Vicki Rea
Lehigh University
Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.

Hayden White defines the historical work as a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse that classifies past structures and processes in order to explain what they were by representing them as models.

A historian takes events that have happened and makes a story out of them.

                                        Chronicle  --»  narrative prose discourse

A historian doesn't just find history but also makes it by

  •     arranging events in a certain order
  •     answering questions: what happened? when? how? why?
  •     deciding which events in the chronicle to include and exclude
  •     stressing some events and subordinating others
  • A historian answers questions by three different types of explanations:
  •     Emplotment
  •     Argument
  •     Ideological implication
  • For each of these three explanations, there are four types of forms from which the historian can choose :

    Emplotment -- "every history, even the most 'synchronic' of them, will be emplotted in some way"

            The four types of emplotment are romance, satire, comedy, and tragedy.

  • Romance = drama of self-identification, including a hero's triumph over evil
  • Satire = the opposite of romance -- people are captives in the world until they die
  • Comedy = harmony between the natural and the social; causes for celebration
  • Tragedy = a hero, through a fall or test, learns through resignation to work within the limitations of the world, and the audience learns as well
  • Romance and comedy typically represent forms emerging in the world; satire and tragedy the return of the same forms in a different situation

    Argument = the historian's view of what history ought to be

            The four types of argument are formalist, organicist, mechanistic, and contextualist.

    Ideology: reflects ethics and assumptions the historian has about life, how past events effect the present, and how we ought to act in the present; claims the authority of "science" or "realism"
    (There were ideologies which didn't claim science as an authority before the Enlightenment; they are authoritarian.  According to White, there is no possibility of authoritarian ideology now.)
    poetic structure
    These are the most common combinations among the modes (excluding the poetic structure).  However, mixture among elements is what provides "dialectical tension," which is part of the work of master historians.

    The above information is taken from Hayden White's Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.

        Now, let's go for a test run, trying to figure out a particular historian's historiographical style.  This is an interesting method to use to determine the differences between the method of telling a history in a movie as opposed to a written text.  For example, I have graphed Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion (1544) and the film Cabeza de Vaca (1991) based on it like this:
    Cabeza de Vaca
    (No modern category)
    Liberal / Radical
    Poetic Structure

    Emplotment:  I have chosen romance for Relacion because Cabeza de Vaca relates in this history the unfolding of a new self in relation to the Native Americans and his emergence back into his own nation.  I think that the film is a satire in comparison, because its focus is on the vindictiveness of the Spaniards at the end.  It seems no matter what Cabeza de Vaca has learned, it will make no difference in the scheme of things.

    Argument:  I think the argument for Relacion is formal because of the nearly obsessive remembrance of particular objects-- for instance, the focus on prickly pears or whatever was available to eat and the nature of the variety of tribes he met.   In contrast, I think that the film focused on one part of the chronicle, the healings, and consolidated the sum of his experience into this particular mamifestation of power.  The film is oriented toward the end goal of showing the integration of de Vaca's Spanish character with the Native American character.

    Ideology:  The ideology of the written history is based on an authoritarian system.   Cabeza de Vaca is reporting to superiors on whom his future rests.  However, the ideology of the film is either liberal or radical.  The end scene certainly depicts an apocalyptic event, with the darkening of the sky and the silver cross, and in this sense it might be considered radical.  The process of change in the "real" world, however, is not explicitly made imminent but rather seems to be a result of a progression based on the laws of human nature and extraordinary humans like Cabeza de Vaca.

    Poetic Structure:  I classified the poetic structure of the written history as metaphorical because Cabeza de Vaca's mission is analogical to the suffering Christ of the New Testament.  Although the movie could also be classified this way, I chose synecdoche as more indicative of its style, since the qualities of the healer becomes the whole tenor of the discourse.


    Believe it or not, Hayden White's major thrust is that historical style can be explicated, just like a poem.  This is why he calls the writing of history a poetic act.

    Make a table like the one above for the movie Pocahontas and selections from John Smith's General History, the historical basis for her story.  Provide short justifications for each of your choices.  Remember, there may not be one right answer for some of the categories.  Rather, your particular reading of the structure of the historical texts, including especially the differences between them, is an important key to discussion about them.  Often, we think about the structure without being aware of it.  So, let's make each other aware, and then let's discuss the significance of our findings.