My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This picaresque fantasy of an American WASP millionaire’s quest for wisdom in the nameless heart of Africa was once a widely beloved and popular novel. It was a favorite of the Swedish Academy when they awarded Bellow the Nobel Prize in 1976, and it was his highest-placing work, at #21, on the Modern Library’s famous list of the 20th century’s greatest novels. The poet Anne Sexton said she would rather read it than breathe, while, as Wikipedia records, Joni Mitchell, Sonic Youth, and the Counting Crows wrote songs inspired by it. The reason for this 1959 book’s reduced prominence in the 21st century is obvious enough not to belabor. Francine Prose, answering the question posed in 2015, “What’s It Like Reading Saul Bellow’s ‘Henderson the Rain King’ Today?,” draws up the indictment:
I understand that Bellow’s fantasy Africa is intended to have only a nominal resemblance to reality, and usually I am the one who protests against judging art by the reductive standards of political correctness. But there was too much here that I found painful: the repeated references to “savages” and “children of darkness,” the accounts of their wild dances, lion hunts, and violent rituals performed with skulls and whips. “You saw yesterday what savagery can be,” Henderson tells himself, “if you never saw it before, throwing passes with his own father’s skull.” I couldn’t help cringing at the descriptions of the women as “amazons” with great “behinds…pitted like colanders,” and at the pidgin spoken by Henderson’s loyal guide, Romilayu. (“I no know, sah. Dem no so good people like Arnewi.”) Nor is there anything to suggest that the author’s views differ greatly from his hero’s, that Henderson is missing something, misinterpreting what he sees.
All true. There’s little point in arguing, as Adam Kirsch does in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, that “the intention of the novel is plainly the opposite of racist,” though this, despite Bellow’s later rumination on the Tolstoy of the Zulus, is true too. Bellow is obviously writing back to Conrad and Hemingway with the apparently novel idea that a white man could go to Africa not to hunt its fauna but to learn from the people who live there; moreover, the old-stock aristocratic hero is not exactly the Jewish working-class immigrant author (though Bellow did once name Henderson as the protagonist of his he most identified with). And if Henderson draws too deeply from the colonial well of “savage” imagery in the African setting, it’s worth mentioning the wild, irrational violence that obtains almost equally in the novel’s American and European settings, as Kirsch also notes. There is also, admirably, no noble savagery in this book despite its premise; the novel’s major African character, King Dhafu of the Wariri tribe, is not only wiser than the white protagonist but also more erudite, which is why he becomes his mentor and soul-physician. Henderson reflects on how Dhafu’s distinction reverses what he’d prejudicially expected:
I suppose there must be few native princes left who are not educated, and all the polytechnical schools enroll gens de couleur from all over the world, and some of them have made prodigious discoveries already. But I never heard of anyone who was precisely on King Dahfu’s track. Of course it was possible that he was in a league all by himself.
Dhafu is exceptional in the way that Henderson—or Bellow—is: he seeks wisdom and understanding without respite. For the contemporary reader, though, the novel’s very gambit is inherently illegitimate, despite the complicating details; even relatively flattering exoticism or mostly benign cross-cultural fantasy is proscribed, as Bible stories were banned as blasphemous from the English stage.
Yet Henderson the Rain King is a strange, funny, and beautiful novel, and you can see why people write songs about it. It begins with 56-year-old Eugene Henderson’s disordered American life. Despite his wealth and privilege, he’s on his second turbulent marriage to a woman named Lily, is partly estranged from his five children (one of whom at the age of 15, Ricey, tries to adopt an abandoned baby), and is often drunk and furious. His elder brother—his scholar father’s favorite—drowned in youth after being chased across a river by police for firing a gun in a diner while high on marijuana, a crazy episode that leaves the family’s distinguished legacy to the wandering second son. In early middle age, Henderson enrolls in the war effort and fights in Italy; in late middle age, he can’t quiet the voice in his chest that says “I want, I want.” At one point he tries to shoot a cat belonging to tenants on his land, an episode that haunts the novel along with Henderson’s other involvements with animals. He raises pigs—motivated to do so after he’d taunted a Jewish army mate who boasted of planning to open a milk ranch with the unkosher prospect—and he encounters death in the visage of an octopus at a French aquarium:
I looked in at an octopus, and the creature seemed also to look at me and press its soft head to the glass, flat, the flesh becoming pale and granular—blanched, speckled. The eyes spoke to me coldly. But even more speaking, even more cold, was the soft head with its speckles, and the Brownian motion in those speckles, a cosmic coldness in which I felt I was dying. The tentacles throbbed and motioned through the glass, the bubbles sped upward, and I thought, “This is my last day. Death is giving me notice.”
When one of Henderson’s furious tirades at his wife causes a visiting elderly neighbor to drop dead from shock, he finally decides he must change his life (“So for God’s sake make a move, Henderson, put forth effort. You, too, will die of this pestilence”) and accompanies a friend on a honeymoon to Africa. Once there, he sets off to the interior accompanied only by a guide named Romilayu.
His first adventure is among the Arnewi tribe, whom he initially impresses with a feat of strength—the bulky and bulbous Henderson defeats the tribe’s prince in ritual combat—and the Arnewi’s queen observes his “grun-to-molani,” his desire for life, a phrase that becomes a refrain in the novel. The Arnewi are suffering a drought, however, which is killing its sacred cattle, and Henderson vows to aid them by clearing their cistern of the frogs plaguing it—more marine life, like the octopus, standing coldly for death and the inhuman. Henderson improvises a bomb that not only kills the frogs but also blasts the cistern’s retaining wall and drains the water supply, leaving the Arnewi in a worse situation than before this would-be white savior had arrived. Penitent, he flees with Romilayu, and they venture deeper into the interior, where they come upon a less immediately hospitable tribe, the aforementioned Wariri.
Henderson, now suffering tropical fever, gets drawn into the Wariri way of life when he participates in a ceremony meant to bring on rain. He wagers with King Dhafu that the ritual will not produce the desired rainfall, and promises that if he loses, he will stay with the Wariri at the king’s pleasure. Despite his skepticism, he again asserts exceptionality when he proves to be the only person present who can move the giant icon of Mummah, the cloud goddess, during the rite. The language with which he narrates this feat vindicates the skeptical reader with its jocularly semi-sexual conquest of blackness and femininity at once:
Never hesitating, I encircled Mummah with my arms. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I pressed my belly upon her and sank my knees somewhat. She smelled like a living old woman. Indeed, to me she was a living personality, not an idol. We met as challenged and challenger, but also as intimates. And with the close pleasure you experience in a dream or on one of those warm beneficial floating idle days when every desire is satisfied, I laid my cheek against her wooden bosom. I cranked down my knees and said to her, “Up you go, dearest. No use trying to make yourself heavier; if you weighed twice as much I’d lift you anyway.” The wood gave to my pressure and benevolent Mummah with her fixed smile yielded to me; I lifted her from the ground and carried her twenty feet to her new place among the other gods. The Wariri jumped up and down in the white stone of their stands, screaming, singing, raving, hugging themselves and one another and praising me.
When the clouds subsequently open up, Henderson has the eponymous title conferred on him and finds himself in Dhafu’s confidence. Dhafu, it transpires, has not fully certified his kingship because he has failed to find the lion in which his father, the previous king, has been reincarnated (each Wariri king ends his term by being strangled by an executioner when he is unable to sexually satisfy his harem and then reborn as a lion).
Like Henderson, Dhafu is unsatisfied with his life as it is and with the customs of his people. He has been to medical school in Europe and has developed a theory that both fascinates and appalls Henderson: he believes, in defiance of Darwin, that each individual’s character and temperament shapes his or her physical being, that we are what we have made ourselves, and that we can change if we want. To this end, he has captured a lion who is not his father’s reincarnate spirit, which he keeps in the basement of the palace, and regularly brings Henderson to its den to imitate it in what Kirsch observes is Bellow’s semi-serious portrait of Reichian therapy. In Kirsch’s concise gloss, Wilhelm Reich “believed that the key to mental health was to break down one’s ‘characterological armor’ and build up the primitive orgasmic energy he dubbed ‘orgone,'” which Henderson accomplishes by getting on all fours and roaring like the lion under Dhafu’s therapeutic tutelage. Impressed by Dhafu’s seeming calm and self-sufficiency, Henderson imagines that the king’s wisdom might be the end of his quest:
I might have added, as it entered my mind to do, that some people found satisfaction in being (Walt Whitman: “Enough to merely be! Enough to breathe! Joy! Joy! All over joy!”). Being. Others were taken up with becoming. Being people have all the breaks. Becoming people are very unlucky, always in a tizzy. The Becoming people are always having to make explanations or offer justifications to the Being people. While the Being people provoke these explanations. […] And if I had really been capable of the alert consciousness which it required I would have confessed that Becoming was beginning to come out of my ears. Enough! Enough! Time to have Become. Time to Be! Burst the spirit’s sleep. Wake up, America!
Henderson gradually becomes aware, however, that he has stumbled into a court intrigue—that Dhafu has enemies in the tribe, that he himself might have been manipulated into becoming the rain king (which undercuts the “white savior” quality of the god-moving scene), and that Dhafu’s enemies have designated him a more tractable replacement for the current king. The narrative comes to its surprisingly suspenseful and moving climax with a lethal lion hunt in the jungle, after which Henderson, absconding with a lion cub, flees back to his old life.
Bellow beautifully concludes with Henderson, now renewed, caring not only for the lion cub but also for an orphaned fellow traveler on his way back to America and walking the boy around the ice as the plane refuels in Canada:
Laps and laps I galloped around the shining and riveted body of the plane, behind the fuel trucks. Dark faces were looking from within. The great beautiful propellers were still, all four of them. I guess I felt it was my turn now to move, and so went running—leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence.
Still in motion, still becoming, Henderson has traversed the world from tropic to arctic, from black to white, and if he finds himself running in circles, as ever, now he does it with joy while tending to others. The novel, in other words, exposes as facile its own surface quest structure, since there is no object to find at the end of the journey, no rest (until death) from change and desire, but only an inner transformation that lets one find beatitude and beauty, not despair and frustration, in the everyday. Our picaro even muses ironically on the limits of travel during one of his first conversations with Dhafu, though travel is the basis of his narrative and of his encounter with this superior man:
I put my fist to my face and looked at the sky, giving a short laugh and thinking, Christ! What a person to meet at this distance from home. Yes, travel is advisable. And believe me, the world is a mind. Travel is mental travel. I had always suspected this. What we call reality is nothing but pedantry. I need not have had that quarrel with Lily, standing over her in our matrimonial bed and shouting until Ricey took fright and escaped with the child. I proclaimed I was on better terms with the real than she. Yes, yes, yes. The world of facts is real, all right, and not to be altered. The physical is all there, and it belongs to science. But then there is the noumenal department, and there we create and create and create. As we tread our overanxious ways, we think we know what is real. And I was telling the truth to Lily after a fashion. I knew it better, all right, but I knew it because it was mine—filled, flowing, and floating with my own resemblances; as hers was with her resemblances. Oh, what a revelation! Truth spoke to me. To me, Henderson!
His quarrel with Lily over which of them—both rather zany fantasists—is better acquainted with reality furnishes one of the novel’s motifs. The real question, given that reality only comes to us through the mesh of our own subjectivity, as the narrative is conveyed through the richly impedimented medium of Bellow’s rollicking prose, is not how much of our experience is real but how we should understand and value it. As in other of his earlier works, Bellow contests the despair and declinism of the modernists, stressing not only the horrors of the 20th century (as in Henderson’s wartime experiences) but also its marvels. In an airplane at the outset of his voyage, Henderson considers,
And I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.
On his return trip, he regards the clouds again. Sounding like the Emerson of “Experience” (“We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them”), and again refusing the despair counseled in the middle of the last century by everyone from the Frankfurt School to the Existentialists to the Southern Agrarians, Henderson lauds the lords of life:
Other passengers were reading. Personally, I can’t see that. How can you sit in a plane and be so indifferent? Of course, they weren’t coming from mid-Africa like me; they weren’t discontinuous with civilization. They arose from Paris and London into the skies with their books. But I, Henderson, with my glowering face, with corduroy and Bersagliere feathers…I couldn’t get enough of the water, and of these upside-down sierras of the clouds. Like courts of eternal heaven. (Only they aren’t eternal, that’s the whole thing; they are seen once and never seen again, being figures and not abiding realities; Dahfu will never be seen again, and presently I will never be seen again; but every one is given the components to see: the water, the sun, the air, the earth.)
The novel’s landscape, like its menagerie, are what another word-drunk and verbally careering modern, Hart Crane, called “emblems of conduct.” Henderson’s redemption, in the face of his and his epoch’s angst, is to use these evanescent rudiments to inspire the renewed action that remakes the person and the world. Bellow’s extravagant style, with its self-interruptions, its mingled registers (street slang, academic verbiage, Biblical grandeur), its exclamatory exuberance and sensuous immersion, does not merely describe this vital worldview but, in rejecting Hemingway and Co.’s fashionably blanched lexis and syntax, embodies its struggle of becoming. So much so that this author often both praised and blamed as a novelist of ideas can be appreciated on aesthetic and sensualist grounds alone, as his apostle James Wood has sometimes almost self-parodically demonstrated.
Has Bellow lost ground because he’s too offensive? He’s offensive enough—while his books’ racial ideology is usually not as bad as it looks at first, the same can’t always be said of his attitudes toward women—but I suspect he offends for more reasons than those given. He wounds as well by exposing our own declinists as cowardly and timid. Both sides in today’s endless culture war agree on apocalypse—the right proclaims western civilization finished unless we return to some earlier supposed state of grace (the 1950s for Protestants, the 1250s for Catholics), while the left insists that Gaia herself has had enough of us and we should settle in for one final childless generation subsisting on centipede burgers till the planet desiccates—but Bellow’s effort of imagination and composition, even where visibly effortful, shows by contrast what liveliness and will can accomplish when wedded to a quest, hopeless or not. It’s hard to imagine a time that could use this vitalism—not as a rigid ideology but as a flexible artistic and personal style—more than ours.