Historical Association devoted to the subject of Hayden White.]
I had received the invitation to speak at the Humanities Center of Wesleyan University some weeks before the January meeting of the American Historical Association where I was going to read a paper at the session on the work of Hayden White organized by Richard Vann.1 Since the choice of topic for this evening was entirely...
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SOURCE: “The Reception of Hayden White,” in History and Theory, Vol. 37, No. 2, May, 1998, pp. 143–61.
[In the following essay, Vann provides a quantitative analysis of White's critical reception among professional historians and discusses aspects of White's work that have drawn criticism, notably his terminology and alleged relativism.]
The publication in 1973 of Hayden White's Metahistory, Brian Fay has recently written, marked a decisive turn in philosophical thinking about history.1 White might demur that he has no “philosophy of history,” since he, notoriously, has bracketed considerations of historical knowledge, as he has bracketed...
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SOURCE: A review of Figural Realism, in Clio, Vol. 29, No. 2, Winter, 2000, pp. 229–32.
[In the following review, Carrard provides an overview of the topics addressed by White in Figural Realism. Carrard expresses disapproval over White's decision to forego a unifying prefatory essay in the volume.]
Figural Realism collects essays written by Hayden White between 1988 and 1997, that is, after the publication of The Content of the Form in 1987. The oxymoronic title points to two of White's most basic theses: namely, that figurative language refers to reality “as faithfully and much more effectively than any putatively literalist idiom or...
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SOURCE: A review of Figural Realism, in Journal of Modern History, Vol. 72, No. 3, September, 2000, pp. 777–78.
[In the following review of Figural Realism, Megill finds flaws in White's rhetorical approach and the interpretative “multiplicity” of his historical perspective.]
Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect is the fourth book by Hayden White in a series that began with the raw, ungainly, and brilliantly suggestive Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973). Taken together, White's books and essays have done much to alter the theory of history. Although his focus on trope and...
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SOURCE: “Tropology and Narration,” in History and Theory, Vol. 39, No. 3, October, 2000, pp. 396–404.
[In the following review of Figural Realism, Carroll explores the shortcomings in White's application of tropes to narrative history and objects to the suggestion that historical writing is essentially indistinguishable from literary fiction.]
Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect by Hayden White is a selection of his articles published between 1988 and 1996. Like his previous, frequently cited anthologies—Tropics of Discourse and The Content of the Form—it is primarily concerned with narrative and figural discourse (or...
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SOURCE: A review of Figural Realism, in College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall, 2000, p. 171.
[In the following review, Folks regards Figural Realism as “an eloquent effort” in defense of poststructuralism.]
Building upon his previous studies Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) and Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978), White's latest book, Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, is an eloquent effort to defend an earlier tradition of poststructuralism that has come to seem less and less relevant to the social and historical issues that occupy contemporary...
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Ankersmit, F. R. “Hayden White's Appeal to the Historians.” History and Theory 37, No. 2 (May 1998): 182–93.
Ankersmit discusses the animosity of historians toward philosophers of history—particularly that of Arthur Marwick toward White—and defends White's theoretical inquiries into the nature of historical reality and historical writing.
Carroll, Noël. “Interpretation, History, and Narrative.” Monist 73, No. 2 (April 1990): 134–66.
Carroll provides analysis of White's complex theory of historical discourse as interpretive narrative writing. Carroll finds the “philosophical...
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