Publication Date

September 4, 2018

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


  • Europe

Hayden V. White

Courtesy of Margaret Brose

Hayden V. White, a leading intellectual and theoretical historian whose magnum opus Metahistory (1974) helped pioneer the linguistic turn in modern historiography, died on March 5, 2018, at his home in Santa Cruz, California. He was 89 years old.

White was born on July 12, 1928, in the town of Martin, Tennessee. He spent his early years in Tennessee; then his father moved to Detroit in search of jobs in the auto industry. Young Hayden spent much of his childhood going back and forth between the two areas. He joined the Navy at the end of World War II, and after his service enrolled in Wayne State University on the GI Bill, earning a BA in history in 1951. From there he went to the University of Michigan, earning a doctorate in medieval history in 1956.

Although trained as a medievalist, during his long and illustrious career White focused on modern European intellectual history and historical theory. He quickly gained renown as a scholar who viewed history as an art as much as a science, arguing that writing history was a matter of crafting narratives as much as assembling facts. His 1966 essay “The Burden of History” interpreted history as storytelling, contending that without attending to the craft of writing the discipline would fail to keep up intellectually with other scholarly fields. White developed this line of thinking in full force in Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. At a time when intellectuals like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were challenging ideas of scholarly objectivity, Metahistory argued that history was above all writing, that its form was vital to its content. In the preface to the book’s 40th-anniversary edition, White wrote:

After long reflection, it struck me that none of the historians of historiography that I knew had taken seriously the fact that historiography was first, necessarily, and most obviously writing, which is to say, inscription, of words or signs incised or laid upon a medium and which, by that process of inscription, are endowed with a power both material and spiritual, a power to at once “fix” things in time and seemingly reveal their meaning for their own time and for our own.

Metahistory proved to be both controversial and highly influential. Its focus on historical writing as in effect literature appealed strongly not only to literary scholars and others interested in textual analysis, but also to the burgeoning field of cultural history. It became a fundamental text in the linguistic turn.

White taught at several institutions during his career, including Wayne State, the University of Rochester, Wesleyan University, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and UCLA. In 1972, while at UCLA, he successfully sued the Los Angeles Police Department to stop it from planting police spies in university classrooms, arguing that it violated academic freedom. Perhaps his most famous, and certainly most enduring, university affiliation, however, was with the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1978, White was hired, along with historian of anthropology James Clifford, as a faculty member in the History of Consciousness Board. A unique intellectual program, History of Consciousness dated from the birth of UC Santa Cruz in 1965 and emphasized a commitment to interdisciplinary research and teaching. Over the years, it attracted a constellation of leading cultural theorists, including Donna Haraway, Teresa de Lauretis, and Angela Davis. Although, not surprisingly, White did not always agree with all of his colleagues, he nonetheless thrived in this intense, innovative intellectual atmosphere.

To the end of his life, White remained academically and intellectually engaged, a venerable mandarin who was also friendly, witty, and personable. As the accolades mounted, he continued to enjoy old colleagues and new, debates about many kinds of ideas and issues, and the enduring pleasures of the life of the mind. He leaves behind him not only family, friends, and colleagues, but also a vibrant legacy about the ways historians tell stories about the past.

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Tyler Stovall
Tyler Stovall

Fordham University