This essay makes a pair of interrelated claims about apathy. One of these is literary-historical, the other critical-literary. During the turbulent middle decades of the nineteenth century, a number of US writers resorted to the emotionless state of apathy even as the wider culture normalized the possession and display of feelings. The antebellum writings of author Herman Melville are hardly alone in demonstrating apathy’s hermeneutic and aesthetic uses; they nevertheless suggest a concentrated encounter with apathy, given how the author thematically foregrounds unfeeling in his work. In Melville’s writings, we discover an alternative affective register for the characteristic emotionalism of US literary culture in the decades surrounding the nation’s Civil War. Meanwhile, apathy continues to pose a challenge to the emotionally implicated modes of reading, reception, and response that have enjoyed critical favor in recent years as a broadly conceived affect studies. If apathy is not a foil for the study of affect, it does extend the emotional range of our criticism by modeling a way to formulate feelings—those associated with the literary subjects of our scholarship, as well as those that inform and motivate our work in the first place—in relative and relational terms. Apathy is more than a generational disposition of postmoderns or the cool, emotionless province of “critique” that Rita Felski identifies with what she (after the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur) names a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Rather, apathy is an interpretive stance in its own right, proactive in the critical postures it adopts as much as it is reactive to any culture that defines itself, at least in part, on the basis of its relation to feelings.

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