Influential historian Hayden White dies at 89

Hayden White during his first year at UC Santa Cruz, 1979 (courtesy of University Library, UC Santa Cruz)
Hayden White, November 2017 (courtesy of Margaret Brose)
Hayden V. White, professor emeritus in the History of Consciousness Department at UC Santa Cruz, died at his Santa Cruz home on March 5, 2018, at age 89. He was a 40-year resident of Santa Cruz who traveled the world.

White was trained as a medieval historian, but the majority of his work focused on modern European intellectual history, literary criticism, philosophy, and historiography--the study of historical writing.

He first gained notice in 1966 with an essay, “The Burden of History,” laying the foundation for his later work, which re-imagined history as a creative, as well as scientific history. His landmark book published in 1973, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, initiated a major re-orientation in the field of historiography and has been translated into more than 10 languages.

"Hayden White was a towering figure bridging intellectual history and cultural theory,” said UC Santa Cruz dean of humanities, Tyler Stovall. “His Metahistory remains one of the most important studies of historiography in the modern era. His focus on narrative and the relationship between history and literature exercised a seminal influence on the rise of cultural history to its dominant position in historical studies today."

Stovall added that White also “played a central role in shaping the History of Consciousness Department into a one-of-a-kind program that pioneered theoretical and cultural studies, and helped stamp UC Santa Cruz as a university that marched to a different drummer." 

White came to UC Santa Cruz in 1978 as one of the History of Consciousness Board’s first full-time faculty members. As the new chairperson, he brought “essential stability and a fresh vision,” recalled his colleague, emeritus professor James Clifford. “Working with Hayden wasn’t always comfortable. He would step on what you held sacred. And he could be wickedly accurate. But we discovered that if you stayed with him, stayed in the conversation (and he so loved conversation), he would do anything for you. Watching him work with students, I was always amazed by how much he took on, how generous he could be. An incredible energy…”

Born on July 12, 1928, in Martin, Tennessee, White enlisted in the Navy near the end of WWII and used his G.I. bill after the war to begin his academic career. He earned a B.A. in History in 1951 from Wayne State University in Detroit, and his M.A. degree from the University of Michigan in 1952. He also spent two years in Rome, Italy, on a Fulbright Fellowship, where he completed his dissertation research in the Vatican library on Church Reform in the Middle Ages, and received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan in 1956.

White also held teaching positions at Wayne State University, the University of Rochester New York, UCLA, Wesleyan University, UC Berkeley, and Stanford University. Among his many awards, and honors, he was an elected Fellow to the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His final book, The Practical Past (2014), opened a new way of historical thinking outside the professional norms, insisting that history is a set of practical pre-suppositions accessible by rhetorical and literary means, which constitutes the ethical foundation of our daily existence.

“Hayden White’s career was animated by the fear that we were becoming prisoners of our histories, individual and collective,” noted Wlad Godzich, distinguished professor of literature and former dean of humanities at UC Santa Cruz. “He saw his task as liberating us from the burden of history and from the endlessly divisive quest for some authenticity to be found in the past.”

“Hayden was an optimist who believed that imagination could help us design better futures,” Godzich added. “He was also a realist who denounced the flaws of the present and the past, and warned us against dangerous futures. He was a great humanist who harnessed the resources of literature, philosophy, and history to provide a sustainable future for humankind. These were the animating concerns of the department of the History of Consciousness, which he put on the world map of learning.”

White is survived by his wife of 46 years, Margaret Brose; children Juliana Sarah Brose White, Adam Virgil White and David H. White; and grandson David Ross White.