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Wolfgang Holdheim, law and literature pioneer, dies at 90

W. Wolfgang Holdheim, the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of Liberal Studies Emeritus, died Nov. 12, 2016, in Reston, Virginia, at the age of 90.

In a Festschrift in Holdheim’s honor published as a special issue of Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature in 1995, editor Richard Weisberg, M.A. ’67, Ph.D. ’70, said Holdheim, an expert on the theory and practice of narrative, was “a true pioneer of the law and literature movement [who] has inspired and influenced several generations of writers on the subject.”

Frank Stringfellow, M.A. ’80, Ph.D. ’88, a Festschrift contributor, called Holdheim “a humanist of broad knowledge and sympathies and culture…he has also exhibited a fearlessness, not just in academic debate, but in the very act of seeing and understanding that have given his work both its edge and its originality.”

Born in Berlin on Aug. 4, 1926, Holdheim relocated with his family to Amsterdam in 1939; his father subsequently perished at Auschwitz. After the end of World War II, Holdheim immigrated to the United States.

Holdheim earned a bachelor’s in philosophy and a master’s in French literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1956 he completed his doctorate in Romance Studies at Yale University, where he studied the European novel and literary theory under the direction of Erich Auerbach and Henri Peyre.

Holdheim’s early teaching appointments were at Ohio State University, Brandeis University and Washington University. In 1969, he came to Cornell to chair the newly instituted Department of Comparative Literature as the Frederick J. Whiton Professor of Comparative Literature and Romance Studies.

Weisberg and other contributors to the Festschrift emphasized Holdheim’s warm generosity toward his students, which Weisberg said influenced them as much as his “intellectual reign.”

“Despite the horrors of war that Wolfgang encountered at an early age, he lived a complete and happy life,” said William J. Kennedy, the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities.

Upon retiring from Cornell in 1990, Holdheim moved with his late wife Evelyn, to Boca Raton, Florida. He is survived by two children and two grandchildren.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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