Tuning Up - Summer 2023

Putting the Story Back in History

Hayden White on truth, facts, and the allure of a well-told tale

By Robert Zaretsky | June 1, 2023
Wes Peck/Flickr
Wes Peck/Flickr

One afternoon 40 years ago, soon after beginning graduate work in history at the University of Virginia, I was sitting at a study carrel with a pile of books and a stack of index cards. The latter, I had learned, was one of the historian’s most important tools—so important, in fact, that a renowned professor whose specialty was the Austro-Hungarian army devoted an entire class to telling us how to fill one in correctly. Now this strikes me as comical, but back then it struck me as comforting: having studied philosophy as an undergrad, I yearned for the kind of clarity custom-made for a three-by-five card. Whereas philosophical questions led only to more questions, historical questions led to the archives, where answers waited to be unearthed. Deep down, I believed what my professor believed—that we could know the past as it really was and depict it accurately in our writing.

Yet my unquestioned faith in history began to erode that day in the library. Among the books I had stacked in the carrel was Hayden White’s Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. If I really wanted to be a historian, White’s book suggested, I needed to care less about facts (though they remained important) and care more about fiction. It was time to put down the index cards and pick up, well, novels. In doing so, White promised, I would discover that fiction is the writing of history by other means—the best means.

This year, Metahistory turns half a century old. Its appearance was hailed as revolutionary, at least in certain quarters. In an early review, the philosopher of history Louis Mink anointed it the “book around which all reflective historians must reorganize their thoughts about” the subject. More recently, Brian Fay, a philosophy professor at Wesleyan, declared that the book “marked a decisive turn in philosophical thinking about history.” Meanwhile, academic historians hardly gave it a glance. They continued to do what I was learning to do: assemble, analyze, and arrange their source material into a causal narrative that captured the truth of past events. As for the author of Metahistory, he was shunned—in the words of Allan Megill, a historian at UVA, as a bête noire, less a historian than a literary critic.

White was not some outsider crashing into the historians’ guild without the proper credentials. He was a practicing, if relatively obscure, medievalist, and his background proved apt. In effect, White cast his fellow historians as modern-day alchemists who thought they could transform the dross of ancient documents into the gold of historical reality. Instead, he argued, there is no reality to be made or found. Reality goes no further or deeper than the stories we shape about the past. “The differences between a history and a fictional account of reality,” White announced in one of his many essays, “are matters of degree rather than of kind.”

After all, when historians write history, they deploy the tropes of the novelist: metonymy, irony, and what White called, rather clunkily, “emplotments”—that is, the arrangement of past events into organized structures that come in a variety of flavors: romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire. Without such tricks, historians could never make their accounts take flight from the page. For White, Jules Michelet’s account of the French Revolution rivaled Victor Hugo for its romantic rhetoric, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s rendering of that same event was a tragedy worthy of Racine. “Neither the reality nor the meaning of history is ‘out there’ in the form of a story,” White declared. Instead, history “is a work of construction rather than of discovery.”

The enrollment drought scorching the groves of academe risks turning history departments into dust bowls, while our endless culture wars have turned the teaching of history into a struggle over competing meanings of our common past.

If this assertion carries the whiff of existentialism, there is good reason. In the early postwar years, as he himself often mentioned in later interviews, White was conquered by the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. In one interview he gave soon after turning 80, he observed that Sartre “was one of my intellectual heroes.” And just as for Sartre, for whom there was no universal or transcendental basis for the moral choices we must make, so too for White: though we have no objective basis for preferring one vision of the past over another, it remains for each of us to choose and commit to one. As White wrote in his 1966 essay “The Burden of History,” we “choose our past in the same way that we choose our future.” Indeed, each individual must determine “how the past could be used to effect an ethically responsible transition from present to future.” Historians who instead insist that the past should be studied for its own sake are not innocent of bias but instead guilty of bad faith, “fleeing from the problems of the present into a purely personal past.”

But what happens if such an expansive and seemingly relativist conception of history leads a scholar into dangerous terrain? What if, for example, historians of the future sift through the events leading to January 6, 2021, and end up questioning whether the Capitol insurrection took place? Where do we find the epistemological footing to resist such a reading? For one thing, White insisted that moral relativism tends to lead to tolerance rather than totalitarianism, a conviction that strikes me as dubious. Nevertheless, White would have warned us about the dangers of assuming that the facts are always on our side. Yes, we have the facts—mountains of them—but they are a wobbly rampart to the powerful and persistent currents of denialism. Like his friend Richard Rorty on moral truths, White argued that no one person or group has dibs on historical truths. To frame any claim about the past as neutral or objective is, as Sartre would say, an act of mauvaise foi, or bad faith, that prevents us from assuming responsibility for our ethical choices.

More important, though, White’s writings have much to say about some of the problems confronting academic historians today. The enrollment drought scorching the groves of academe risks turning history departments into dust bowls, while our endless culture wars have turned the teaching of history into a struggle over competing meanings of our common past. The reflex of most academic historians is to fall back on roundtable discussions at professional conferences, where young PhDs present papers that are often as uninspiring as their job prospects.

What, then, are professional historians to do? White’s answer is blunt: write better histories, ones that offer compelling stories—fictions, in a word—based on facts, of course: “The best counter to a narrative that is supposed to have misused historical memory is a better narrative, by which I mean a narrative, not with more historical facts, but a narrative with greater artistic integrity and poetic force of meaning.” This is the reason why Jill Lepore, an academic historian who writes wickedly well, recently blasted the January 6 Committee’s report on the insurrection. It is, Lepore notes, full of important facts. But that hardly matters, she concluded, because they are larded into a plotless narrative so leaden as to make for “miserable reading.”

Most young people today no doubt find equally miserable many of the history texts they are assigned to read. There are, of course, many reasons for this response, ranging from shrinking attention spans and deepening engagement with visual media to the growing unfamiliarity with the act of reading and an unwillingness to make the effort. But some of the responsibility must fall with us, the storytellers. We need to be willing to make the effort to turn our mounds of research into gripping stories. How many graduate programs in history require classes that teach students how to write well?

To read White is to remind ourselves that history, like literature, provides insight into the great questions that we all face: love and loss, life and death, meaning and purpose. These existential questions should concern historians no less than novelists. But a more pressing existential matter is the fate of the discipline itself. Unless we fight for our profession by writing for those outside our profession, our profession will itself become history.

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