Hayden White's Perplexing History

The author of Metahistory, one of the most influential books in the humanities over the past four decades, died Monday. Scott McLemee takes him out of the poststructuralist pigeonhole.

March 9, 2018
Hayden White

As of this writing Thursday afternoon, just three notices of the Monday death of Hayden White have turned up in Google News -- and only one of them in English: a tribute posted to the website of Wesleyan University, where White directed the Center for the Humanities from 1973 to 1976.

The writer of that tribute, Michael S. Roth, who is Wesleyan’s president, also contributed a preface to White’s Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) when Johns Hopkins University Press issued a 40th anniversary edition (slightly behind schedule in 2014). The appearance of that edition may be the most succinct index of White’s stature in the humanities; the book has remained in print all the while.

A professor emeritus of history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, White was also a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. And it's possible his name will ring a bell with some of Inside Higher Ed's older readers for his involvement in an important legal decision. In 1972, while a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, White sued L.A.’s chief of police “seeking to enjoin the alleged illegal expenditure of public funds in connection with the police department's conduct of covert intelligence gathering activities at UCLA,” as the California Supreme Court summed up the issue in its 1975 decision on the matter. White complained that members of the LAPD were registering as students and filing reports on class discussions, as well as joining university-recognized organizations, even though these investigations "pertain to no illegal activity or acts."

The state Supreme Court found merit in the complaint and reversed a lower court’s ruling in favor of the police. “In the course of classroom debate,” the decision read, “some thoughts will be hazarded only as the trial balloons of new theories. Yet such propositions, that are tentative only, will nevertheless be recorded by police officers, filtered through the minds of the listening informers, often incorrectly misstated to their superiors and sometimes maliciously distended. Only a brave soul would dare to express anything other than orthodoxy under such circumstances. But the classroom of the university should be a forum of free expression; its very function would largely be destroyed by the practices described in the complaint before us.”

Trained as a historian at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, White in his early work focused on medieval religion. “The Roman Catholic Church was something I knew absolutely nothing about when I went to college,” he said in an interview conducted in 2007. “I found it amazing that an institution based upon a miracle, which by definition cannot be comprehended except through faith, could sustain itself and dominate even the monarchs and the political powers for over a thousand years.”

By the late 1960s, White’s interests were following a decidedly interdisciplinary course. Commissioned to write a survey of 19th-century historiography, he did so with an eye to the crisis in the historical profession’s cultural authority he found expressed in literature. In Hedda Gabler, Ibsen has his tragic heroine express the special misery of being married to a historian: “You should just try it,” she says, “to hear nothing but the history of civilization, morning, noon, and night!” Likewise with poor Dorothea in Middlemarch, finding herself wedded to a scholar of ancient mythologies utterly indifferent to Rome (and to Dorothea herself) when they go there on honeymoon. Another two historians far along the path to total desiccation are the central characters in André Gide’s The Immoralist and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea -- though each is finally liberated through some variety of Nietzschean disdain for historical consciousness, at least in the form he saw it taking in modern Europe. It “promoted a debilitating voyeurism in men,” as White puts it, “made them feel that they were latecomers to a world in which everything worth doing had already been done …”

During the very period when historical study was establishing itself as a fully professionalized academic field, then -- one with aspirations to methodological rigor and positivist certainty as to its findings -- the discipline was in danger of becoming irrelevant, if not pernicious, as a force in society. White’s response to this intuition was, in effect, to double down on both historical consciousness and its critique. The notion that history could establish knowledge of the past in more or less the same sense that the physical and biological sciences were doing with the natural world had to give way to understanding that historiography is exactly what the name indicates: a kind of writing -- and one in which the standards for what counts as meaningful, cohesive and worthwhile are themselves the product of historical development.

Pursuing such a line of thought meant turning to sources outside history as a profession. The usual shorthand here is to say that White’s thinking converged with the work of structuralist and poststructuralist theorists in Europe -- and indeed, White published one of the earliest papers on Michel Foucault to appear in an Anglophone journal. But emphasizing the French connection seriously understates the distinctiveness of the conceptual tool kit he put together. To analyze the modes of storytelling historians found themselves using to narrate the past, he borrowed from Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism. For insights into historians’ rhetorical patterns, he turned to Kenneth Burke’s classic essay “Four Master Tropes.” And White’s interest in the aesthetic dimension of historical writing, while owing something to Roland Barthes, seems to have been inspired by Italian philosophers (especially Giambattista Vico and Benedetto Croce) rather than Parisian semioticians.

The point of Metahistory was not to offer a master theory of history, or even to offer an alternative model for how historians should go about their business. In the last book White published during his lifetime, The Practical Past (Northwestern University Press, 2014), he paid tribute to the lasting effect on him of studying, as an undergraduate at Wayne State University, with “one of the great teachers of his generation, William J. Bossenbrook, who taught us that history was primarily a story of the clash of ideas, values, and dreams (rather than of bodies and machines only) … [and that] history must remain a mystery to be pondered, more than a puzzle to be solved.” The point of its study was not to establish the final, definitive word on a subject, but to ensure that the conversation remains lively. He liked to compare the historian's task to what the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides said about interpreting the Bible: since the creation was vast and complicated and the divine purposes beyond our understanding, the goal must be to increase the number of possible interpretations, not to decrease them.

A number of people have commented in online forums about how intimidating they found the prospect of studying the author of so renowned a work of scholarship -- only to find him unexpectedly warm and astonishingly unpresupposing. On Facebook, for example, Satya P. Mohanty, a professor of English at Cornell University, recalled White as “one of the most generous men I have encountered in the academy.”

In our discussion following my request for permission to quote him, Mohanty recounted participating in a seminar White conducted during a session of the School of Criticism and Theory in the late 1970s. Mohanty disagreed with White’s approach to Marx and was not shy about challenging it, despite his status as a second-year graduate student. “None of that ever mattered to Hayden,” Mohanty told me; there was “never a trace of condescension.” They were “definitely at odds with each other intellectually,” he says. “I wasn't just being pesky. He could probably see that it was a real debate.” They remained in touch across the years -- neither, it seems, getting the other to change his position.

As for the significance and influence of his work, especially his best-known book, White seems to have had a wry estimate of its importance. Metahistory "still sells a lot," he said around the time of its 20th anniversary. But, he added, "I don't think people really want to read it; it's an intimidatingly long book. It's very tiresome and repetitive. Most people who read it read some of the introduction and maybe read around a bit. But no one reads it through. By the way, I don't think that in order to have an effect, you must produce books that people want to read. It's the project that interests people and not so much a particular way of doing it. I think the gesture of the project is toward innovation and changing the way we think about history." That project will continue, even in his absence.


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