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In Memoriam: Hayden White (1928-2018)

Yesterday, at the age of 89, my friend and mentor, Hayden White, passed. His name will likely survive him forever, connected as it is to the past fifty years of American intellectual history, to the “linguistic turn” in historiography and the humanities, to the rise of “history and theory,” and to “metahistory,” the term he famously coined in an homonymous book in 1973. But today his friends mourn the disappearance of his gentle smile, and of his inquisitive gaze, which spoke the older language of humanism and solidarity, and radical, even militant activism. Yes, Hayden always defined himself as a Marxist, and everybody always took that as a joke or a provocation. But it was neither. Hayden White did with the ’historical text’ what Marx had done with society: he had unearthed the deep structures of the text, the rules regulating its surplus and exchange values, which he called tropes, and correlated them to the plot structures historians told showing that no matter what they declared themselves to be—even revolutionary Marxists—their political unconscious was rooted in the tropes they used rather than the metaphors that flowered their narratives. This is why Hayden has appealed to so many leftist scholars despite their distaste for his relativism and sarcastic distaste for any appeal of historians to objectivity, truth, methodology, etc… He will be greatly missed by his friends, and pupils, and admirers, but he also leaves an empty space in the humanities that will not be so easily filled.

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