This article begins by noting that recent debates about the relevance of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man to contemporary American culture enact an opposition between historicism (the idea that the novel is a Jim Crow artifact) and universalism (the idea that it transcends the circumstances of its production). The author then argues that Ellison's novel models a contemporaneity that cannot be equated to either the assertion or disavowal of contemporaneousness. At the heart of this account stands the narrator's sense that he “must emerge,” which follows from his perception that he has failed to communicate the nature of his invisibility to his reader, and that his act of writing has therefore disarmed him. The article shows that the narrator's emergence—an event that is necessitated by the narrative but which the narrative, by the very logic of that necessity, cannot itself contain—constitutes the hinge between the textual temporality of his underground existence and the social temporality that abuts it. As such, it offers the possibility that these two temporalities—which may be thought of as referring to the temporality of writing and the temporality of reading, respectively—may be linked, and that this linkage could lead to forms of recognition that appear only at the limit of narrative form.

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