Essay on the death of Hayden White
Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed, March 9, 2018.
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.
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.