Hayden White, 1928-2018

From the New York Times (excerpts):

Hayden V. White, an influential scholar whose ideas on history and how it is shaped have fueled discussions in academic circles for half a century, died on Monday at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif. He was 89.

Dr. White began garnering attention in 1966 with his essay “The Burden of History,” which suggested that history was being relegated to a sort of second-class citizenship by advances in other disciplines.

“Both science and art have transcended the older, stable conceptions of the world which required that they render a literal copy of a presumably static reality,” he wrote. He urged historical scholarship to do the same.

“The historian serves no one well by constructing a specious continuity between the present world and that which preceded it,” he wrote. “On the contrary, we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption and chaos is our lot.”

He expanded on his ideas in 1973 with his best-known work, “Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” which proposed a classification system for assessing the ideologies, storytelling techniques and other attributes that went into the creation of history.

Dr. White’s other scholarly works included, most recently, “The Practical Past” (2014). A collection, “The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature and Theory 1957-2007,” was published in 2010.

“Perhaps White’s most controversial idea, and one for which he was so often shunned by his fellow historians, is that ‘all stories are fictions,’ ” Robert Doran, a professor at the University of Rochester who edited that volume, said by email. “White held that while historical facts are scientifically verifiable, stories are not. Stories are made, not found in the historical data; historical meaning is imposed on historical facts by means of the choice of plot-type, and this choice is inevitably ethical and political at bottom.

“This is what White called ‘emplotment,’ a term he coined,” Dr. Doran continued. “Even the most basic beginning-middle-end structure of a story represents an imposition: The historian chooses where to begin, where to end, and what points are important in the middle. There is no scientific test for ‘historical significance.’”

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