For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

By the Sweat of the Brow: Literature and Labor in Antebellum America

by Bromell, Nicholas K (1993)

Abstract

The spread of industrialism, the emergence of professionalism, the challenge to slavery - these and other developments fueled an anxious debate about work in antebellum America. In this book, Nicholas K. Bromell discusses the ways in which American writers participated in this cultural contestation of the nature and meaning of work. In chapters on Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Rebecca Harding Davis, Susan Warner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frederick Douglass, Bromell shows how these writers not only scrutinized work - be it factory labor, agriculture, maternal labor, or slave labor - but also reflected upon its relation to their own work of writing. Bromell argues that American writers generally sensed a deep affinity between the mental labor of writing and such bodily labors as blacksmithing, house building, housework, mothering, field labor, growing beans, and so on. Nevertheless, writers resisted identifying their labor as purely or simply bodily, both because society placed mental and spiritual labor at the top of its scale of values and because the body was so often the site of gender or racial subjugation. Bromell also makes important contributions to three areas of nineteenth-century social history. He probes the period's conflicting ideas of mothers as both spiritual "angels of the house" and ineluctably embodied laborers in the home. Using as an example the exhibitions of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, he discusses the advent of an industrial ideology that sought to devalue the meaning of skilled manual labor. Finally, he suggests that, paradoxically, slaves were sometimes able to find in their labor a mode of self-actualization within slavery. Deftlycombining literary and social history, canonical and noncanonical texts, primary source material and contemporary theory, By the Sweat of the Brow establishes work as an important subject of cultural criticism. At the same time, it contributes to discussions of race, gender, and the body in American literary studies.

Keywords

Work In Literature, America

Themes

Work in Literature

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