How can we engage with one another and respond to suffering without feeling sentimental empathy or sympathy? What lies outside the pitfalls of sympathy that is not merely cold, unfeeling, and alienated? These are the questions at the core of both Melanie V. Dawson’s Emotional Reinventions and Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough. Dawson focuses on American literary realism’s overlooked interest in emotions and its deliberately unsentimental ways of registering, understanding, and portraying them, while Nelson tells the story of a twentieth-century female tradition of “unsentimentality” that she traces through the works of Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Simone Weil. While the two books are quite different in style and scope, they each depict attempts by writers and artists to circumvent sentimental sympathy. As much as both books describe the critique of and escape from sentimentality—its aesthetic...

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