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About Hayden White:

Born in Martin, Tennessee, in 1928, White received his undergraduate degree from Wayne

State University in Michigan in 1951, his M.A. from the University of Michigan in 1952, and

his Ph.D. in 1956. He served as an instructor of history and later worked as an assistant

professor of history. A prominent American historian, White is known for his analysis of the

literary structures of the works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians and

philosophers. White published an early essay, The Burden of History (1966), which raised

many of the questions about the discipline of history that would be the focus of his later

works. In 1973, White accepted a position as director for the Centre for the Humanities at

Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he was named Kenan Professor from 1976 to

1978. While at Wesleyan, White produced his first major work, Metahistory, and continued

to publish essays about problems of historical knowledge and the relations between

history and literature in journals and edited volumes. In Metahistory (1973) , he presents a

detailed outline for the study of the different narrative and rhetorical strategies found in the

works of nineteenth-century European historians such as Leopold von Ranke and Jacob

Burkhardt. Influenced by eighteenth-century scholar Giambattista Vico and literary critic

Kenneth Burke, White proposes a theory of tropes, or symbolic modes, that constitutes the

deep structure of historical thought. White elaborated and modified his arguments from

Metahistory in two collections of essays, Tropics of Discourse (1978) and The Content of the

Form (1987). Although his work has drawn criticism from historians and literary critics alike,

White is widely respected for raising vital questions about the latent assumptions that inform

all kinds of historical interpretation. The essay The Historical Text as a Literary Artifact, is

a revised version of a lecture given before the Comparative Literature Colloquium

of Yale University on 24 January, 1974.

A Critical overview of the essay

In his essay The Historical Text as a Literary Artifact, theorist Hayden White tries to

answer metahistorical questions by exhorting historians to embrace rather than deny the

literary origins and confinement of historical narratives. One of his basic ideas is that

historians operate much like narrative writers. White challenges the idea that there can be a

completely objective historian, devoid of bias or a theoretical underpinning that details his

narrative of history: "Yet it is difficult to get an objective history of a scholarly discipline,

because if the historian is himself a practitioner of it, he is likely to be a devotee of one or

another of its sects and hence biased." White makes the argument that the true focus of

history should be to examine the "meta- history" that exists within the historical narrative.

He defines this as the ability to study the study of history.

White views that in general there is a reluctance to consider historical narratives as verbal

fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have

more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the

sciences. He then explores various philosophers' analyses of the historical narrative,

including Northrop Frye, R.G. Collingwood, and Claude Levi-Strauss.

White builds upon Northrup Frye's view "that the historian works inductively", distinguishing

this position with his by introducing the idea of "emplotment." White defines "emplotment"

as the stories made out of chronicles and "the encodation of the facts contained in the

chronicle". In history, there is a set of narrative called tropes. Any historical narrative is a set

of tropes. The selection and combination of tropes is called emplotment, that is, the

sequential arrangement of tropes. This notion foregrounds the literary action of constructing

narrative out of a set of events. It is a product of "constructive imagination and draws

attention to the multiplicity of stories that a historian could conceivably tell with different
emplotmentssometimes even with the same set of facts. Emplotment depends on the

subjectivity or the ideology of narrator or historian. Thus we can say that history is multi-

perspective and subjective.

Building on R.G. Collingwood's idea of constructive imagination, White explains, "The

events are made into a story by the suppression or subordination of certain of them and the

highlighting of others, by characterization, motific repetition, variation of tone and point of

view, alternative descriptive strategies, and the like White suggests that historical events

themselves have no real meaning to them. They are "value neutral," because they are

perceived different by the people who experience them. White argues this in the historical

retelling of revolutions, which will look different to a person who is not in power than to one

who is. Such an idea demonstrates how historical events themselves are "value neutral."

White argues that the way they are interpreted is reflective of the historian's bias or his own

understanding. For instance, he suggests that "historical situations are not inherently tragic,

comic, or romantic. They may all be inherently ironic, but they need not be emplotted that

way. All the historian needs to do to transform a tragic into a comic situation is to shift his

point of view or change the scope of his perceptions." The ability to "make sense of sets of

events in a number of different ways" is a critical point in White's analysis. White suggests

that the way in which a certain set of events is configured and presented reveals an ideology

concerning those events.

At one point, White makes the very interesting comparison from this process of historical

emplotment to the work of psychotherapy. In psychotherapy, the afflicted patient has

"overemplotted" their life events, causing them to obsess over or repress them. It is the job of

the therapist to guide the patient towards reemplotting these events, changing their meaning
and significance to better support the patient's wellbeing. White then moves to the mimetic

aspect of historical narratives. It is generally maintainedas Frye saidthat a history is a

verbal model of a set of events external to the mind of the historian .This led him to think

that historical narratives are not only models of past events and processes, but also

metaphorical statements. Going into a more dense discussion of mimesis on historical

narrative, White points out that the historical narrative is not just a reproduction of events, but

it is also a set of symbols that allows us to consume the history and find the icon of those

symbols in our literary tradition. Semiotically, historys reproduction necessarily implies a set

of symbols which convey complex meanings in the same way as professedly literary texts.

Linking history with literature White says that historians must develop a historical

consciousness. He explains that like literature, history progresses by the production of

classics, the nature of which is such that they cannot be disconfirmed or negatedand that it

is their nondisconfirmability that testifies to the essentially literary nature of historical


Hayden White then change his focus to Levi-Strauss who insists that we can construct a

comprehensible story of the past, only by a decision to "give up" one or more of the domains

of facts offering themselves for inclusion in our accounts. According to him, the "overall

coherence" of any given "series" of historical facts is the coherence of story, but this

coherence is achieved only by a tailoring of the "facts" to the requirements of the story form.

White then compares a historical narrative as an extended metaphor. As a symbolic structure,

the historical narrative does not reproduce the events it describes; it tells us in what direction

to think about the events and charges our thought about the events with different emotional

valences. The historical narrative does not image the things it indicates; it calls to mind

images of the things it indicates, in the same way that a metaphor does.
White proceeds further to discuss the process of emplotment in historical narratives. To

illustrate this he put forward a set of events,

(1) a,b,c,d,e, . . . . . . . ,n,

ordered chronologically. Now he gives number of different ways in which the series can be


(2) A,b,c,d,e, . . . . . . . , n

(3) a, B, c, d, e,. . . . . , n

(4) a,b,C,d,e,. . . . . . . , n

(5) a,b,c,D,e,. . . . . . . , n

And so on. The capitalized letters indicate the privileged status given to certain events or sets

of events in the series by which they are endowed with explanatory force. Hyden White does

not mean by this interference or change in the order of the historical events in the historical

narrative, but simply to a different construction of the same series of event in light of

essentially literary conventions and through different emphasis of different events. Hyden

White lists four main types of emplotment which are tragedy, satire, comedy and romance.

If the series were simply recorded in the order in which the events originally occurred, the

result would be the pure form of the chronicle. In Metahistory, White shows how such

mixtures and variations occur in the writings of the master historians of the nineteenth

The discussion which concludes his essay includes an extended analysis of the play of

figurative languageespecially metaphor and metonymyin concretizing historical

narratives. White argues historical narratives are more closely linked with literature than the

sciences not because historical narratives are fictional but because historical narratives

employ tropes (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony) to configure historical events in

ways that the audience can relate to. Historians, White explains, reemplot, redescribe, or

recode past events so contemporary cultures can make sense of their past. Histories, then, are

similar to fiction because figurative language is used in both genres to help us come to know

the actual by contrasting it with or likening it to the imaginable; thus both historical

narratives and fiction employ similar strategies in making sense of past events whether they

are real or imagined. His understanding of the historians role is to familiarize the reader with

the unfamiliar face of history; with that as his goal, the historian must use figurative,

rather than technical language because technical language implies commonality and shared

experience whereas figurative language seeks to convey the unfamiliar.To White, history is

suffering today because it has lost sight of its origins in literary imagination.

White, Hayden. The Historical Text as Literary Artefact. Narrative Dynamics: Essays on

Time, Plot, Closure and Frames. Ed. Brian Richardson. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2002.