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In his best known work, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination of Nineteenth-

Century Europe, Hayden White introduced a new analytic lens through which to
view historiography and, indeed, history itself. White argued that insofar as histories
are written, they ought to be linguistically self-conscious. This is to say that the study
of the structure of historical texts is to the discipline of history as important, and
ought to have the same relationship, as the study of the structure of literary texts (lit-
erary criticism) is to works of literature. For White, the ways that historians emplot
their histories and the related modes of argument and tropes deployed are as essen-
tial to understanding an historical account as the “facts” or “events” depicted. On
the one hand, White employed this technique to his study of the historical imagina-
tion in the nineteenth century, which makes up the majority of Metahistory. On the
other hand, White called on historians themselves to be aware and vigilant of the
way they write history and the impact this has on the historical accounts they pro-
duce. As we will see, the latter pronouncement outlined in the introduction to Meta-
history (45 pages) drew far more attention than the former (almost 400 pages).
It is with both instantiations of White’s innovation in mind that I write in
memory of Hayden White, who died this past March. But given that writing “in
memoriam” is a genre, and an ambivalent genre at best, I want to begin with a
question inspired by Metahistory: In what mode of emplotment should one write
in memoriam of Hayden White, his role in the field of history over the past fifty
years, and his legacy or contribution? One could imagine an account in what
White calls the Romantic mode as a “drama of self-identification symbolized by
the hero’s transcendence of the world of experience, his victory over it, and his
final liberation from it.”1 This would be the story of White’s breakthrough work,

Ethan Kleinberg is Professor of History and Letters at Wesleyan University and Editor-in-Chief
of History and Theory. He is the author of Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to
the Past (Stanford University Press), Generation Existential: Martin Heidegger’s Philosophy in
France, 1927–61 (Cornell University Press), and co-editor of the volume Presence: Philosophy,
History, and Cultural Theory for the Twenty-First Century (Cornell University Press). As a
member of the Wild On Collective he is co-author (with Joan Wallach Scott and Gary Wilder)
of the Theses on Theory and History (
1. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination of Nineteenth-Century Europe
(Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 8.

his battles with the gatekeepers of the historical profession, and ultimate victory
and vindication at the end of his career. But one could equally imagine the story
cast as a Tragedy, where the fall of the protagonist at the end of the Tragic play
is not “regarded as totally threatening to those who survive the agonic test. There
has been a gain in consciousness for the spectators of the contest. And this gain
is thought to consist in the epiphany of the law governing human existence which
the protagonist’s exertions against the world have brought to pass.”2 In this
account, one would emphasize White’s estrangement and exile from the disci-
pline of history, the subject he truly loved, despite his repeated attempts to shep-
herd disciplinary historians toward a deeper and more adequate understanding
of our relationship to the past as well as their own role in making that past into
history. Of course, there is also the possibility of writing in the mode of Comedy
or Satire, though at first blush neither seems quite appropriate to the “in memor-
iam” genre even if one could conceive them as appropriate to a history of
Hayden White. I will return to the possible modes of emplotment at the end of
this piece. What does seem clear given White’s oeuvre is that it should be done
with Irony because “the trope of irony provides a linguistic paradigm of a mode
of thought which is radically self-critical with respect not only to a given charac-
terization of the world of experience but also to the very effort to capture ade-
quately the truth of things in language.”3
Hayden White began his career as a scholar of medieval history specializing in
the history of the Church, Roman and Canon Law, and the Gregorian Reform.4
But even then, White considered himself to be leading a “double life, writing and
teaching ‘history,’ on the one side, and pondering the mystery of historiography,
the writing of history, how persons could be made into characters, events into
drama, facts into reality, on the other.”5 White’s attunement to the ways that his

2. Ibid., 9.
3. Ibid., 37.
4. White wrote his dissertation on Bernard of Clairvaux and the papal schism of 1130. In 1958,
he published “Pontius of Cluny, the Curia Romana and the End of Gregorianism in Rome,”
Church History 27:3 (1958): 195–219; in 1960, he published “The Gregorian Ideal and Saint
Bernard of Clairvaux,” Journal of the History of Ideas 21:3 (1960): 321–348. For an account
of Hayden White as a historian, see Richard T. Vann, “Hayden White, Historian,” in Frank
Ankersmit, Ewa Domanska, and Hans Keller, eds., Re-Figuring Hayden White (Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 2009): 304–331.
5. Hayden White, “Berlin Notes” (notes from which Hayden White spoke when he was granted
an honorary doctorate from the Freie Universität Berlin on 9 June 2015, published in Polish
as “Wyrzutki, potwory i symulakra historii. Refleksje na temat związków historii z
literatura,” trans. by Mikołaj Sobici
nski. Studia Kulturoznawcze 10 (2016): 234–241).

study of the medieval past seemed utterly alien to his present led him to shift his
focus from history to historiography, and specifically to the modes of presenta-
tion by which great writers of history were able to bring this alien past to life.
His interest in modes of writing and representation also made White aware of
the ways that the field of history is itself historically conditioned and brought
him to the realization that twentieth-century historians were still reliant on
nineteenth-century modes of writing. This observation launched a new phase in
White’s career with the publication of “The Burden of History.”6
White begins “The Burden of History” with a sweeping indictment:

For better than a century many historians have found it useful to

employ a Fabian tactic against critics in related fields of intellectual
endeavor. The tactic works like this: when criticized by social scientists
for the softness of his method, the crudity of his organizing metaphors,
or the ambiguity of his sociological and psychological presuppositions,
the historian responds that history has never claimed the status of a pure
science … [and] suggests that history is a kind of art. But when
reproached by literary artists for his failure to probe the more arcane
strata of human consciousness and his unwillingness to utilize contem-
porary modes of literary representation, the historian falls back upon
the view that history is after all a semi-science, that historical data do
not lend themselves to “free” artistic manipulation, and that the form of
his narratives is not a matter of choice, but is required by the nature of
historical materials themselves.7

The historian is in a state of permanent retreat in the face of criticism claiming a

space of epistemic neutrality in between the realms of “science” and “art.” White
argues that this position made sense in the nineteenth century when it protected
the discipline from a “militant idealism in philosophy” and an “equally militant
positivism in science.”8 But what began among historians as a healthy suspicion
of systems became over time a conditioned response which left them resistant to
critical self-analysis. Indeed, on White’s account the resistance to criticism, be it
from without or from within, rendered the discipline of history isolated from
advances in both the arts and sciences which moved the conversation (and

6. Hayden White, “The Burden of History,” History and Theory 5:2 (1966): 111–134.
7. Ibid., 111.
8. Ibid., 112.

critiques) beyond the confines of the nineteenth century variant which most histo-
rians still held as their template.
Thus, according to White, “the supposedly neutral middle ground between art
and science which many nineteenth-century historians occupied with such self-
confidence and pride of possession has dissolved in the discovery of the common
constructivist character of both artistic and scientific statements.”9 According to
White, the problem with historians in 1966 was not that they aspired to a combi-
nation of science and art, but that the understanding of science and art they
sought to combine were relics from the nineteenth century that had “their antiq-
uity alone to commend them.”10 To put it bluntly, White thought that historians
study the past using bad science and art. The consequence is that:

… historians of this generation must be prepared to face the possibility

that the prestige which their profession enjoyed among nineteenth-
century intellectuals was a consequence of determinable cultural forces.
They must be prepared to entertain the notion that history, as currently
conceived, is a kind of historical accident, a product of a specific histori-
cal situation, and that, with the passing of the misunderstandings that
produced that situation, history itself may lose its status as an autono-
mous and self-authenticating mode of thought.11

It is important to note that in “The Burden of History,” White is really a reform

minded historian, even if the reforms he advocates are quite radical, and the goal
of his article is to signal the corrections that he believes the discipline must under-
take to remain intellectually vibrant and culturally relevant. Thus, for White, “it
follows that the burden of the historian in our time is to re-establish the dignity
of historical studies on a basis that will make them consonant with the aims and
purposes of the intellectual community at large, that is, transform historical stud-
ies in such a way as to allow the historian to participate positively in the libera-
tion of the present from the burden of history.”12 One can imagine “The Burden
of History” as akin to Luther’s “95 Theses” both in terms of the authorial inten-
tion to incite reform and in the resulting split from the dominant strain of prac-
tice. Whether one wants to take the comparison as far as claiming that White
founded a new church is a matter of metaphor and emplotment.

9. Ibid., 112.
10. Ibid., 127.
11. Ibid., 113.
12. Ibid., 124.

But like Luther in his quest for reform, White did not pull his punches. For
White, one reason that the discipline of history and the historians who practice it
have fallen so woefully out of touch with the intellectual currents of their time—
aside from and related to history’s status as “the conservative discipline par
excellence”—is the inadequate education, preparation, and training of profes-
sional historians. “What is usually called the ‘training’ of the historian consists
for the most part of study in a few languages, journeyman work in the archives,
and the performance of a few set exercises to acquaint him with standard refer-
ence works and journals in his field. For the rest, a general experience of human
affairs, reading in peripheral fields, self-discipline, and Sitzfleisch [a bottom on
which to sit] are all that are necessary.”13 Suffice it to say that White did not
consider the learning curve to become a professional historian as particularly
steep; as a result, he thought that professional historians are, for the most part,
unqualified to think through the nature of the questions which one may ask of
the historical record or the reasons one might ask them at a given time or given
place. It is not that historians are unable to do this work, but that they lack the
training and are actively discouraged from doing so.
To be sure, the criticism and prescription White offered was indebted to the
“common constructivist character” he attributed to the art and science of his
time, but this does not diminish the force of his critique of “historians [who] con-
tinue to treat their ‘facts’ as though they were ‘given’ and refuse to recognize,
unlike most scientists, that they are not so much ‘found’ as ‘constructed’ by the
kinds of questions which the investigator asks of the phenomena before him.”14
White argues that historians lack sufficient awareness of their role in constructing
the history they write, and here we see a link to the project of Metahistory and
one of his most audacious and frequently criticized claims:

It now seems possible to hold that an explanation need not be assigned

unilaterally to the category of the literally truthful on the one hand or
the purely imaginary on the other, but can be judged solely in terms of
the richness of the metaphors which govern its sequence of articulation.
Thus envisaged, the governing metaphor of an historical account could
be treated as a heuristic rule which self-consciously eliminates certain
kinds of data from consideration as evidence.15

13. Ibid., 124.

14. Ibid., 127.
15. Ibid., 130.

On White’s account, it is the choice of the governing metaphor that dictates

which “facts” can serve as evidence rather than some pre-existing template of the
past as it really happened. Though this demotion of “truth claims” was consid-
ered scandalous by many historians, the extent of the critique did not become
fully apparent until after Metahistory. Unlike his critics, White thought that rec-
ognizing the constructed nature of historical accounts could be the historical dis-
cipline’s salvation rather than its demise. It is with this in mind that he posed the
question: “is there any reason why we ought to study things under the aspect of
their past-ness rather than under the aspect of their present-ness, which is the
aspect under which everything offers itself for contemplation immediately?”16
White believed that the study of past things under the aspect of their presentness
was the only redeeming path for history; it was also the path that led him away
from the discipline.
White’s Metahistory caused a seismic shift in the understanding of history by
drawing scholarly attention to the way historians write and the impact that their
narrative choices have on how we understand the past. At its most basic level,
Metahistory is a book about historical writing in the nineteenth century that also
attempts to present a formal theory of the historical work as “a verbal structure
in the form of narrative prose.”17 Published in 1973, White’s emphasis on his-
tory as a discursive construction coincided with the reception of French structur-
alist and post-structuralist thinkers in the United States and, as such, Metahistory
was a seminal work initiating what would later be called “the linguistic turn.”
Metahistory drew on theorists and philosophers of language from the American
analytic school such as Louis Mink and Arthur Danto, scholars of aesthetics and
narrative such as Erich Auerbach, E.H. Gombrich, Kenneth Burke, and Northrop
Frye, but also the French theorists Roland Barthes, Lucien Goldmann, Michel
Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.18 This was, and perhaps still is, an explosive
cocktail for most conventional historians, who have largely resisted its premises
and its implications. But the force of White’s impact on the discipline of history
was not restricted to his role in introducing the discursive theoretical approaches
of other thinkers. Instead, it was the originality of the argument he constructed
by employing these thinkers in the service of his own analytical framework, his
For White:

16. Ibid., 132.

17. White, Metahistory, ix.
18. Ibid., 2, n. 4.

Histories (and philosophies of history as well) combine a certain amount

of ‘data,’ theoretical concepts for ‘explaining’ these data, and a narrative
structure for their presentation as an icon of sets of events presumed to
have occurred in times past. In addition, I maintain, they contain a deep
structural content which is generally poetic, and specifically linguistic, in
nature, and which serves as the precritically accepted paradigm of what
a distinctively ‘historical’ explanation should be. This paradigm func-
tions as the ‘metahistorical’ element in all historical works that are more
comprehensive in scope than the monograph or archival report.19

On White’s account, there is a “metahistorical element” in every historical text,

which can be discerned by tracking the ways that the data are organized and pre-
sented. The latter function is a poetic one which dictates how historical explana-
tion works in a given historical account and, as a result, what is to count as
historical evidence. The analysis of the metahistorical aspects of any given histor-
ical text allows the interpreter to understand the logic of historical explanation at
work in the text as well as its ideological implications. On this reading, such
cherished notions as objectivity, scientific rigor, or listening to sources are not
necessary conditions for practicing history, but only one possible system of his-
torical explanation enabled by the mode of presentation with which they have an
affinity. “On this level, I believe, the historian performs an essentially poetic act,
in which he prefigures the historical field and constitutes it as a domain upon
which to bring to bear the specific theories he will use to explain ‘what was really
happening’ in it.”20 For White, the “facts” never speak for themselves. The logi-
cal consequence of White’s assertion is that an adequate understanding of how
history works cannot be found via the study of historiography or methodology,
but through the narrative structure of works of history. This emphasis on narra-
tive was one of the most important and controversial legacies of White’s oeuvre.
The “generally poetic” and “specifically linguistic” structure of historical texts
makes them functionally similar to literary texts and one could go so far as to
say that historical texts are one genre of literature (though this is not to say they
are equivalent to literary fiction, even if most historical texts have fictive elements
at play within them and many works of literary fiction have elements that could
be considered historically “true”). Nevertheless, it is the poetic nature of histori-
cal writing that allows for White’s formalist analysis of historical writing in the

19. Ibid., ix.

20. Ibid., x.

nineteenth century and history writing in general. The majority of the book is
dedicated to demonstrating the ways that the “history of nineteenth century
historical thinking can be said to describe a full circle, from a rebellion against
the Ironic historical vision of the late Enlightenment to the return to prominence
of a similar Ironic vision on the eve of the twentieth century.”21 But White’s his-
torical analysis has held far less weight than the theoretical apparatus and mode
of explanation by which his argument unfolds. Instead, it is his definition of
emplotment and his theory of tropes that have fascinated and bedeviled histo-
rians and other scholars interested in the historical endeavor. White borrowed
the latter from traditional poetics and language theory, which “identify four
basic tropes for the analysis of poetic, or figurative language: Metaphor, Meton-
ymy, Synecdoche, and Irony” in order to apply them to an analysis of historical
writing.22 White’s imaginative investigation into the way that historians deploy
metaphors in their work and the explanatory and prefigurative functions those
metaphors serve is likely the most lasting and pervasive component of his
analysis and it is one that he would take up and modify in later works. But it is
specifically the trope of Irony that motivates his argument about nineteenth
century historical thought and that also came to characterize his own approach
to history and the past.
White’s commitment to Irony is a double-edged sword and a source of much
criticism of his work. To be sure, White’s aim in Metahistory and elsewhere is to
deploy Irony, and the self-critical awareness it bestows on the historian, to liberate
us from the burden of history: “I maintain that the recognition of this Ironic per-
spective provides the grounds for a transcendence of it.… Historians and philoso-
phers of history will then be freed to conceptualize history, to perceive its contents,
and to construct narrative accounts of its processes in whatever modality of con-
sciousness is most consistent with their own moral and aesthetic aspirations.”23
But in Metahistory White also makes clear that Irony is a “model of the linguistic
protocol in which skepticism in thought and relativism in ethics are conventionally
expressed.”24 Many proponents and critics of White’s work have come down on
one side of this equation or the other, focusing either on the liberatory power of
White’s constructivism or the seemingly nihilistic relativism on which the

21. Ibid., 432.

22. Ibid., 31.
23. Ibid., 434.
24. Ibid., 37–38.

construction depends, or at the least for which his position allows. The real ques-
tion is whether it is possible to marshal Irony for the purposes White presents, or
whether one simply ends up in the Ironist’s cage—to use Michael Roth’s turn of
phrase—because, as White notes, “as the basis of a world view, Irony tends to dis-
solve all belief in the possibility of positive political actions.”25 For White, it is pre-
cisely the absence of definitive meaning that allows the historian to construct the
past in a way that can make it meaningful and vibrant for people in the present.
This absence of a definitive ground is not nihilism but an opening in which histo-
rians can choose how to make the past important for their own time and place.
For the reasons spelled out in “The Burden of History,” White urged historians to
follow a route that embraced this constructivist aspect of the historical profession.
But likely the most important aspect of Metahistory was one that White later
claimed: “…was not perceived even by me at the time, [and this] was the simple
idea that in historical writing, as in writing in general, the form of the presenta-
tion was an element of the content as well.”26 This emphasis on the medium
rather than the message led White and others to the emerging question of the epi-
stemic and ontological status of the narrative itself, and of history as a narrative
construction rather than an amalgamation of facts or data. This, of course, was
an underlying supposition in Metahistory, but it became the primary focus in
many of White’s later essays, as seen in Tropics of Discourse and The Content of
the Form. The boldness of White’s assertions about the role of narrative, as in
“The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” led to the continued
criticism that his work at best conflated history with fiction and at worst saw no
difference between the two. In other essays focused on the ideological implica-
tions of narrative form, White argued against providing either prescriptions or
proscriptions as to which forms should be allowed. In “The Politics of Historical
Interpretation: Discipline and De-sublimation,” White went so far as to argue
that it is only sentimentalism that could lead us to dismiss a conception of history
because of its association with fascism, stating that “when it comes to appre-
hending the historical record, there are no grounds to be found in the historical
record itself for preferring one way of construing its meaning over another.”27
Conventional historians could not accept White’s emphasis on history as a

25. Ibid., 38. See Michael Roth, The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma, and the Construction of
History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), esp. 144–145.
26. White, “Berlin Notes.”
27. Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representa-
tion (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 74.

narrative construction with seemingly open-ended possibilities for historical

emplotment, and this led to renewed charges of relativism. Despite these cri-
tiques, White held to his criticism of conventional history as beholden to an anti-
quated scientific model inadequate to its task.
The issue came to a head at a conference on historical practice and the
Holocaust held at UCLA in 1990, which led to the volume Probing the Limits of
Representation edited by Saul Friedländer. I bring this up not to defend White’s
position, though undoubtedly I will, but instead because to my mind this interac-
tion marks the watershed moment when White gave up on the discipline of
history as conventionally practiced while, in a boundary-making move, the disci-
pline of history declared White and his work definitively beyond its borders. The
conference was a response to White’s work in general, but more specifically to a
debate between White and Carlo Ginzburg in 1989 on the limits of historical
emplotment. Friedländer characterized the dispute as between “opposing
views on the nature of historical truth,” with Ginzburg cast as the defender of
“historical objectivity and truth … as much informed by a deeply ethical position
as by analytic categories,” and White as the debate’s “historical relativist.”28 The
question under consideration was whether, in the face of the most extreme cases
of mass criminality, “there are limits to representation which should not be but
can easily be transgressed?”29 That is, whether in these cases some forms of rep-
resentation or emplotment should be considered taboo?
White’s works (and to a different extent those of Jacques Derrida, whose
presentation at the conference was not published in the volume) were the clear
targets of the question, and the majority of responses gathered in the volume
argue stridently against what the contributors take to be White’s position.
Characteristically, and despite being cast as the moral villain, White would not
back down. In his contribution, “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of
Truth,” White attempted to make his position clear in response to the concerns
offered: “We can confidently presume that the facts of the matter set limits on
the kinds of stories that can be properly (in the sense of both veraciously and
appropriately) told about them only if we believe that the events themselves
possess a ‘story’ kind of form and a ‘plot’ kind of meaning.”30 Thus, insofar as

28. Saul Friedländer, “Introduction,” in Saul Friedländer, ed., Probing the Limits of Representa-
tion: Nazism and the “Final Solution” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992),
2, 7, 8.
29. Ibid., 3.
30. Hayden White, “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” in Friedländer, ed.,
Probing the Limits of Representation, 39.

we live in a world where an upbeat comic or pastoral story about the Holocaust
does not align with the facts of the Nazi era and the Holocaust, these representa-
tions ring false and this dissonance imposes a limit. But these limits are not hard
and fast because they are subject to socially sanctioned standards of morality and
taste which change over time and even place.
Thus for White the limits of representation are far more porous than for the
contributors aligned with the conventional historical approach precisely because
while it “seems to be a matter of distinguishing between a specific body of factual
‘contents’ and a specific ‘form’ of narrative and of applying the kind of rule
which stipulates that a serious theme—such as mass murder or genocide—
demands a noble genre—such as epic or tragedy—for its proper representation,”
works such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which “presents the events of the
Holocaust in the medium of the (black-and-white) comic book and in a mode of
bitter satire,” show that other possible modes of representation are not only
viable but potentially successful.31 What’s more, White continues, problematic
historical accounts of the German Reich such as Andreas Hillgruber’s Zweierlei
Untergang: Die Zerschlagung des Deutschen Reiches und das Ende des euro-
päischen Judentums (Two kinds of ruin: the shattering of the German Reich and
the end of European Jewry), the first two chapters of which emplot the defense
of Eastern Germany as a tragedy, do nothing to “violate any of the conventions
governing the writing of professionally respectable narrative history.”32 Thus, on
White’s account, it is not the historical event itself or the current conventions of
the historical discipline that dictate what lies within or beyond the borders of
moral permissibility, but the sanctioned standards of morality which, while con-
ditioned by our current historical moment, are decidedly outside the bounds of
conventional objective disciplinary historical practice. Beyond this, the Hillgruber
example demonstrates the ways that every historian’s chosen mode of emplot-
ment serves to justify the exclusion of certain kinds of evidence.
White’s position is radical, and I would say Nietzschean, insofar as he does
not offer any necessary ethical grounds by which history could or should be gov-
erned, instead forcing historians to choose, articulate, and take responsibility for
their ethical or aesthetic stances. As we have seen, for White it is never the event
itself that dictates the mode of representation but the historian, and this conclu-
sion is troubling for historians such as Friedländer, who argue that it should be

31. Ibid., 41.

32. Ibid., 42. See Andreas Hillgruber, Zweierlei Untergang: Die Zerschlagung des Deutschen
Reiches und das Ende des europäischen Judentums (Berlin: W.J. Siedler, 1986).

“the reality and significance of modern catastrophes [the historical event]

that generate the search for a new voice and not the use of a specific voice [the
historian’s representation] which constructs the significance of these catastro-
phes.”33 In contrast, White suggests that “the kind of anomalies, enigmas, and
dead ends met with in discussions of the representation of the Holocaust are
the result of a conception of discourse that owes too much to a realism that is
inadequate to the representation of events, such as the Holocaust, which are
themselves ‘modernist’ in nature.”34 Here we see a return to the issues raised in
“The Burden of History” because, for White, the very realism that Friedländer,
Ginzburg, and other conventional historians covet in their aspiration to
adequately and appropriately represent the Holocaust reveals (ironically) the
inadequacy of such an approach. This is because the history of modernist events,
such as the Holocaust, is not “the history envisioned by nineteenth-century real-
ism.”35 Instead, it would require a modernist approach attuned to the concerns
and narrative strategies of the present which, as White suggested in his piece
from 1966, would mean a departure from the rules, beliefs, and norms which
governed the discipline of history in 1966, 1990, and today.
Such a departure did not occur and in this regard, to return to the analogy
with Luther, the conference at UCLA can be seen as White’s Diet of Worms. He
would not recant his views and as a result he was excommunicated from the
discipline of history. But, like Luther, White found many followers and fellow
travelers who took up his approach while the continued pressure that his
writings on history and the past applied forced historians to confront his thought
and think through their positions. At the least, White’s work was to be included
on the syllabus in order to refute it. And like Luther, White ultimately decided
that his path had diverged from that of the dominant faith and he broke from
conventional disciplinary historians. In his final book, The Practical Past, and in
our final interviews about that book, White made it clear that he no longer traf-
ficked with professional historians who may have plenty to say about the politics
of a prior time, perhaps the antebellum South, but could offer nothing of
substance to young people confronting the issues and problems of today, such as
the legacy of Civil War memorials. White gave up on reforming the discipline of
history, which for him remained an antiquated and anachronistic practice,

33. Friedländer, “Introduction,” in Friedländer, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation, 10.
34. White, “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” in Friedländer, ed., Probing the
Limits of Representation, 50.
35. Ibid., 51.

to focus instead on what he called “pastology” and the possibilities of a

practical past.
So where does this leave us at the end of our story? If Wulf Kansteiner’s
account in “Success, Truth, and Modernism in Holocaust Historiography: Read-
ing Saul Friedländer Thirty-Five Years after Metahistory” is to be believed, then
White emerges as the hero because “the narratological analysis of [Friedländer’s]
The Years of Extermination reveals that the exceptional quality of the book, as
well as presumably its success, is the result of an extraordinarily creative act of
narrative imagination. Or, put into terms developed by White, who shares Fried-
länder’s appreciation of modernist forms of writing, The Years of Extermination
is the first modernist history of the Holocaust that captures, through literary figu-
ration, an important and long neglected reality of the ‘Final Solution.’”36 One
can imagine White’s story as a Romance where he succeeds in his quest to reform
the discipline as evidenced by the conversion of Saul to his poetic narrativist
approach. Of course, one must account for the Irony at work in holding up
Friedländer’s work as exemplifying White’s theory given the events of 1990. If
we take up Berel Lang’s account in “White, Friedländer…‘and the rest is history’:
A Pax Historiana,” which argues, as the title suggests, “(1) that what White
assumes on his side, Friedländer demonstrates on his; (2) that what Friedländer
assumes on his side, White demonstrates on his; and (3) that the two sets of
assumptions and demonstrations fit together, indeed that they support each
other,” then the story could be Comic or, perhaps more likely, Satirical.37 It is a
Comedy if the reconciliation of White and Friedländer is the result of change but
a Satire if their positions were constant and our protagonists were somehow
never able to see the consonance between them. Looking back on this essay, the
mode I chose was Tragedy, in part because of its affinity to the genre “In Mem-
oriam,” but more likely because of my own continuing quixotic quest to make
the discipline of history a more theoretically adept endeavor and my belief that
there is a productive lesson to be learned in this story about Hayden White: “a
gain of consciousness for the spectators of the contest.”
Ultimately, all of these modes of emplotment are viable, each true in its repre-
sentation of White and his legacy, though each does different work and each

36. Wulf Kansteiner, “Success, Truth, and Modernism in Holocaust Historiography: Reading
Saul Friedländer Thirty-Five Years after the Publication of Metahistory,” History and
Theory 48:2, Theme Issue 47: Historical Representation and Historical Truth (May
2009), 25.
37. Berel Lang, “White, Friedländer…‘and the rest is history’: A Pax Historiana,” History and
Theory 56:2 (2017), 259.

requires an emphasis on different events or facts. Each is indicative of the content

of the form and this is precisely the point or goal of this essay in memory of
Hayden White. Whether or not one chooses to follow White along his particular
path, it is, to my mind, a sad indictment of the historical discipline that many of
the criticisms articulated in “The Burden of History” are as applicable today as
they were in 1966. Paramount is his indictment of graduate student training in
the discipline, which remains apt. It is not that these aspiring historians lack the
ability to tackle the most difficult theoretical questions that undergird their pro-
jects and profession, it is that they lack the training and are discouraged from
doing so. But this is all the more reason to remember Hayden White and rehearse
his arguments in the hopes that this will lead others to consider White’s work
and legacy as he would have preferred, with an eye toward our present and not
the past.