University of Rochester

Between History and Narrative: A Colloquium to Honor Hayden White

April 16, 2009

Groundbreaking Historian and Humanist Honored by Scholars from Around the World

"All stories are fictions," wrote Hayden White, one of the most influential and revolutionary thinkers in the humanities in the last 40 years, known for going beyond the surface level of historical text to a deeper structural level of linguistic form. In honor of White and his contributions, scholars from around the worldórepresenting diverse areas of history, philosophy, modern languages, literature, and artówill participate in a comprehensive two-day colloquium at the University of Rochester on April 24 and April 25. White himself will be present at the conference discussions as well as participate in a question-and-answer session. The event is free and open to the public.

Though generally known as a "theorist," White was trained as a historian. Since the 1973 publication of Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, his controversial ideas have revolutionized thinking about historical representation and the intersection of history and literary studies. "White posed the nettlesome and controversial question, 'Why do we write history?' at a time when historians did not want to deal with the question," says Robert Doran, an assistant professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Rochester who studied under White at Stanford University. "His challenge to history was that it is not a science, or a story told only in facts, but rather a form of discourse that relies on conventional narrative forms and the imagination."

A professor of history at the University of Rochester from 1958 to 1968, White is a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, University Professor Emeritus of the University of California, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. White will participate in the conference discussions as well as in a question-and-answer-session on Saturday, April 25. His other groundbreaking works include collections of essays such as Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978), The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (1987), and Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (1999), all of which have been widely translated.

"No other historian has had the interdisciplinary influence of White," added Doran, also the editor of a forthcoming volume of essays by White titled The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory, 1957-2007 (Johns Hopkins University Press). White's critical works have been a wellspring for literary scholars, philosophers, anthropologists, art historians, and film and media critics, as the large body of secondary literature on his thought attests. Indeed, Richard Vann, the longtime editor of the journal History and Theory, has called White "perhaps the premier academic essayist of our times."

White will participate in the conference discussions as well as in a question-and-answer session on Saturday, April 25. The keynote speaker for the colloquium is Fredric Jameson of Duke University, one of the most prominent American literary critics writing today and the author of 20 books on literary theory, Marxist thought, visual culture, and cultural theory. Jameson will be joined by noted scholars in history and the humanities from Poland, the Netherlands, England and the United States, including University of Rochester faculty.

"His insistence that history is as much about how you narrate as what you narrate opened up the possibility of demonstrating the past's relevance to the present," said Paul Duro, professor of art history and visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester. "Furthermore, his central thesis that historical writing may be understood as a system of tropes, such as the metaphorical and the ironic, allowed for the beneficial expansion of historical thinking into the realm of literary and critical theory. In this last sense, all of us in the humanities are followers of White," added Duro.

"While some historians hailed Metahistory as a seminal work, others saw White as a gadfly, an unwelcome critic of a hallowed discipline with ancient roots," writes Doran in his editor's introduction. "To them, White's rapprochement between literary or fictional storytelling and the historical or biographical account amounted to an indictment of history as a factual discipline, scientific in spirit, if not in method. Nevertheless, White's books and articles are standard reading in history and humanities courses."

Sponsored by the University of Rochester's Humanities Project, the conference will be held in the Simon School's Schlegel Hall 207 on Friday, April 24 and Schlegel Hall 107 on Saturday, April 25. The keynote address will take place on Friday, April 24th at 5:15 p.m. in Goergen Hall 101. To view the conference schedule, please visit The Humanities Project emphasizes the influence on and contributions of the humanities to academic and civil life.