The Voices of Hayden White

By Amy J. EliasApril 22, 2018

The Voices of Hayden White
From the OED: “Mentor: after ancient Greek Μέντωρ, the name of a character in the Odyssey, in whose likeness Athena appears to Telemachus and acts as his guide and adviser. The origin of mentor embedded the notion of multiple voices/personas.”


AFTER I HEARD about Hayden White’s death, I wanted to hear his voice, so I pulled out his books and began to read. I saw my graduate school marginalia in Tropics of Discourse (1978), the notes to self in The Content of the Form (1987). I spent time with the preface to Figural Realism (1999), the collection featuring essays from the late 1980s and 1990s, because though short, it is a small compendium of Hayden’s voices — ironic, self-assured, modestly deflationary, and then a claim like a punch to the head: “To think that one can think outside or without theory is a delusion.” I had never read all of White’s last text, The Practical Past (2014), so I went to that last book, which one would expect to be a summa by a world-renowned eminence and is instead essentially a new foray into the question of the ethical meaning of literariness. And then I hit the sentence: “As Linda Hutcheon and Amy Elias have demonstrated (to my satisfaction, at least) the dominant genre of postmodernist writing is ‘historiographic metafiction’ (Hutcheon) or simply ‘metahistorical romance’ (Elias).” And the pages blurred for a time.


Hayden White is recognized as one of the great humanist minds of our time, defining the key questions of 20th- and 21st-century philosophy of history and the ethical import of narrative discourse. White’s biography is well documented: born in 1928 to working-class parents in Tennessee; undergraduate education at Wayne State University in Detroit after his parents moved there for work; a stint in the US Navy in the late 1940s; graduate work at the University of Michigan in 1955 with a thesis on Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the papal schism of 1130 — then teaching at Wayne State, the University of Rochester, UCLA, Wesleyan University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The legendary career in philosophy of history began with a shot over the bow. In the mid-1960s, he was asked to write an essay for the journal History and Theory about the value of professionalized history, and this became the essay “The Burden of History,” which led to his writing of Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) and catapulted him to international academic stardom for the next 45 years.

Richard Vann and others have written that there were many Hayden Whites, and that may be true of the man, but there are consistent through lines in White’s work. “The Burden of History” was the start: a polemic in which White claimed that literary artists, philosophers, and the public at large had lost interest in history because of historians’ professionalized reverence for the study of the past “as an end in itself” — because of history’s belief that it could be a scientific investigation of the past and that its purpose was merely to tell us accurately “what happened.” Mourning the loss of the grand synthesizing historical narratives (such as those by Marx or Vico), White proposed that history reengage both with the questions raised about the present by the contemporary arts and sciences and with modernist narrative styles that spoke to contemporary reality. The last section of the essay told much about his historical positioning: “we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before, for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot.”

Over the course of his career he used different tactics to critique history as it was practiced in the academy. One was to lambaste ossified disciplinary practices by professional historians. Another was to finely explicate the work of writers who produced what he considered relevant models for doing and theorizing history — writers as diverse as Giambattista Vico, Benedetto Croce, Erich Auerbach, Northrop Frye, Paul Ricoeur, Fredric Jameson, and Michel Foucault. White also engaged with a wide swath of midcentury critical theory, sometimes performing structuralist or poststructuralist analyses of theoretical or literary texts as examples of new method (such as his tour de force analysis of The Education of Henry Adams reprinted in The Content of the Form). He was primarily an essayist, and his literary voice is that of a maestro, unpacking arguments and positions with formidable erudition and precise logic. White was a master of diagnostic analysis, particularly good at analyzing the methods and claims of other theorists and at synthesizing thought. He drew from multiple language traditions and the full historical range of philosophy of history, and his work might be compared usefully with that of Erich Auerbach, which he much admired.

He insisted on an organic relationship between history and literature not only as sister arts but as mutually revelatory investigations of reality, because he consistently asserted that history didn’t exist as an object but as a concept, something that could only be accessed through, and reconstructed as, narrative. In the magisterial Metahistory, a formalist analysis of 19th-century historical narrative, he worked with the model of Vico’s tropological history to show that every historical work was at least a much a poetical work as an empirical one: every historical narrative is emplotted according to the rhetorical tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, and these are tied to specific ideological attitudes. With this claim in mind, he dissected the style of a number of key 19th-century writers of history — Hegel, Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Marx, Nietzsche, Croce. The writing of history was not, White claimed, a science apart from the literary arts; it was rhetoric of a special kind. The style amounted to content; the tropes of emplotment constituted rather than merely illustrated the facts that they presented as historical.

With that claim he shot a cruise missile into the bunkers of academia, becoming a target for 40 years of disciplinary backlash but also becoming a rock star in philosophy of history, the bad boy of demystification — a persona he seemed to relish. Writing with the sensibility of the anti-establishment 1960s in the maelstrom of poststructuralist theory created by forces such as Roland Barthes and Foucault, White was pegged by his critics as a postmodern relativist intent upon destroying the historical profession. Certainly, he was a relativist in relation to history, an anarchistic socialist in relation to politics, and a formalist/structuralist in terms of method, but White was also a scholar in the Classical sense. He always believed there was something at stake.


The Alabama spring had burned off early. It was 1998 and I was working at home, a displaced Yankee academic staggering in the heat with a book in hand, my dog snuffling among the invasive ivy grown over the hard-packed clay of our steeply sloped backyard. I was writing a book and was stuck at the place where the exact idea you need skits like a taunting specter every time you reach your mind into the dark. And then I hit the passage in White’s The Content of the Form.

[I]nsofar as historical events and processes become understandable, as conservatives maintain, or explainable, as radicals believe them to be, they can never serve as a basis for a visionary politics more concerned to endow social life with meaning than with beauty. In my view, the theorists of the sublime had correctly divined that whatever dignity and freedom human beings could lay claim to could come only by way of what Freud called a “reaction-formation” to an apperception of history’s meaninglessness.

And suddenly the diaphanous idea had a name: the historical sublime.

The university where I had my first job was not a well-funded one, and I had to fight with my dean to uphold his promise to pay my fee to Cornell’s School of Criticism and Theory that summer to work with Hayden White so I could talk with him about this idea. I was a tenured associate professor and would be one of the oldest “students” at the SCT, and I would keep pretty much to myself, churning out page after page in the mornings and talking with Ewa Domańska, Dominick LaCapra, Marianne Hirsch, and others about historiography and theory, desperate for intellectual conversation and too old to give a damn about impressing anybody. When I first met Hayden, he was days away from his 70th birthday; my first coffee meeting with him was a blazing 60-mile-an-hour confabulation. He kept asking me questions and I kept asking him questions. We had a great conversation, and we connected as somehow outsiders to the ivy clubbiness of academe, though he of course had been a star for decades in that world. In the conversation, there seemed to be something at stake.

We talked about White’s theory of the historical sublime, articulated most clearly in his essay “The Politics of Historical Interpretation.” It was a fascinating but difficult idea. White had claimed that in the late 18th and 19th centuries, history became a discipline by aspiring to “science” rather than “art” and that historical consciousness thus was made synonymous with empirical realism in political and social thought. A division was created between utopian thought (as a precondition for revolutionary action) and political thought (associated with realism and a precondition for professionalization). White argued that this division “consisted in subordinating written history to the categories of the ‘beautiful’ and suppressing those of the ‘sublime.’” He posited, however, that a visionary politics intent on real social change needed the sense of sublime history that gave older religious approaches their power. For White, the historical sublime — i.e., History itself — is the space of chaos and event that can only be comprehended through narrative but that can never be reduced to narrative, which is always shaped by rhetoric and ideology. I was running with this idea to create a theory about postmodernist historical fiction, and he was intrigued.

White’s idea was easily mocked by cynics for its seemingly naïve utopian impulses, and it was badly used by critics as an example of the relativistic “linguistic turn” of late 20th-century poststructuralist theory. “History was just fiction!” they declared. But I knew that White was building off of a Kantian notion of the sublime as much as a Lyotardian one — the sublime as that which makes visible the limits of human perception of the real, makes us feel the human limits of understanding. To put it pedagogically: facing the sublime (e.g., in a moment of magnificent natural beauty or chaos), one sensed that there was something more than the self, something that was so capacious, complex, or Other that the human mind could not process it in terms of its a priori logical categories. The sublime threw the human back upon itself, making the limits of the mind’s logical categories apparent to a person at the exact moment that it made the vastness of the Real somehow perceptible. The sublime was the vast unrepresentable Real, registered as such by the human mind. White transferred this idea to history: the past was unknowable, gone, available only in traces. To try to reconstruct the historical sublime fully, thinking oneself impartial or scientific, was an insult to the dead and an act of self-deluding hubris, always ideological, always in the service of something. But we still needed history. It was part of us.

I spend time on this because I still think that this was one of the most important ideas that White ever had. For White, writing to his peers in the historical profession, the site of ethical value implied by the historical sublime was humility in the face of the past. Conceiving of the past as sublime cast us back upon our own limitations of understanding; it forced us to ask ourselves what good history does or does not do for humans locked in time, space, and flesh, what elisions and erasures it contains and why. White insisted — in the face of history’s pride in its ability to excavate the archive — that we recognize that history is sublime and unknowable yet (paradoxically) key to an ethical relation to the past, as a check on our desires for ideological closure and control.

What astounds me today is how White anticipated many of the turns to embodiment, silence, and anti-history that appear in theory today as recuperative gestures — anything but poststructuralist language games. For instance, White was writing with a different aim, for a different audience, and in a different time than are writers such as Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, and Fred Moten, but Hartman’s notion of “critical fabulation” as a method of care and recuperation in black diasporic history would, I think, have resonated with him. Here is White:

Is narrativity itself an ideological instrument? […] And if this is or might be the case, is this recovery of the historical sublime a necessary precondition for the production of a historiography of the sort that Chateaubriand conceived to be desirable in times of “abjection”? a historiography “charged with avenging the people”? This seems plausible to me.

And here is Hartman:

Narrative restraint, the refusal to fill in the gaps and provide closure, is a requirement of this method, as is the imperative to respect black noise […] always in excess of legibility and of the law and [hinting at and embodying] aspirations that are wildly utopian, derelict to capitalism, and antithetical to its attendant discourse of Man.

Hayden White reminded historiography that enlightenment goes only so far. Yet while he may have been a relativist, he was not a nihilist: he was deeply and fundamentally committed to Enlightenment principles, primarily those of unmasking and reflection in the service of emancipation and freedom.


The turn to physical presence as a retort to idealism has of course its own historical tradition and goes back at least to Diogenes, as Peter Sloterdijk and Michel Foucault both remind us. In Critique of Cynical Reason (English translation 1988) — well before the current assertions in literary criticism about the limits of critique — Sloterdijk defines “enlightenment” as the unmasking of illusions, and he claims that the post-1960s in the West is an era of cynicism as we practice “enlightened false consciousness”: enlightenment has been degraded into pointless unmasking after unmasking and is now separated from programmatic, courageous action toward utopian ends. In opposition to “enlightened false consciousness,” Sloterdijk poses the “low philosophy” of the Greek Cynic anti-philosopher Diogenes, who speaks the body back to Plato’s idealist abstraction. But of course what Sloterdijk finds in Diogenes is a form of the trickster, one who enacts the rudeness and play of trickster rebuke to authoritarian power, stultifying social rules, and idealist philosophy’s repressions of the physicality of life.

Despite its unmitigated desires for transgression, pop culture is losing touch with the trickster. Think of Marvel’s Thor films, where the god Loki is reduced to a petulant narcissist. Loki’s liminality is decreed by his enemies rather than baked into ontology, and his desire is not to unmask and undermine power but to usurp and own it. Though he is a bad boy with rock-star hair who tempts our desire with fascist leather, there is no love of life, challenge to power, or transformative vision here. Marvel’s Loki is the ultimate cynic, the urbane interlocutor of negation.

Trickster, however, is the Hegelian negation of negation, understanding power to be a ruse of discourse, a trap of idealism. Tricksters can be violent, crude, irresponsible; what they aren’t is institutional. The trickster is sacrilegious and eccentric not by design but by nature, an ontological principle of the crossroads, on the side of life. Coyote speaks back to power by reveling in the appetites of the body, rebuking refined and cynical authority with the vulgarities of the flesh. Prometheus sides with humans to unmask and unmake the gods’ authoritarian rule. Legba is the road of communication between levels of being, not a political rhetorician, and he promotes intercommunication and transhistorical relation. The misdeeds and impropriety of tricksters are not shape-shifting party tricks: they are the embodiment of cosmic dialectic, championing eros, bringing power back down, literally, to earth, and connecting parts of the cosmos to one another in a dialogue with flesh and being. When humans take the part of the trickster, they remind idealist philosophy that the world is all that is the case. They enter into the realm of Diogenes and of the carnivalesque, rudely calling bullshit on institutional power and pretension.

I think Hayden White was in this line, playing trickster with professionalized history but also with academe when it took itself, or him, too seriously. If his writing was life or death, a battle with disciplinary institutionalism with the stakes being a meaningful history, his speaking persona was that of trickster. Having moved for decades in the circles of the deservedly and undeservedly venerated, Hayden had a radar for pretension. He targeted like a laser any academic class prejudice or vanity. Dashing even at 80 years of age, with his earring and Italian-cut clothes, he nonetheless had almost an instinct for acting puckishly in the most “proper” of academic contexts. I have seen him tell offensively stupid knock-knock jokes at a scholarly society banquet held to give him a lifetime achievement award, stunning the room. I saw him at a lecture Q-and-A shut down the hubris of that guy with the 20-minute question (you know the guy) not with a rebuttal but with a shrug and “Hey, this is just a theory. Why are you taking it so seriously? Take it or leave it.” Invited for talks and teaching seminars all over the world, he refused to put on the garb of the venerable Great Man or the untouchable academic star. You had to know your shit cold to go head to head with Hayden over a point of argument, but you could teasingly call him out if he started to preen.

In 2008, we were both at the MLA convention in San Francisco and met at the book exhibit, that road show of academic neuroses, before heading out for dinner. My first book had been published and I had moved to a better job and was working on a new project that would eventually turn out to be an international arts association. Hayden met me at the Harvard booth and introduced me to peers who flagged him down, and then three or four meteoric rising stars who immediately came over to say hello to Hayden and looked at my nametag and nodded politely. I tried to look casually intelligent and recognized two younger academics and introduced them to Hayden, who asked what they were working on. One of the men took off on a jag about his recently published book, dropping academic names like tacks on a road and puffing up with his own self-enthusiasm. Hayden listened politely, then turned to me with a huge grin and said — in an amused voice perfectly audible to everyone — “See? That’s what you need to learn to do.”

My favorite quote from White, which I used as a headquote in Sublime Desire, combines his trickster voice with the kind of pronouncement that shows not only his confidence but also his commitments: “Kant begins his logic, his last book, by saying that ‘the source of all error is metaphor.’ Well, too bad. He is wrong. Metaphor is maybe the source of all error but it is also the source of all truth, too.”


What is a mentor’s voice?

I don’t think Hayden knew my husband’s name; I still don’t know if he had a pet. While he did write a blurb on for my first book (and I have no idea why he decided to do this), he didn’t write me letters of recommendation; he didn’t read drafts of my writing; and to my knowledge he didn’t serve as an external reviewer for anything I ever published. Other people traveled with him, saw him more frequently, worked with him directly. But Hayden championed work he thought interesting, and to know this made one want to work better.

I don’t know if Hayden was great in the classroom, but he defended his students’ right to learn and teachers’ rights to teach. While a professor at UCLA in 1972, he acted as the sole plaintiff against the chief of police in a landmark California Supreme Court case regarding covert activities by police officers registering as students and making police reports on class discussions. The California Supreme Court found for White in a unanimous decision. But even more recently on his Facebook pages, his interest in free discussion is apparent. Hayden’s feed was filled not only by postings by former students and scholars who worked with his theories but also with his own sometimes polemical observations about books, issues, and political controversies. He kept trying to generate on online dialogue, as though he thought that even on Facebook, there was something at stake.

And his last book reflected this belief. In The Practical Past, White discussed Michael Oakeshott’s notion of the “practical past,” an ethics of history that recognizes that from the archival facts of history we generate pictures of the past that are culturally meaningful rather than “true” in an empirical sense. If professionalized history had become the space of historical reconstruction by licensed academics, literature was the access-way to the practical past. In his last book, White turned to literature as a human response to history when there was something at stake in remembrance.

In 2009, Robert Duran at the University of Rochester organized a colloquium on the writing of Hayden White, with White as the honored guest. The speakers list was formidable — Fredric Jameson, Dominick LaCapra, Hans Kellner, on and on. When asked whom he’d like to invite, Hayden gave Robert my name. I was one of the only literary critics in the room, and nobody really knew who I was or what I was doing there; when I was introduced, the speaker mispronounced my last name. In my talk, I discussed history in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (a book that I found out afterward that Hayden loved as much as I did, and which eventually earned a chapter in The Practical Past), to tease out the relationship between ethics and history and flesh that I thought Hayden, too, understood, and that most people missed in his theory of history. I talked about how Morrison’s novel refuses the consolation of narrativist history when it reminds us what ghosts like Beloved are: namely, bodies that by definition live in time and walk the earth. I noted how in this novel, history is not a matter of words but of material embodiment: when history happens, the world is made. The transfer of populations, the changes in landscape and environment, the building and decay of place — these mark history as the passage of time, materialized. This is the point of Beloved: that embodiment matters. And I asserted that History-with-a-capital-H may have been meaningless for White, but its inscription was not; the body of the text was the space where ideology took a shape and a form. White’s formalism is a recognition of the textual body, of materiality, in the face of stronger and stronger claims for writing’s (and history’s) transparency or analyses of the text as play, an end in itself. Hayden White’s unique theoretical move was to return us to the body of the text, to the content of the form, as well as to history as the practical, embodied past.

When I spoke the last line of my paper, I saw Hayden dip his head, start to smile. I heard from him in an email a few days later: “Dearest Amy: I was so proud of you, the consummate intellectual and critic, precise, eloquent, wide-ranging, a person who knew what she knew and knew that she knew it. You were sensational. I am so--as they say--looking forward to your next book. And thanks, too, for the kind words. I was touched. With love, Hayden.

What is a mentor’s voice?

White was a formalist in the tradition of Auerbach and Vico and Jameson and Said. He insists that we attend to how texts work, to the tropes and metaphors and styles that govern what they say and what they allow us, therefore, to think. Elegant, wondrously brilliant, facile with language and languages, with an insatiable curiosity about ideas and a wicked cheekiness, Hayden White moved among the academic elite but took underdogs and oddballs under his wing.

I was one of them, and I will always be grateful.


Amy J. Elias is Lindsay Young Professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at the University of Tennessee. She has published books and articles about the contemporary arts, was the founding president of ASAP: The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, and was the founding co-editor-in-chief of ASAP/Journal.

LARB Contributor

Amy J. Elias is Lindsay Young Professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at the University of Tennessee. She has published books and articles about the contemporary arts, was the founding president of ASAP: The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, and was the founding co-editor-in-chief of ASAP/Journal.


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