White, Hayden

Assigned: White, Hayden. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” (1463-80). Also read the editors’ introduction (1461-63).

“The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” (1978)

1. On 1463-64 (“One of the ways that a scholarly…”), what “one problem” does Hayden White identify with “the status of the historical narrative” (1464) when it comes up as a topic for study in historiography? How is White’s notion of “metahistory” (1463 bottom), as he explains that interest, designed to arrive at satisfactory answers to the kind of problem he has identified?

2. On 1464-65 (“Now, it is obvious that this…”), how does White analyze literary critic Northrop Frye’s distinction—a distinction often made by critics since Aristotle in Poetics—between the way literature and history, respectively, deal with real-life events? How does Frye lay out this distinction and validate it, and on what basis does White begin to put it into question, as indeed he will continue doing for the rest of the present essay? How does the term “emplotment” (1465) figure in his opening argument about this matter?

3. On 1465-67 (“The late R. G. Collingwood insisted…”), how does White invoke historian R. G. Collingwood’s concept of a “constructive imagination” as a precursory attempt to explain how historians make sense of and put together the facts they encounter in their studies? Nonetheless, according to White, what does Collingwood’s model not take account of about the limitations of “historical events” (1466) as constitutive of “stories”? How does the treatment of the French Revolution by Jules Michelet and Alexis de Tocqueville illustrate White’s point about how historians’ pre-existing notions and their sense of the available “types” (i.e., archetypes) structure the stories they tell about historical events?

4. On 1467-68 (“Collingwood once remarked that…”), White continues discussing historical narratives in terms of what Northrop Frye would call “archetypes”—White refers to a process involving a limited number of “encodations” of historical narratives by means of such archetypal patterns (1467). How do these encodations, according to White, suit both the author’s and the readers’ culturally specific expectations, their ways of making sense of the facts and events we call history? In what sense does this process amount to a kind of “familiarization” (1468) of historians and their audience to the raw materials, so to speak, of history?

5. On 1468-70 (“This is not unlike what happens…”) how does White analogize historians’ way of arriving at and relating the stories they want to tell to the way psychotherapy handles traumatic or troubling events in their patients’ lives? What point about “the fictive component in historical narratives” (1469) does he go on to make on the basis of this analogy to psychotherapeutic processes and their desired outcomes?

6. On 1469-70 (“Now, if any of this is plausible…”), White addresses “the mimetic aspect of historical narratives” (1469). Why, according to White, is it a mistake to “think of a history as a model similar to a scale model of an airplane or ship, a map, or a photograph” (1469)? He invokes Charles Sanders Peirce’s conception of the sign as being divided into Icons, Indexes, and Symbols as a vehicle for answering the key question, “What are historical representations representations of?” (1470) How, borrowing from this model, does the historical narrative “mediate” between events and what White calls “pregeneric plot structures” (i.e., archetypes), and thereby familiarize historical events to readers?

7. On 1470-71 (“The evasion of the implications of…”), why, according to White, is the “fictive nature of historical narrative” (1470) so often not acknowledged, especially by scientists and literary critics? In what sense is historical narrative, as White describes it, nowhere near as endowed with “concreteness” (1470) as literary scholars may assume it is, and in fact liable to become ever more opaque with each new historical work? Nonetheless, since White suggests that knowledge of history increases and progress occurs, how is such progress constituted—how can we tell when it has been made?

8. On 1471-72 (“It is frequently forgotten or…”), according to White, what does the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (Leitch 1222-33) suggest about “the criterion of validity” we might use to judge historical narratives? If a narrative’s validity does not depend on its “putative factual content” or, to use Lévi-Strauss’s word, its “elements” (1471), what, then, does it depend on, and why? Why, in Lévi-Strauss’s view, is the historian forced to resort to “fraudulent outlines” (1472) and to take refuge in the principle of exclusion to arrive at full coherence?

9. On 1472-73 (“It is this mediative function that…”), how does White, following upon his allusion to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s reflections, characterize historical narrative as “extended metaphor”? How does a metaphor—and a historical account—put us in contact with something other than things or events themselves, but in a way that is for its very indirectness more compelling? What, according to White, are the “symbolic and iconic aspects of a metaphor” (1472)? How does White, using the age-old metaphor that equates a rose with a beloved person, a lover, explain the way metaphor provides us with a message about something that matters to us? How do historical narratives work in much the same way to deliver to us a sense of history as meaningful?

10. On 1473-75 (“Conceiving historical narratives in this…”), White offers a chart that turns a set of events into a meaning-bestowing series of events that is, as he puts it, “chronologically and syntactically structured” (1473). What sort of “possible mixtures of and variations within the types that it is meant to distinguish” (1474) does White’s chart allow us to glimpse, without our having to introduce any radical changes into the mere chronological sequence of the events in question? Why, in White’s view, is it a mark of superior historians that they maintain awareness of such possibilities?

11. On 1475-76 (“Histories, then, are not only about…”), White argues that the “possible sets of relationships” he has been discussing with regard to historical material are to be found not in the historian’s mind or even, strictly, in the cultural discourses that the historian is familiar with, but are rather “immanent in the very language which the historian must use to describe events…” (1475). What statements does this hypothesis lead White to make about the manner in which certain shapes or patterns come to seem inherent in the historical data themselves? How do the literary tropes of metaphor and metonymy figure in this process?

12. On 1476-78 (“I do not have the space to try…”), how, according to White, does the work of linguist Roman Jakobson on the metaphoric and metonymic dimensions of language support his thesis about the nature of historiography? How, in this light, should we conceive of “The primary meaning of a narrative” (1477), and why are both metaphor and metonymy necessary when one is tasked with making “original characterizations” of any kind? How, according to White, do the attempts made by historians of the French Revolution serve as an illustration of these claims about the “decoding” and “recoding” involved in the building-up of historical narratives?

13. On 1478-80 (“What all this points to is the…”), White sums up the points he has been making about the strong correspondence between the way poets and novelists familiarize events and personages for us and the way historians “make sense” (1479) of what has happened and is happening in the world we live in. What is his assessment of the current state of historiography? Where has it gone wrong, in White’s view, and what must it do to get on the right path? How does he address the need to avoid the cynical relativism that could follow from the recognition that history is as surely the product of imagination and storytelling as any novel or epic poem? According to White, what must we understand about the truth-bearing potential of fiction if we are to gain valuable insight into the past and live wisely in the present?

14. General question: It’s fair to suggest that most contemporary historians would agree with Hayden White’s point in “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” and in Metahistory that historiography is written in the same manner as fiction. At the same time, isn’t there a risk in not seeing history as referential to, or directly descriptive of, real-world events? How would you describe that risk, and what is your judgment about the risk/benefit ratio in this regard?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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