Hayden White, author of the magisterial "Metahistory," has died (1928-2018)

Historians in the News
tags: obituary, Hayden White, poststructuralism, deconstruction

Related Link NYT Obituary 

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....

... 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....

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed

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