Hayden White Criticism - Essay

Phyllis Grosskurth (review date 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

Michael Ermarth (review date October 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Stanley Pierson (review date Spring 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1397 words.)

Dominick LaCapra (review date December 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3424 words.)

Roland A. Champagne (review date Summer 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Richard King (review date Summer 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)

Maurice Mandelbaum (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7609 words.)

Stephen Bann (review date 7 September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1828 words.)

Suresh Raval (review date Autumn 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Ralph Flores (review date December 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2732 words.)

Giles Gunn (review date March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Jeremy Tambling (review date June 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1106 words.)

David S. Gross (review date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

William H. Dray (review date October 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2869 words.)

Dominick LaCapra (review date October 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)

Brook Thomas (review date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Richard H. King (review date April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Pamela McCallum (review date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 810 words.)

Terry Engebretsen (review date Fall 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)

Ann Rigney (review date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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:...

(The entire section is 4026 words.)

L. B. Cebik (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7779 words.)

Wulf Kansteiner (essay date October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10827 words.)

Wulf Kansteiner (essay date January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1721 words.)

Geoffrey Roberts (essay date January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2808 words.)

Nancy Partner (essay date December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4445 words.)

Richard T. Vann (essay date May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9449 words.)

Philippe Carrard (review date Winter 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1384 words.)

Allan Megill (review date September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1055 words.)

Noël Carroll (review date October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4370 words.)

Jeffrey J. Folks (review date Fall 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 881 words.)