Hayden White: An Introduction
The purpose of history is often described as revealing the ‘truth’ about the past. Hayden White, one of the most important figures of the last century in the historical discipline, helped to undermine this idea. He did this by comparing historical writing to the writing of literature, noticing that there are many similarities between them. Therefore, this makes it hard for the historian to write anything significant without obscuring ‘what really happened’. Naturally, this has led to White becoming a divisive theorist among historians. Herman Paul believes that White emerged as a passionate rebel against scientism and a defender of humanist values. However, after the publication of Metahistory, Eric H. Monkkonen suspected that only a handful of historians would actually concur with his theories. As a prolific writer for over 40 years, this article aims to serve as an introduction to some of White’s key ideas, while arguing for the continued relevance of his work for the modern historian. This will be done by looking at three main concepts found in his work. I will start by questioning the different factors that can influence a historian while they write, and the implications this could have for the historian’s ability to accurately reflect the past. Finally, I will answer the resultant question: What is the point of doing history if its purpose is not to reveal the truth about the past?
Metahistory and the Process of Writing History
Hayden White’s most famous piece of work is Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973). It is mostly remembered for the extensive set of theory found in the introduction covering how the historian uses certain techniques to give their work meaning. A historian may be able to order a set of events or create a story out of them, but this itself does not constitute the discipline of history. When White is using the term ‘meaning’ he is simply referring to questions that appear while writing history such as ‘What does it all add up to?’ or ‘What is the point of it all?’. The term ‘Metahistory’ itself refers to the idea that that below the surface a piece of history writing is poetic – based on moral and aesthetic choices – and bound by its use of language.
One of the ways White suggests this is done is by ‘emplotment’ or, in other words, the type of story being told. He suggests there are at least four forms of doing this: Romance, Tragedy, Comedy and Satire. These were borrowed from the literary critic Northrop Frye. A Romantic plot in historical writing would emphasise the victory of good over evil. These histories tend on the whole to be positive, emphasising the ability of humankind to overcome the limitations of the world it lives in. A Satire is the opposite of this; a history with this emplotment would emphasise the inability of humankind to overcome the reality of the world. History is instead meaningless. A Comedy suggests that humanity can temporarily triumph over the nature of the world; the different forces at play in history reconcile and harmonise. The world is ultimately better as a result of these conflicts. A Tragic history is similar, but instead of a positive reconciliation of historical forces, humanity is reminded of their inherent limitations and those of the world.
When approaching a piece of historical writing it may seem at first hard to identify these archetypal stories. This is because White suggests histories can be plotted in multiple ways at the same time, for example you could have a Satirical Comedy. He would later return to this topic in the essay Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth in Historical Representation suggesting that it was hard to give certain historic events a particular type of plot. For example, although a historian could try and make the story of the Third Reich into a comedy, this could be disproved overwhelmingly by the events themselves.
Hayden White also identified four ways in which a historical explanation takes form as an argument. He often uses the term ‘historical units’ while describing these. This phrase simply refers to anything the historian can study, such as events, peoples and processes. A Formist argument sees historical units as independent from each other and seeks to dispel any connections between them. An Organicist argument sees historical units as important in terms of their place in the larger whole. A Mechanistic argument looks for laws that govern the whole of history. The most obvious example of this is Marxist historiography, which in its most basic form looks at the interactions between economic productivity and class relationships. The Contextualist approach is a mixture of Formism and Organism and seeks to isolate historical units before connecting them to their wider background.
White also identifies four ideological positions historians can take: Anarchism, Conservatism, Liberalism and Radicalism. He emphasises these terms are not referring to any particular political parties, but specific views of history and time. A Conservative view sees history as progressing to the current state it is in now, regarding it as the best form of society humanity can realistically aim for. A Liberal imagines an improved future, but suggests it will take time to get there. Radicals believe that a ‘utopian’ state is imminent, whereas Anarchists believe that man has fallen from a utopian age and that a return to it can be made at any time.
By showing all the different components that can go into historical writing, Hayden White reminds us that history is ultimately a representation of the past and there can be many representations of a single event. This is hardly a bold claim among historians, but White’s specific interest in the literary nature of historical accounts reminds us that these representations are influenced by the limitations of language and the techniques the writer uses to make sense of the past. When approaching Metahistory it is important to remember not to separate the introduction from the rest of the book. His theories derive from a study of nineteenth-century and Western historiography and should be placed within their relevant context. Although White is flexible with combinations of these different components, they are perhaps still too restrictive in understanding the literary construction of all historiography. This is due to the fact they derive from a study of a specific temporal and intellectual tradition.
History and Fiction
If history can be said to have many of the same elements as literature, does that mean that historical writing is close to being fictional? Most accusations against Hayden White often argue this is what he is suggesting. Peter Burke, a reviewer of Metahistory, stated that for White ‘the historical work’ was ‘essentially the same as a work of fiction, in that it is a verbal structure that represents reality’. However, White’s view, especially in his later works, is more nuanced than this.
This can be seen in the essays The Historical Text as Literary Artifact and The Fictions of Factual Representation both collected in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978). In the former he states ‘If there is an element of the historical in all poetry, there is an element of poetry in every historical account of the world.’ White is not suggesting that there is no difference between fiction and fact, but rather that the distinction between them is not as clear as it first seems. The historian’s work is a combination of fiction and fact, as it puts events into a ‘narrative’ that requires the use of literary techniques.
In The Fictions of Factual Representations White himself responds to potential criticisms, by stating that historians are concerned with events that which are ‘in principle observable or perceivable’ whereas literature, on top of these, is concerned with ‘imagined, hypothetical, or invented ones’. The historian is therefore concerned with actual events that happened. White is simply suggesting that the historian is unable to represent these without resorting to techniques that add a fictional element.
The Purpose of History
If history is not supposed to, or unable to, uncover objective truths about the past, then what purpose does it serve? Hayden White does not see the fictional element of history as a hinderance and states that accepting this would not automatically degrade it to the status of propaganda. In fact, he sees that recognising the literary nature of history would be liberating for scholars, as it allows the historian to become more self-conscious. This helps them avoid the tendency to become captive to the ideological presumptions they may have while writing.
In The Politics of Historical Interpretation, White takes this a step further to suggest that treating history as if it can reveal genuine truths influences and limits political thinking. This is because it tries to make sense of the past and give it meaning, whereas history in reality is meaningless. If a person becomes too attached to a consistent way of viewing the past, it can stifle their innovative and creative thinking. Hayden White criticises both Marxist and ‘Capitalist’ approaches to history, suggesting that the former ‘is no more visionary than its bourgeois counterpart’. This may appear at first confusing, as Marxism is usually associated with radical and ambitious politics. However, both approaches are equally guilty of being anti-utopian. By imposing meaning on the past, they restrict the ability of individuals to create meaning for themselves in the present. Therefore, White is stating that the purpose of history is not to understand the past, but rather to be liberated from it.
This theme can also be found in the essay, The Burden of History, one of White’s earliest pieces of work. It states that historical studies should be transformed ‘to allow the historian to participate positively in the liberation of the present from the burden of history’. In response to this thinking, Herman Paul has coined the term ‘liberation historiography’, suggesting that White’s prime motivation in writing was politically oriented in this way. This idea is persuasive, but can perhaps be overstated. White’s comparisons between literature and history also help to highlight his particular concern with history’s uneasy position as a discipline, one that strides the boundaries between science and art, real and imagined.
Hayden White’s works are perhaps understandably controversial, as he helped to undermine long-held ideas regarding the scientific nature of history. However, they serve as an important reminder that any representation of the past is inevitably influenced by the way in which it is created. Some of these ideas are not controversial among historians today, for example that a scholar needs to conscious of the biases they have while writing. Nevertheless, Hayden White’s work gives new insight into the way a historical account is shaped by the language and strategies it uses to give itself meaning. It is impossible to write history without relying on some form of literary technique which helps to obscure the truth. Regardless of a person’s opinion on the purpose of history, White ultimately allows historians to be more self-conscious by showing many of the components that they will inevitably use while writing, and this can never be harmful.
Written by Liam Greenacre
The works of Hayden White used in this article are:
White, Hayden. Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
———. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
———. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
———. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
For a complete bibliography and a very good introduction to the political nature of his work see:
Paul, Herman. Hayden White. Key Contemporary Thinkers. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.
For the reception of Hayden White among historians:
Vann, Richard T. “The Reception of Hayden White.” History and Theory 37, no. 2 (1998): 143-61.