The Problem of Black Representation in
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
FOR LATE-TWENTIETH-CENTURY TEACHERS, the significance of Harriet Beecher Stowe as a white woman creating a national space for an “empathetic” discourse on the slave experience raises several questions. For instance, why didn’t Mary Prince’s exposé of slavery in the West Indies, The History of Mary Prince (1831), or Harriet Wilson’s account of de facto slavery in the American North, Our Nig (1859), become the proverbial “shot heard around the world”? What enabled Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin and begin a national and international literary exchange on slavery? The novel invented the modern idea of a “best-seller,” and many of Stowe’s characters became national stock types and icons. Even today, readers cry at the right places and express horror, relief, or disbelief where textually appropriate. Most important, Stowe’s text allows whites to talk to other whites about the personal and national issues surrounding the slave experience and establishes the character types usually associated with African Americans. Indeed, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and then the early twentieth century, Stowe’s novel provided the nation with a shared cultural context for its discourse on slavery, offering reductive images, phrases, and symbols that quickly became the accepted norm.