The spread of industrialism, the emergence of professionalism, the challenge to slavery - these and other developments fuelled an anxious debate about work in antebellum America. Nicholas 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 writers scrutinized work and reflected upon its relation to their own work of writing. Bromell argues that American writers sensed a deep affinity between the mental labour of writing and such bodily labours as blacksmithing, mothering and growing crops. He also contributes to 19th-century social history by examining opinions on the nature of maternity, ideological efforts to devalue skilled labour, and the paradoxical idea that slaves sometimes found in their labour a mode of self-actualization within slavery. Combining 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.