You find intriguing stories in obituaries

Saturday morning with coffee in hand I sat down with the business section of The New York Times – my husband had the front section. Nothing much to read except a story on how Trump’s tariffs will affect farmers and I’m so weary of all that. Flipping further I came to an obituary for historian Hayden White.

I paused. Like most of you, I’ve never heard of Hayden White but the caption beneath his photo said “He argued that historical meaning is imposed on historical facts by ’emplotment’, or choices in storytelling.” Hmmm.

A few more statements stood out for me.

The historian serves no one well by constructing a specious continuity between the present world and that which preceded it … On the contrary, we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption and chaos is our lot.

Well, I can certainly agree that we’re living amongst discontinuity, disruption and chaos!

Apparently some of Hayden White’s ideas were shunned by many of his fellow historians, most particularly the idea that “all stories are fictions” according to Robert Doran a professor at University of Rochester.

White held that while historical facts are scientifically verified, stories are not … historical meaning is imposed on historical facts by means of the choice of plot-type, and this choice is inevitably ethical and political at bottom.

Here’s another notion that appeals to me:

history is a living, breathing entity shaped by those who write it, not merely a dry examination of dusty artifacts.

I feel a sudden loosening of the bonds restricting the historical novels I write and a sense that even my stories can add to our living, breathing history.

You can read the entire obituary here. And more about Hayden White’s life here.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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15 Responses

  1. “…historical meaning is imposed on historical facts by means of the choice of plot-type, and this choice is inevitably ethical and political at bottom.”

    This quote struck me because I’ve been listening to the sound track of “Hamilton” in preparation for seeing the show this summer. The choice of hip hop and a black cast provides new historical meaning to the story of a founding father. I’ll be thinking about the ethical and political implications of that for some time.

    1. I hope you enjoy Hamilton, Carol. I haven’t seen it but have heard that it’s fantastic. I had the privilege of reading Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie’s new novel My Dear Hamilton a few months ago. For someone who knows little about the founding fathers of the US, it’s a great story, intriguingly told through the eyes of Hamilton’s wife. I’d be interested in your perspective after you see Hamilton.

  2. This is very true. I think that the struggle to distinguish between truth and a verifiable event needs to be made more of. Climate change is a verifiable event. The meaning of life needs to have the feel of truth for the one using it. Coming to grips with the fact that we do not have access to absolute truth on any level, and therefore can’t insist that our meaning for life/religion/spirituality has been believed by everyone, is a big challenge for true believers. I address this in my book Spirituality: A User’s Guide.

    1. I took a different meaning or, perhaps, feel a different emphasis. The “story” an author tells in science or fiction is rooted in one’s perspective which in turn is rooted in one’s moral vision. To take your example of “climate change” above, the reader can connect their personal values (indeed, their story!) with the story told by theologian Thomas Berry in The Dream of the Earth, or with physicist Brian Swimme in The Universe Story. Both the theologian and the physicist are acutely aware that the “facts” have to be shaped into a particular vision. By definition, fiction authors accept that we tell stories. And as every author knows, the ending is arbitrary–in the sense that the story can always be elaborated with more scenes, more details, more subplots. Still, every author also knows (or should know) that every story must have an ending that means something–that is, has a point . . . wherein lies the author’s heart or cynicism. This can be no less true for historians. I’m interested in how Hayden White thinks about that and will check it out.

      1. True, but I think that writers of historical fiction still have some responsibility to the ‘facts’ of a story, though there is nevertheless a lot of latitude in the telling. Something like A People’s History of the US, by Howard Zinn would be a good example. Whose truth do you privilege?

        1. Yes, of course, I agree. The facts are central which is why we write “historical” fiction. My point is that writers of history (not only historical fiction) also tell stories with the facts they select. As you point out, Mr. Zinn had a clear perspective, and as a project he appeared to choose telling the story from the “other side” to correct the standard presentation of U.S. history . . . his response to “privileged” story-telling. Perhaps what I’m getting at is better asked this way: whether one writes/reads a standard history text or an alternative perspective on the facts, to what extent should an author (obligation or responsibility) discover or reveal to herself/himself the morality (values) that anchor the story? I ask because I think the obligation is no less incumbent on writers of fiction.

          1. I think your question is a very important one. Hopefully more people will become aware of it and not just use the standard interpretation.

  3. “…I feel a sudden loosening of the bonds restricting the historical novels I write and a sense that even my stories can add to our living, breathing history.”

    I agree!

  4. Mary, you ask about reader obligations, and I am not sure what to say. To give a simple “yes, of course” doesn’t mean much, and on the other hand, to suggest that everyone be conscious and aware . . . well? Considering my own habits, sometimes I read for simple pleasure (a cozy Chief Inspector Gimache or a Bruno, Chief of Police mystery), and at other times I’m taking notes in the margin (The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History). Lately, more notes than cozy! What’s your take?

    1. Hey Chris … I suppose I said that to be provocative 🙂 There is a saying that a book isn’t complete without a reader which suggests the reader has some sort of responsibility. However, I believe the onus is on the author to pave the way for a reader’s conclusion and shine a light on different truths or at least shine a light on the possibility of different truths. I’m going to have to consider that more deliberately in my next novel. All best …

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