Hayden White’s Metahistory presents a unique historical-literary method of analysis. His technique is reductive. White draws together the ideas of various historians, philosophers and literary critics, using their work as a surgical kit for dissecting the narratives of 19th Century historians. From Roman Jakobson and Claude Levi-Strauss, he obtains the “Theory of Tropes” (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony). From Northrop Frye comes archetypes in plot structure (comedy, romance, tragedy and satire/irony). Stephen C. Pepper supplies four paradigms of discursive argument (formism, organicism, mechanism and contextualism). Karl Mannheim provides ideological implications which White simplifies to four basics (anarchism, conservatism, radicalism and liberalism).
While one may look at Professor White’s categories, and discover areas where addition or subtraction of one or another element could be useful, the idea of examining historical writing by using literary methods is sound. Historians do not merely provide chronologies of events. They explain events. As soon as one takes the purported facts of a chronology and orders them into a coherent plot, the endeavor becomes literary. It is understandable that historians would resist a characterization of their work as literary. Although it is obvious that investigators of history cannot claim to be doing hard science, they like to think that their writing is based upon evidence; therefore closer to science than literature. In spite of historians’ efforts, personal prejudices and influences (social or historical) will affect their work. White’s surgical kit can be used by students of history as some of the tools to examine a composition. This provides a necessary challenge to the closed world that a historian creates in her book; a challenge that keeps the profession honest.
After a highly theoretical introduction, revealing the tools with which he will reduce a work, White launches into a first chapter that sets the stage. He presents the ironic scholarship of the 18th Century Enlightenment. After this, he gets down to the business of parsing the works of the following century’s “realist” historians and historical philosophers. These are some of the most fascinating minds of the 19th Century. The body of the book is illuminating for both the unique methods employed by White and for the brilliant individuals whose interpretations of history influenced Western Civilization from their century onward. Chapter Two focuses on Hegel as a transitional and foundational philosopher of history, ending Part One. Part Two examines the historians Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville and Bruckhart. Part Three examines the philosophers of history Marx, Nietzsche and Croce.
White does an excellent job of avoiding pitfalls that would distract from exemplifying his theory. There certainly are temptations. It would have been satisfying to skewer the clownish Jules Michelet whose breathy patriotism characterizes France, in the first year of the Revolution, as advancing “through that dark winter [of 1789-90] towards the wished-for spring which promises a new light to the world,” then calls this development “a miracle.” (White, p. 151). His one digression from describing Michelet in literary and theoretical terms is when he comments on “another of those lyrical effusions in which he [Michelet] offended both reason and science.” (White, p. 157). But occasional petulance is understandable when examining Michelet. With Karl Marx, it is always tempting to interject one’s political opinions. But White keeps his head down and remains committed to his task. “My own approach to the study of Marx’s thought moves [political and economic] questions to the periphery of discussion. My aim is to specify the dominant style of Marx’s thought about the structures and processes of history-in-general…even though one may be inclined to do different kinds of things on the basis of a belief in one philosophy’s truth.” (White p. 183).
The work of the speculative philosophers in Part Three necessarily takes one a step away from physical reality to meditate on the abstract. White’s addition of literary criticism draws one further away from applying ideas to the mundane world. For example, when Nietzsche begins discussing the threefold divisions of the forms of historical consciousness (antiquarian, critical and monumental), the reader is placed in an abstract realm where one is no longer looking at the work of individual historians as applied to a subject in the physical world. Once White adds his analysis of Nietzsche’s analysis, examining how the three forms relate to metonymy, synecdoche and irony respectively, we have achieved lift-off and cannot even see the ground due to the philosophical clouds between our skyward analytical vehicle and earth. (White p. 351). The same phenomenon occurs when White explains Croce’s view that “the utterance of any sentence is such that it always changes the entire linguistic endowment of the speech community” and “each successive word transforms retroactively the function of all the words coming before it.” (White p. 390). One must be thinking too abstractly about the importance words, and not concretely enough about their location in real books, to make such a statement. But speculative philosophy always runs the risk of losing its connection to the concrete world.
White’s blueprint for examining the literary aspects of historical writing is a useful instrument. It permits the reader to see what cultural devices influence a historian’s prose and ideas. If a narrator has grown-up within an educational system that offers certain limits on written expression, those limits will be evident in that person’s writing style. In addition, the choice of emplotment reveals a historian’s prejudices: If Michelet writes about the French Revolution as a romance, and Burke writes about it as a tragedy, much is revealed about their political perspective and how they are attempting to influence the reader. There are, of course, numerous metahistorical strategies to decipher the influences upon historians of any period; just look at the dominant movements, political systems and critical modes of their times. But White’s focus is of equal value. By the end of his book, the reader is not only presented with a picture of 19th Century historiography, but also has acquired a set of useful and innovative tools with which to microscopically evaluate some methods and intentions of any historian she chooses to read.
White, Hayden. Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.