In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hayden White

  • Introduction
  • Overviews, Introductions, and Special Issues
  • Influences, Reception, Interlocutors, and (Missed) Encounters
  • Academia, (Anti-)Disciplinarity, and the Historical Profession
  • History, Historiography, and Metahistory
  • Rhetoric and Tropology
  • Fiction, Emplotment, Narrativity, and Narratology
  • Formalism, Figuralism, the Figure-Fulfillment Model, and the Modernist Event
  • Modernism, Postmodernism, Constructivism, Deconstruction, and the Linguistic Turn
  • The Holocaust, Traumatic History, and Witness Literature
  • Ethics, Politics, Existentialism, and the Practical Past

Literary and Critical Theory Hayden White
Karyn Ball, Ewa Domańska
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0084


Hayden White (b. 12 July 1928–d. 5 March 2018) was a groundbreaking critic of conventional historiography whose emphasis on the moral, rhetorical, aesthetic, and fictive valences of narrative as a mode of figuration unsettled professional historians’ tendency to disavow the role of the imagination and form in the selective arrangement of evidence. Despite Metahistory’s manifest affinity with structuralist approaches, White’s 1973 monograph is widely viewed as having inaugurated a “postmodernist” critique of narrative historiography that resonated with the growing influence of a postwar, anti-positivist “linguistic turn” stressing the figural dynamics of texts as objects of discourse. In grasping the implications of referential fragility, White articulated a quintessentially Nietzschean antipathy toward naively mimetic notions of “truth” that govern history treated as an objective mirror rather than as an imaginative construction of the past. In consonance with Roland Barthes, White recognized that narrative historiography shared stylistic ground with realist fiction in adhering to poetic conventions that shore up the “referential illusion,” or the reader’s feeling that descriptive writing bears an intimate relationship with a sometimes arbitrary and disordered reality. Insisting upon historical narrative’s status as a verbal structure, White additionally demonstrated that history’s figural operations are irreducible to a rigorously logical methodology and “science” as such insofar as history’s form reflects choices that cannot be evaluated on epistemological grounds. For this reason, while traditional historians continue to disavow the import of White’s interventions, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences attests to his abiding influence beyond the critique of historiography. Before the appearance in 1973 of the textbook The Greco-Roman Tradition and his monograph Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, White translated Carlo Antoni’s From History to Sociology: The Transition in German Historical Thinking from Italian (with a foreword by Benedetto Croce) (1959); co-authored two textbooks respectively entitled The Emergence of Liberal Humanism: An Intellectual History of Western Europe, Vol. 1: From the Italian Renaissance to the French Revolution (1966) with Willson H. Coates and J. Salwyn Schapiro; and, again with Coates, The Ordeal of Liberal Humanism: An Intellectual History of Western Europe, Vol. 2: Since the French Revolution (1970). White also edited The Uses of History: Essays in Intellectual and Social History (1968) and co-edited Giambattista Vico: An International Symposium with Giorgio Tagliacozzo (1969). With his wife, Professor Margaret Brose, White co-edited Representing Kenneth Burke in 1982, but following Metahistory, he primarily published essays, some of which reappeared in four collections: Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978); The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (1987); Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (1999); and The Practical Past (2014). The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory 1957–2007, an anthology of White’s essays, co-edited and introduced by Robert Doran, appeared in 2010.

Overviews, Introductions, and Special Issues

To date, Paul 2011 offers the only monograph in English overviewing White’s work as a whole. Korhonen 2006 features commentaries on White’s textual approach to historical writing, and his debunking of the disciplinary standpoint that treats the presentation of historical referents as “scientific” and, therefore, as fundamentally more authoritative than writing that depicts fictional referents. Ankersmit, et al. 2009 includes essays that reflect on the philosophical dimensions of White’s preoccupations and his role as both a historian and a cultural critic. Nuanced interpretations of White’s conceptions of emplotment, figuralism, and tropology appear in Doran 2013. Doran has also contributed a substantive introduction to Doran 2010, an anthology of White’s previously published essays that did not reappear in Tropics of Discourse, The Content of the Form, or Figural Realism. The articles included in special issues edited by Vann (Vann 1998), Munslow (Munslow 2008), Tozzi (Tozzi 2013), and Neves (Neves 2018) explore various directions and motifs in White’s thought.

  • Ankersmit, Frank, Ewa Domańska, and Hans Kellner, eds. Re-figuring Hayden White. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

    Published in honor of White’s eightieth birthday, this volume introduced by Hans Kellner includes contributions by Frank Ankersmit, Andrew Baird, Stephen Bann, Judith Butler, David Carr, Ewa Domańska, David Harlan, Keith Jenkins, Dominick LaCapra, Allan Megill, Nancy Partner, Herman Paul, Verónica Tozzi, and Richard Vann. The volume also features an extensive bibliography compiled by Ewa Domańska of works by and about Hayden White.

  • Doran, Robert. “Editor’s Introduction: Humanism, Formalism, and the Discourse of History.” In The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory 1957–2007. By Hayden White. Edited by Robert Doran, xiii–xxxiv. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

    A well-researched and discerning introduction that offers a comprehensive summary of the development of White’s intellectual preoccupations, critical tendencies, and signature interventions, with particular attention devoted to his conceptualizations of metahistory, tropology, emplotment, and figuralism.

  • Doran, Robert, ed. Philosophy of History after Hayden White. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

    An international group of eminent scholars (F. R. Ankersmit, Mieke Bal, Karyn Ball, Arthur C. Danto, Harry Harootunian, Hans Kellner, Gabrielle M. Spiegel, Richard T. Vann, and Gianni Vattimo) explores White’s ideas in the context of academic historiography, analytic philosophy of history, contemporary art, Heideggerian hermeneutics, Kant’s philosophy, and Marxist cultural theory.

  • Kleinberg, Ethan. “Hayden White: In Memoriam.” The Historian 80.4 (Winter 2018): 691–704.

    DOI: 10.1111/hisn.12998

    This memorial piece provides an elegant and thoughtful overview of Hayden White’s oeuvre. The author reflects on White’s legacy and argues for the abiding relevance of “The Burden of History” and Metahistory in particular. Kleinberg also stresses the importance of White’s arguments for debates about representing the Holocaust.

  • Korhonen, Kuisma, ed. Tropes for the Past: Hayden White and the History/Literature Debate. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2006.

    A substantive and nuanced introduction to the debate on the problem of narrativity, and White’s role in rethinking the relation between history and literature. Stanley Corkin and Phyllis Frus, Herman Paul, and Kalle Pihlainen have contributed critical readings of his work.

  • Munslow, Alun, ed. Special Issue. Rethinking History 12.1 (2008).

    This special issue honoring White’s 80th birthday commences with Alun Munslow’s “Editorial Note,” and follows with a conversation between Ewa Domańska and White as well as contributions by Kalle Pihlainen, Oliver Daddow, Keith Jenkins, Herman Paul, and Patrick Finney.

  • Neves, José, ed. Special Issue: The History of Hayden White. Práticas de História: A Journal on Theory, Historiography, and Uses of the Past 6 (2018).

    This fresh collection features shorter essays by members of an international group of scholars, each focusing on one of White’s articles. Beginning with Neves’s introduction, the issue includes contributions by Herman Paul, Fábio Franzini, Maria-Benedita Basto, Rui Bebiano, Edoardo Tortarolo, Paul-Arthur Tortosa, Luís Trindade, Nancy Partner, Ewa Domańska, João Luis Lisboa, Philippe Carrard, Gabrielle M. Spiegel, and Airo Bolaños de Miguel.

  • Paul, Herman. Hayden White: The Historical Imagination. Key Contemporary Thinkers Series. Malden, MA: Polity, 2011.

    A superbly balanced and carefully researched introduction to White’s intellectual trajectory and thought, Paul’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in White’s background, principal influences, and the shifting development of his pivotal concepts as well as their place in the history of ideas.

  • Tozzi, Verónica, ed. Special Issue: Hayden White: Narrative Figuralism and Epistemic Responsibility in Historical Controversies.” Metatheoria: Revista de Filosofía e Historia de la Ciencia/Journal of Philosophy and History of Science/Revista de Filosofia e História de Ciência 4.1 (2013).

    This special issue includes contributions by a younger generation of commentators on the philosophy of history as represented by Verónica Tozzi, Nicolás Lavagnino, María Inés La Greca, María Martini and Natalia Taccetta, and Kalle Pihlainen. Inspired by White’s work, the issue reflects each contributor’s perspective on the ethical and political dimensions of his theory.

  • Vann, Richard T., ed. Special Issue: Hayden White: Twenty-five Years On.” History and Theory 37.2 (May 1998).

    A frequently cited special issue that includes superb contributions by Richard T. Vann on White’s reception, Frank Ankersmit and Nancy Partner on historians’ criticism of White’s theory, and Ewa Domańska on his sources of inspiration, secular humanism, and the rebellious nature of his intellectual endeavor.

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