This morning I learned that the great theorist of history, Hayden White, had passed away overnight. At Wesleyan in the 1970s, Hayden was a stirring, provocative, and welcoming teacher. His presence at the Center for the Humanities was inspirational, and I was fortunate to have studied with him there. Although he left Wesleyan soon after, he remained an important figure for our journal History and Theory, and he returned to campus often. In 2014, he came back to receive an honorary doctorate. Recently, Prof. Ethan Kleinberg conducted a series of interviews with Hayden.
Throughout his long career, Hayden’s work was animated by an emancipatory impulse. He wanted to liberate people from the burdens of history. Here’s what he wrote in the 1960s:
The burden of the historian in our time is to reestablish the dignity of historical studies on a basis that will make them consonant with the aims and purposes of the intellectual community at large, that is, we must transform historical studies in such a way as to allow the historian to participate positively in the liberation of the present from the burden of history.
When he made brief remarks to the Class of 2014 at Commencement, he didn’t tell them to go discover their pasts, to go find out who they really were and then express that. No, Hayden told us all that we weren’t rooted in some authentic past and that we could make out of ourselves something new, something not beholden to someone else’s idea of who we really were and where we had really come from. We could remake the meanings of our pasts, paradoxically, by seizing opportunities to create our futures.
Hayden was a generous interlocutor for those interested in maintaining a commitment to keeping open the question of how we make sense of the past (or choose not to). He was alive to the constraints under which meaning was created, but he was also a champion of finding ways to think otherwise. I remember, as an undergraduate in his seminars, feeling acutely this tension between constraint and creativity. On the one hand, his formalist approach to the great literary and historical texts of the nineteenth century emphasized the tropes that determined a writer’s discourse. On the other hand, he showed time and time again the ways that these same writers defied the structures by which they had seemed bound. He invited his students and his readers to find ways both to recognize the situation that claimed to define them and to defy its boundaries. As a teacher, he showed no interest in training us to be accepted into a profession, and he offered every encouragement to extend the borders of our imaginations. He himself took an ironic stance in the classroom, which enabled his students to recognize that his was merely a stance they could choose or reject, “according to their own moral and aesthetic aspirations.”
Near the very end of his 1973 masterwork, Metahistory, Hayden evokes “the aged Kant,” who thought “we are free to conceive ‘history’ as we please, just as we are free to make of it what we will.” Recently, he returned to Kant and the French existentialists to acknowledge that we come to history not for scientific truth but for aesthetic and ethical guidance. One can turn to history to constrain or to nourish one’s imagination—”history can be a resource and not only a burden,” he emphasized. Indeed, it is imagination that makes history available to us, enabling us to construct what he called a “practical past.”
Hayden White taught that the imagination could push back against academic disciplines, cultural orthodoxies and political ideologies. May his memory as teacher, theorist, writer and friend inspire us to get out from under the burdens of history and make the present and future our own.