William Donahue

The Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, C.S.C., Professor of the Humanities
Concurrent Professor of Film, Television & Theater; Professor of European Studies, Keough School of Global Affairs; Director of the Initiative for Global Europe, Keough School of Global Affairs

The Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, C.S.C., Professor of the Humanities
4159 Jenkins And Nanovic Halls
Notre Dame, IN 46556
Office Hours
MW 3:30pm - 4:30pm (107 Decio) and MW 6:30pm (4159 Jenkins Nanovic): by appointment



Ph.D. Harvard University

M.T.S. Harvard University, The Divinity School

M.A. Middlebury College

B.S.F.S. Georgetown University, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service

Research and Teaching Interests

  • Contemporary European Studies (migration, refugees, European Union, populism)
  • German literature and film
  • Holocaust Studies
  • German Jewish Studies
  • Art as a form of protest, social engagement, and community building


Decades ago, I took Michael Coogan's course on the Hebrew Bible. Our final paper assignment was to pick a compelling story from the "Old Testament," study it in its original context (to the extent an undergraduate can do that), and then trace it through its various forms and iterations over the centuries—including not just its many literary adaptations, but also its incarnation in visual art, theater, film, etc. I chose the shocking story of Jephthah's Daughter, the grizzly tale of a father who vows to offer to Jahweh (in gratitude for a military victory over an enemy) the first living being that crosses his threshold. It turns out to be his daughter. I dug up all kinds of retellings, "corrections," adaptations, revisions, etc., and have ever since been fascinated by the social function of art--how the "same" story evolves as it circulates into different settings, depending on who reads it, and how they respond, enriching, elaborating, maybe even reversing the narrative.

What I love most about this effort is that it requires you to care deeply about the work of art itself (artwork aesthetics) even while it asks you to pay close attention to its changing contexts and readers (receptions aesthetics). This means that I ply the tools both of the philologist (attending to language, editions, manuscripts, narrative voice, literary structure, etc.) and those of the historian and sociologist. It is an ambitious and challenging task that, if I'm honest, often proves elusive. Further, this dyadic approach makes it difficult to pledge allegiance to any one scholarly camp: you never simply do "close readings" (valuable as these can be), nor can you ever be truly satisfied with mere reception criticism.

Trying to serve two masters in this manner has characterized all my scholarship since my days in Coogan's class. It is the approach I took in trying to understand the distinctive contribution that Elias Canetti makes to literary modernism with his hilarious (and sometimes daunting) novel, Die Blendung, and it is no less present in my work on a much more contemporary author, Bernhard Schlink, who has written the single most popular novel used to help German students (and others) "come to terms" with the Holocaust and Germany's Nazi past.

More recently, I've pursued the broader social dimensions of literature and art through an annual seminar for faculty and graduate students of German Studies that I co-direct with Martin Kagel. We combine our great love of literature—which we celebrate by inviting authors, and sponsoring readings of their work—with an exploration of the social, economic, and business conditions that make their art possible in the first place. We examine all those factors that determine what books get published, how they are edited, distributed, reviewed, adapted for the stage, filmed, translated, etc. We've done this not only in the seminar, but also in a recent book that emerged from those annual gatherings: Die große Mischkalkulation: Institutions, Social Import, and Market Forces in the German Literary Field (2021).

In my teaching, I try to emphasize literature and film that present, among other things, possible resources for coping with life's great challenges. In this sense, I'd like to think, literature might serve not only the cause of self-understanding and social critique, but perhaps also promote resilience, renewal, and sociability. In other words, I'm an optimist who nevertheless remains in the thrall of grizzly stories like Jephthah's daughter.

Representative Publications and Accomplishments

The End of Modernism: Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé (2001; paperback 2020)

Die große Mischkalkulation: Institutions, Social Import, and Market Forces in the German Literary Field (co-editor, with Martin Kagel, 2021)

Holocaust Lite: Bernhard Schlinks "NS-Romane" und Ihre Verfilmungen (2011)

Nexus: Essays in German Jewish Studies (book series; founding co-editor)

andererseits: Transatlantic Yearbook of German Studies (journal; founding co-editor)