The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature and Theory 1957-2007

November 25, 2010

Hayden White began his career as a historian and ended it as a - what exactly? A linguist? A literary theorist? "Academic intellectual" is the term preferred by Robert Doran in his introduction to The Fiction of Narrative, which brings together 23 of White's essays. One reason they may have escaped being anthologised until now is that they lack the elegance and perspicuity White achieves elsewhere, notably in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978) and The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (1987).

A similar thought may have gone through White's mind when, in his preface, he writes that Doran chose these pieces "with little advice from me". If so, it passed quickly. Embarrassment at being confronted with evidence of youthful idealism soon gives way to gratitude that essays once lost now are found. Well, history is about recovering the past. If we don't preserve it, then we have no way of knowing how we got here, or what it means. This book demonstrates that non-trivial truth by showing how White arrived where he started.

An early essay examines the differences between the work of R.G. Collingwood and Arnold J. Toynbee. Both were reacting to the idea of history as the accumulation of facts. Collingwood saw history as the process of mind reflecting on its own creations, while Toynbee saw it as "the progressive creativity of God", knowledge of which would lead to the moral improvement of humanity. White raises objections to both these thinkers, but they each contribute to his conception of history. Toynbee would politely applaud White's view that history "has always sought to contribute to the question that Kant defined as the soul of ethics: What should I (we) do?"

But it is Collingwood's characterisation of history that most influences White, for his career can be summed up as one long reflection on how we create the past. One of the key terms in his writing is "emplotment", a process whereby the raw data of history are shaped by the conventions of epic, tragedy and romance into a coherent narrative. This has led thinkers such as Gertrude Himmelfarb to claim that White equates the writing of history with the writing of fiction, an opinion she may care to revise if she reads these exacting but illuminating essays.

White is scrupulous in identifying the different levels of historical narrative, which he first calls documents, themes and "traditional story models". These are later expanded using categories developed by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, who divides language first into "Content" and "Expression" and then into the "Form" and "Substance" of both. The highly abstract terminology almost deserves its capital letters, because it allows us to distinguish between history and ideology, which otherwise are as hard to tell apart as identical twins. And what is the difference? You will have to read White's 1996 essay "Storytelling: Historical and Ideological" to find out. Hey, what do you expect? This is a review. It's supposed to whet your appetite.

At a time when politicians and business leaders can't accept that anyone should study history when they could be on a management-training scheme at Tesco, White is hugely reassuring. It's not we who are mad. His closely argued, wide-ranging essays are an antidote to the philistine and sinister demands that we forget the past. In history, we don't just remember the dead, we do their remembering for them. And that's an awesome responsibility, but a necessary one.

The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature and Theory 1957-2007

By Hayden V. White. Johns Hopkins University Press. 424pp, £31.00 and £15.50. ISBN 9780801894794 and 4800. Published 28 May 2010

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