Hayden White Critical Essays

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.