While Stephen Greenblatt turned to history to explain the formal structures of literary texts, White investigated the formal literary structures of history describing a “poetics of history.” It’s a broad reflection on narrative and its relation to culture. “To raise the question of the nature of narrative is to invite reflection on the very nature of culture and on the nature of humanity itself. Reacting against the tendency of history as a discipline to seek its models in the sciences, White considers the literary dimension of history cannot be dismissed. Historians deploy the traditional devices of narrative to make sense of raw data, to organize and give meaning to their accounts of the past. Using the tools of the literary critic White analyses the nature and mechanisms of history as discourse.
The Historical Text as a Literary Artifact
In this book, he examines the structuring role of plots and tropes (figures of speech) in the discourse of history. It provides a synopsis of his main arguments in Metahistory, beginning with his definition of meta-history as the attempt to “get behind or beneath the presuppositions which sustain a given type of inquiry [in this case historical inquiry].” It was thought that history (judged by its correspondence to reality) and literature (judged as fiction) were two distinct, diametrically opposed, activities White argues, because history, like literature, is a verbal structure and the historian is a writer, the tools that have served literary critics, the tools that compose the linguistic and rhetorical structures of a text, serve the historian as well. The language in which history is written cannot be dismissed. Language in history is never merely a means to an end. It is neither transparent nor neutral. He argues that history, because of its claims to represent reality adequately, is the form best suited for a study of the style of narrative “realism.” Histories gain their explanatory power by processing data into stories. Those stories take their shape from what White calls “emplotment,” the process through which the facts contained in “chronicles” are encoded as components of plots. Plots are not immanent in events themselves but exist in the mind of historians. The event emerges as a plotted story, which takes on meaning when it is combined with other elements in the limited number of generic plot structures by which a series of events can be constituted. White identifies four possible emplotments: tragic, comic, romantic, and ironic. These generic deep-plot structures are shared between historians and their audiences by virtue of their participation in a common culture. The kind of emplotment historians will employ is determined by the dominant figurative mode of the language they use to describe these events and story elements. He identifies four master tropes or modes of figurative representation –metaphor, metonymy, synechdoque, and irony- which correspond to the four types of emplotment. Tropes are ineradicable from discourse, as are plots. Thus history evokes reality: it does not reproduce or represent it. Historians have mistakenly focused their attention only on the surface, while ignoring the underlying deep structures that produces those narratives. Historians have objected to his narrowing of history to language, while more poststructuralist-minded literary critics have taken issue with his structuralist reductionism (only four master plots and tropes). Other critics contend that unlike most structuralists, White imagines plot as a quintessential expression of the historian’s personal style and self. Despite these objections, White’s skilful dismantling of the opposition between history and literature has paved the way for many productive studies in both fields. According to Lévy- Strauss our explanation of historical processes are determined more by what we leave out than by what we put in. Historical narrative as an extended metaphor it does not reproduce the events it describes, it tells us in what direction to think about the events.

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