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On "November Cotton Flower"


Nellie McKay

Images of scarcity, drought, and death in the natural world of the poem parallel the oppression of race, sex, class, and economics that comprise the reality of Karintha:

And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground--

It is a dismal landscape into which the flower blooms. The old people are startled by this omen of false spring that they know can only be a sign of greater misfortune for them all. In their superstition, they perceive in it the human dimensions of "Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear, / Beauty so sudden for that time of Year."

From Jean Toomer: Artist—A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936. Copyright 1984 by The University of North Carolina Press.


Vera M. Kutzinski

If part I was conceived as the equivalent of a pastoral journey back to the source (via "Song of the Son"), it almost immediately becomes apparent that Toomer had trouble sustaining an image of the rural South as "nature," as some sort of locus amoenus where "brown eyes . . . loved without a trace of fear" (6). What may well have begun as a classic pastoral sojourn is inevitably pulled into history, a history that continuously interferes with, indeed disrupts and transforms Toomer's images of natural beauty and increasingly identifies them as literary constructs that objectify both the landscape and its female dwellers. Like the landscape itself, Toomer's women, most of whom are lower-class mulattas tainted by some sort of illicit sexuality, are beautiful, innocent and pure only when situated outside of history, like the "mother of Christ drawn in charcoal on the courthouse wall" (19). They are "Orphaned," cursed, like Karintha, with "beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down"(3); condemned to virginity like Esther and Fern; cast out, dead, like Becky, "the white woman who had two Negro sons" (7). That they are mysterious, elusive and sexually disturbing is a function not of their "nature" but of the male narrators' need carefully to filter out emotionally and ideologically troubling histories of sexual and economic abuse, along with obvious differences in social class, which would (and do) interfere with these figures' ability to represent cultural and spiritual purity and wholeness. "As you know," one of these narrators explains in "Fern," "men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman" (16). This is why Toomer's women, be they "innocently lovely as a November cotton flower" or "prematurely serious" with faces "the color of the gray dust that dances with dead cotton leaves" (25), are all stunningly unreal, almost surreal. Their glamorous beauty is as unseasonal and unnatural as the November cotton flower that suddenly blooms in a drought-devastated waste land. Toomer's choice of the sonnet form for the poem "November Cotton Flower" (6) appropriately underlines the sense of artifice that throughout the text functions as a conceptual and aesthetic screen for a history too immediate, too uncomfortable to be dealt with in any explicit fashion.

from "Unseasonal Flowers: Nature and History in Placido and Jean Toomer." Yale Journal of Criticism 3 (Spring 1990), 153-179


Francoise Clary

Toomer's water metaphors form a vortex from and through which rush mingled ideas of hope and suffering that replace the actual situation in which the narrator and other characters find themselves. Thus, water imagery in Cane does not mirror external reality but, in the manner of a symbol, denotes the metaphysical.

All ten poems in part 1 harmonize their lyrical expression derived from the intricate pattern of water imagery with the religious core of stories where physical and spiritual energy coalesce. "November Cotton Flower" with its tragic images of vanishing water, spreading drought, and dried-up wells echoes the dramatic conflict of "Karintha" by the symbolic representation of death as tension:

And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground—
                            ("November Cotton Flower," 7)

Toomer's metaphorical and metonymical processes involve similarity, causality, and inclusion. When associated with drought, water becomes evocative of drained life, even of life tinged with death, or foreboding death.

from Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Genevieve Fabre and Michel Feith. Rutgers UP. Copyright by Francoise Clary.


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