Henderson the Rain King

ISBN: 0140189424
ISBN 13: 9780140189421
By: Saul Bellow

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About this book

Henderson has come to Africa on a spiritual safari, a quest for the truth. His feats of strength, his passion for life, and, most importantly, his inadvertant success in bringing rain have made him a god-like figure among the tribes.

Reader's Thoughts

Richard Hensley

If you can endure the narcissistic, misogynistic narrator-protagonist, if you can pretend to believe that every woman he meets wants to jump his bones, every guy wants to become his pal and no one anywhere wants to slap him silly, if you can abide the phony African setting, if you can shrug off the plot contrivances and force yourself to care about yet another privileged male’s midlife crisis, if you can avoid rolling your eyes out of socket at the “humorous” mishaps caused by the Rabelaisian hero against the noble savages he pursues, then occasionally you will find some perceptive observations in this novel. Eventually the narrator will reveal a spark of humanity. Once or twice he will treat women as though they’re almost human. And some of the author’s descriptive flourishes will evoke genuine pleasure. But Bellow here wants it both ways: he wants to parody the Hemingway-esque hero type and he also wants page after page philosophical babble to be taken seriously. I couldn’t do it. Over and over again I set this book aside never wanting to look at it again; I read review after review trying to appreciate what others saw; I forced myself to continue in an effort to understand its critical acclaim; but I'm still baffled.


I read this book a long time ago but I'll never forget Saul Bellow's description of the two types of people - be-ers and becomers. Some people are content where they are and know how to appreciate each day: being. Others are always looking for what's next, focused on change, struggling every day to figure out where and who they want to be: becoming. I felt like he was speaking to ME about this. It is a wonderful and bizarre story with some truly identifiable characters and sentiments.

Mitchel Broussard

I imagine that chick from Eat Pray Love owes a lot to this book. Some rich and successful but oh-so-depressed dillhole decides to go to Africa because, you know, foreign countries have ALL the answers because they're SO mysterious!I don't even feel like explaining. Henderson is a grade A asshole, even when he starts to "become" or whatever the fuck that means. I didn't care about him. I didn't care whether he "became" and I didn't care whether that baby tiger he takes home with him on the plane retaliated against his captors and devoured everyone on board. Okay, maybe that would have made me like it a bit more.The way it's written is almost stream-of-consciousnesses so Henderson constantly jumps back to compare events that are going on in the present with stuff in the past that we as readers don't even know about yet. After a while, I skimmed most of it, honestly, and got the plot holes filled in by sparknotes, and will be ready to put the words "I want, I want" as much as possible on my quiz in school.If there is one thing it does well, it rockets boredom to new frontiers. And I now know that everyone that "loves" this book, like The Sound and the Fury, is either A) Trying to impress someone into thinking they are a literary scholar who totally love existential crises in fiction because it really shows off our bare-bones human nature, ya know? or B) Are exactly like Henderson and need to stop reading depressing shit and pick up a Harry Potter book or something.


Through parody and satire, Henderson the Rain King (1959) offers Bellow’s most trenchant and comic analysis of literary modernism.The title character is a direct parody of literary giant Ernest Hemingway, a narcissistic stoic who is introspective, solipsistic, bumbling and egocentric. Despite wealth, physical prowess and social standing, Henderson feels restless and unfulfilled. He is Bellow’s answer to a generation of modern writers who reacted with exaggerated disappointment to the failures of Romantic phenomenology.After alienating his wife, children and friends, and literally shouting his housekeeper to death, Henderson uses his wealth to finance a spiritual pilgrimage through remote Africa. His guide, Romilayu, leads him to the village of the Arnewi, where he befriends the leaders of the village. When he learns the cistern from which the Arnewi draw their drinking water is plagued by frogs, he attempts to save their precious water supply. But his enthusiastic scheme ends in disaster.Henderson and Romilayu then travel to the village of the Wariri, where an impulsive feat of strength unwittingly deifies Henderson as the Rain King. His troubles, however, are far from over, and even his new friend, the Wariri chief, King Dahfu, may not be able to protect him from the tribal elders who are convinced that a lion is the reincarnation of the late king, Dahfu’s father.Henderson’s trek through the wilds of Africa is a journey to the heart of American spiritual darkness. It’s a commentary on the utter failure of nihilistic existentialism to teach anything humanizing about the nature and meaning of death. Nevertheless, beneath all the mockery and intellectual sifting, develops the story of a modern sensibility wounded by the world, yet ultimately rehabilitated by a restored sense of mystery.Henderson the Rain King ranks #21 on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels and is said to have been Bellow’s favorite amongst his own works.In 1976, Bellow became the seventh American to receive a Noble Prize in literature.

Arun Divakar

There is a thriving trade in self-help books which have always baffled me. I could never relate to another person telling me Look, these are the steps you need to take to better your life & if you don't take them you are done for ! Well, no book will be so absolute in saying so but underlying all the sugarcoating there is this message loud & clear in most books of this genre. Then however comes the matter of literature where a clever author without even giving you the faintest clue ties a blindfold around your eyes and walks you along telling you the story of a character & a quest. At some point (s)he pulls the blindfold off you & cries There, you see where our character is right now ? Then and only then do you realize the importance of the word self-discovery. Precisely what Saul Bellow does in this book !There is no patronizing in the words, no hollow advise on quick fixes you need to follow to discover the meaning of life. There is however a series of nerve wracking ordeals through which the guinea pig of a character named Eugene Henderson has to go through. Eugene is the oddball scion of an illustrious American family which counts State Secretaries, Scientists, Scholars & Lunatics among wealth and a solid ancestry. Eugene however is a totally different beast altogether, he is from rind to core a mass of confusion.When confronted with situations or emotions that threaten to get the better of him, he reacts in the only way best known to him : violence. He tries to find an inner meaning & solace in a lot of totally unconnected areas : Music, Sex, Soldiering, Alcohol, Farming but each tend to be a bigger disaster than the one preceding it. Eugene to me was very much akin to what a gorilla would have been in a glass factory. Leaving behind such a trail of shattered things, he escapes to Africa. It is among two of the most isolated of tribes : The Arnewi & The Wariri that the rest of his life story is penned.One amusing character I found in the tale was of King Dahfu of the Wariri. Eugene's interactions with the King give way to some of the most mind boggling & quote worthy prose in the book. The eccentric intelligence of the King rubs off on Eugene and the first tentative roots of transformation take hold in his character. Of significant presence for the principal protagonist is also the prophecy of Daniel on Nebuchadnezzar for at all phases in life, Eugene is closely linked to the lives of animals around him. The prose is extremly powerful and moving. While retaining the touch of a master wordsmith, Bellow creates extremely witty monologues especially in the earlier half of the book. This is easily a favorite for me !


This novel is staggering. It is the story, which we have heard so many times, of a bellicose foreigner who goes to Africa in order to find himself. But something is amiss. This isn't just some person who has lost their way a little bit, but someone that while good intentioned at times is a drunkard and a lout, selfish and violent; while he wants to be a good person, he simply isn't. Then he decides to ditch the tourist Africa and find the true heart of it in order to understand and heal himself, but when he arrives at a remote village with his guide and meets the prince of a very small and location, he is disappointed to hear him speaking English. "We are discovered," the prince says, apologizing. What follows is a continued parody of the philosophical finding of one's self in a foreign country trope. Intentions to fix the villagers foolish superstition (as deemed by Henderson) lead to a larger disaster and another superstition (which, truly, he discovers, is merely a form of control for a group of powerful individuals) which leads him to being the Rain King. The ideas further collapse as in the heart of Africa Henderson is lectured in psychology and philosophy and biology by the almost-doctor King.With lush prose and richly rendered, flawed and three dimensional main characters, Bellow provides a satire that is surprisingly erudite and logical and it seeks to undermine the genre it is masked in not by silly exaggerations, but by subtle turnings of expectation. This slim volume is certainly one of the best books of the last fifty years.

Nick Jones

I read The Adventures of Augie March some 20 years ago and since then have been fully convinced that Saul Bellow is the finest English language novelist of his generation. He is the only one I know of who seems to sum up his age: his work calls for a multiplicity of responses that reflect the multiplicity of his times. Even when his characters seem trapped in some sort of spiritual impasse, the world around them teams with meaning. There is an energy in his world, one that is created through the dynamism and richness of his prose. Yet, for some reason, I’m not sure how much a like him. Some of my uncertainties I can identify – I can forgive male writers who fail to create strong women characters, but Bellow’s women tend to be monstrous: there seems to be an underlying misogynist terror of women in his work – but others I cannot put my finger on...I am just left with a certain disquietude. Henderson the Rain King is one of his most famous and admired works, written in the late 1950s when he is generally regarded to be at his peak, yet, while finding it astonishing in its parts, the work of a great writer, overall I think it is an unsatisfactory work...the failed work of a major writer. Written in first person, the prose is colloquial, lacking obvious literary finesse, and reflects the larger than life central character, dynamic, unruly, unsettled, like a bull in a china shop: it feels as though he is always shouting at us and the world. Typically for Bellow, Henderson’s life is at an impasse. Despite his privileged background and success as a war hero, his life seems aimless, his first marriage has broken down and his second seems rocky, he is alienated from his children and almost on a whim he became a pig farmer...and now a failing pig farmer. His and the book’s way out of this impasse is to have him head for Africa. He comes across one tribe who are peaceful and seemingly wise, but Henderson inadvertently brings disaster upon them. A second tribe are a tougher bunch, more macho, and here Henderson fits in better, is befriended by the king and becomes the ‘Rain King’. But there are dangers. This Africa and the Africans are no more ‘real’ than the South Americans in Voltaire’s Candide: the story remains about Henderson and his development, Africa is a land of symbolisms...at least I presume it is...I am just unsure what the symbolism is. Without a grasp of this the book just seems a series of picturesque adventures, a character of bravado, egotism and the occasional uncertainty, rushing through situations, sometimes successful, sometimes endangered, sometimes a failure. By the end I am unsure that anything has been accomplished, although it feels as though we are being bullied into feeling a certain optimistic hope, but I find it imposed and a little sentimental. It is all vivid and dynamic, but I have no sense what it is all doing...but that might be my failure.


This was a struggle for me but I enjoyed it. I was not offended by the stereotypical depiction of Africa nor the bumbling, blustering, outrageous (self-described) Henderson but I don't know if I got much out of it except the fabulous word play and the idea of the spiritual hunger which ran through the book. The famous line "I want, I want, I want..." is one that certainly all have experienced. It was perhaps the juxtaposition of crude humor and lofty philosophical thoughts that left me a bit baffled. I think I need a class on this book. I am committed to read 5 books per year off the Modern Library list and this was number 5. (I just made it).


This is the fifth Saul Bellow novel I have read. I started with his first, The Dangling Man (1944) and moved along. I don't know that he is currently read much (and I don't know why), but I just love his novels. I would think that an author who won three National Book Awards, a Pulitzer, and the Nobel Prize should be an American treasure.Henderson is a character who could only have been created by Bellow. Larger than life, literally and figuratively, socially embarrassing, personally challenged as a husband and a father, and richer than Croesus, he moves through life leaving a wake of disaster.Due to various events including having become bored of being a pig farmer, Henderson decides to go to Africa, looking for adventure and personal redemption. He finds both, his well-intentioned but calamitous antics among the natives affording him access to tribal royalty.As I read on, enjoying every page, I began to see that simmering below the picaresque and the improbable was satire of the highest order. Is this the year I learn to understand and appreciate satire? It keeps popping up in the most unexpected novels and I have learned that it must be tastefully done or it drives me mad.So in 1959, Bellow published a novel that spoofs the mid-life crisis, the search for personal fulfillment, the African safari, and the American can-do attitude. At the same time, Henderson actually resolves his mid-life crisis, finds personal fulfillment, has the best ever safari (yes, there are lion hunts), and refines his American bull-headed ways.How did he do that?

Michael Alexander

Just off a reread from this baby, I'm both reminded of how amazing its best parts are and made aware for the first time how lame its worst parts are. Really, this thing is a 5-star, best-of-all-time book and a dubious 3-star adventure yoked together pretty awkwardly--but sometimes transcendently.The heart of what I love in this book is the poetry of the language, the over-the-top romanticism about Life and Meaning and Ecstatic Experience. Bellow is pouring out these incredible bits of prose about the unacknowledged beauty of life and the difficulty of remembering it in a world where everything good eventually runs down to nothing. And he's doing it in maybe the best midlife crisis narrative I've ever read, with this vitality-bursting-out comic expansiveness that reminds me of bits of Joyce or Tom Robbins or Sterne (sorry to pick people so utterly disparate, but the thread works in my head I _swear_)--and like those, the vigor of the comedy is just a way of expressing a deeply serious and poignant love of life. And this drunken, gluttonous loud-mouthed boor of a life-wasting heir to a fortune who Bellow makes his main character is an AMAZING creation to carry this narrative.And then there's the Africa adventure stuff. Which is meant to be a silly fantasy-world, a kind of sharp parody of Heart of Darkness, where Henderson thinks he can confront all his demons at Freudian Disneyland but turns out to have to face Real Honest To God Life (Amongst Intentionally Ridiculous Stereotypes of "Natives")--and sometimes, that works brilliantly, and sometimes it's just LAME. It works better, with some real tragedy and clear sense that he's being an arrogant prick and has to face the consequences, with the first "tribe" he meets than the second, lemme tell ya. And that second culture he encounters takes up a good hundred pages that suck out most of the energy of the rest of the book.But those words, at their best, they GLOW: "We are funny creatures. We don't see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects but endless fire." "Shall I run back into the desert ... and stay there until the devil has passed out of me and I am fit to meet human kind again without driving it to despair at the first look? I haven't had enough desert yet."

Jamie VW

I need to stop reading Saul Bellow.In fact, 2/3rds through this book, I was announcing that I was swearing off all mid 20th century male writers. But I'll walk that back some and just come to the point where I announce that I have now tried Bellows three times and there is something that absolutely turns me off. I had thought that since I had read two minor works (cue Squid and the Whale joke), The Bellarosa Connection and Mr. Sammler's Planet, I should try one selected as part of the cannon. Yet Henderson the Rain King just further cemented my distaste for his plot lines. I can admire the man's prose at certain points, but it is his characters and flow that just turns me off.There is a certain narcissism that oozes from his protagonists. I find this a problem with Roth and Updike too (see why I was in a rage yesterday?) In reading Henderson, I just find myself overwhelmed by the use of “I” as a way of telling a story. Apart from the main character who is fleshed out and where the reader is stuffed into his mind, there is very little of three-dimension in this book. The landscape feels flat, the other characters seem paper thin, the African culture, stereotypical or not is bland and even the eventual spiritual growth (from a pig to a lion! Or other such force fed ideas) seems like it will wash away shortly after the book ends. Increasingly, I look to fiction as an exploration of interaction, whereas Bellows seems much more caught up in inner turmoil and self-centered reflection. It also is often disturbingly misogynistic – or at the very least devoid of any sort of compelling female perspective. Women – and in this book, different cultures as well – are props, jokes or unimportant.My other issue with this book is with its humor, which hardly makes up for the irritating drip of the I pronoun. The book reminds of Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in its description of a wealthy scion’s escape from expectations and descent into madness. Vonnegut used it for a societal critique, while Bellows used the tale as almost a celebration of what it is to be a man, searching for manliness, with a gloss of goofiness to blunt the edges of his masculinity theme. It doesn't help that Conrad in all his inelegance did it so much better - though Bellows does try to replace "the horror" with Henderson's "I want".The quote that really ties up the nauseating quality of Henderson and his paper world is from page 197 - "I did treat everything in the world as though it was a medicine." It is a moment of clarity in an otherwise uncritical, opaque book. I feel used by the end, the reader as an antibiotic, sharing in all the minute miseries of a white privileged man. Frankly, I'd rather share in the life of someone else.

David Lentz

For those who want to get into the work of Saul Bellow, this is perhaps one of his most accessible novels. It's about a rich and eccentric man who travels to Africa and encounters a tribal chief who own lions. The tribal chief is brilliant and teaches Henderson some valuable lessons. The encounters with the lion were real and vivid and moving. Henderson is vintage Bellow and is relatively easy to read: it has less of a scholarly bent than several of Bellow's other novels like Ravelstein, Herzog and Humboldt's Gift, all of which take the reader into a very high intellectual plane. This novel is existential: it's Bellow not so much him versus the intellectual premises of ancient scholars but is rather Bellow versus the raw power of the forces of life itself. I admire greatly this literary work which displays all of Bellow's virtuosity with the power that the reality of his experience brings into this story. I highly recommend this novel for anyone wanting to gain access into Bellow without having first to take a course in the philosophy of ancient scholars. This is Bellow at his most accessible and most powerful. I strongly encourage you to savor this great and highly original novel.


an interesting book, but nowhere near as good as augie march; but i can see why people like it so much, it is much easier to handle and the characters are large and well-outlined. i'm not sure how this was ranked the 21st best novel on that modern library list - to me it's a minor work, that's best attribute is a positive african character, it really makes me rethink bellow's racism. although this book was written fairly early in his career and he became more intransigent and bigoted as he got older. anyway, it's worth the read but, not a nessecary work in my estimation.grun tu molani!


Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger. It said only one thing, I want, I want! And I would ask, 'What do you want?' But this was all it would ever tell me. I've never been to Africa. I'd love to though - if anyone wants to float me a one-way ticket to Ouagadougou, maybe a layover in Zürich to pick up some luxury essentials, I'd be mighty grateful. But I digress, I've never been, and what I know of it I basically know from "Out of Africa" starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, or from Things Fall Apart or Heart of Darkness - so essentially I know nothing of it whatsoever. But in any case, it has had, and still has, a sort of mystical quality of the unknown, of spots which we believe have eluded cartographers and adventurers alike. There's a romance in the unknown, the untrammeled, and that romance is the central figure of Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow's novel about a rich but dissatisfied man who seeks the meaning of life in the African plains. Saul Bellow admonished readers not to look for symbolism, in what is a preposterously allegorical work. It is almost impossible not to see symbolism everywhere in this book, in fact it would take a deliberate skepticism to avoid it. So why the warning? Maybe it is because the overflowing symbolism reminds us of another novel, taking place in Africa, also brimming with symbols? Maybe one by an author that Bellow admired, like, say, Joseph Conrad? Of course! I saw much of the symbolism of Henderson the Rain King to be a parodic point-counterpoint for Conrad's controversial depictions of Africa in Heart of Darkness, particularly his representation of the natives. In Bellow's reversal on themes, instead of trying to bring order to the African chaos, he seeks in Africa a stability of meaning in his own internal chaos. While Henderson's expectations of the African experience are clearly influenced by a Conradian view of the continent and its aboriginals, the novel as a whole evades the stereotypical trap by refusing to characterize "Africa" but instead keep it firmly in the backdrop. Henderson's views are quickly overturned, churned, and reversed as he meets African tribesmen who speak English and are trained in medicine. Henderson the Rain King is about a modern transcendental quest, à la Thoreau's sojourn on Walden Pond. Following in the philosophical tradition of Emerson and Whitman, Bellow through Henderson argues in favor of the human capacity to transcend state inertia of the Self, to metamorphose to a state unimaginably changed from one's original. Henderson elucidates this change as from a "pig state" to a "lion state," or perhaps he falls short of the leonine ideal, but a fully changed man he is, nonetheless. This change is brought about masterfully in the sub-Saharan chrysalis of the novel. The change is great, but incomplete, Henderson becomes man qua man: he remains imperfect, but changed for the better - the same man with a violent imagination and a youthful impetus but with a changed perspective, a human optimism which abandons his erstwhile melancholy to the realm of the past.Without Africa, I feel transcended beyond previous Selves. From the solipsistic and ill-behaved child to the melancholic perturbations of my high school spirit to the Self I have become today, I am a fully different individual, and all has been the result of changes in perspective. Unlike Henderson, these permutations of the spirit are naturally occurring transitions of youth: Henderson is a middle-aged man, and perhaps it takes so stark a change in venue to spark so vital a change in spiritual vitality. This book is a book of continuous conflict, on the surface it is a conflict between the impetus of the Self and the desire of change (ultimately a clash of desires), but deeper questions surface, combative questions of the physical versus spiritual selves, reason versus emotion, death and immortality, body and soul, and Self versus Society. Is it possible to make a drastic change to the Self in the midst of the the fierce tributary of modern society's desires and temptations? That question isn't wholly answered, because Henderson is always in a state of escape from Society. He lives outside Danbury on a pig farm before his journey to the African continent, far reclusive from the mainstream of society. When you feel out of sorts, escape feels a necessity for life, no solitude is solitude enough. But Henderson relents, Henderson finds solace in the masculine companionship he finds in his African guide, Romilayu, and in his spirit guide, King Dahfu of the tribe Wariri. While solitude and remoteness seems an ideal, it seems that change is impossible in a vacuum, we need people to catalyze our changes. Africa doesn't change Henderson, rather the men he meets there help to reveal to him his true capacity of heart, his true capacity for good, his veritable capacity to change.But there remains in the background a beauty of experience, which commingles a beauty of the natural and a beauty of the human. I love nature, and I find no better escape into myself than to get out into the forest, to go for a run in the glaucous shade along the Charles River esplanade. But that natural beauty is remote in its purest form, it is a beauty which transcends our complete appreciation and the essence of what it gives to us lies just beyond the ability of our natural language of praise and awe. Natural beauty needs the human element, imperfect analogues and the unnatural beauty of language, to pin it it down, anesthetize it for us to appreciate, like a butterfly on cardstock; Bellow does that for us with a moving ability, but rather than sedating it, he breathes a life into it. Bellow elucidates our human short-comings to appreciate natural beauty: We are funny creatures. We don't see the stars as they are so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects but endless fire. All beauty: natural, humanistic, aesthetic - all beauty is alive. Our materialist society has an unnatural desire for that which is eternal, but we find those pleasures empty, they don't fulfill us - they are unnatural, they are dead pleasures. Wallace Stevens in "Sunday Morning," another tribute to the mystical power of a natural spiritualism, ponders: Is there no change of death in paradise?Does ripe fruit never fall? and answers: Death is the mother of beauty Death, mortality, is what makes the world beautiful. The eternal is not beautiful and can never fulfill us. Money, material goods, is immutable, fungible, of an exact value - it lasts forever, so long as we hoard it. Nature cannot be hoarded or safeguarded in our purses and wallets, it slips ever through our fingers if we do not take it into our selves. We must ever grasp for it, appreciate it, love it and preserve it. All that is beautiful must die, life must end, but I wouldn't trade in life and I wouldn't trade in the beauty of endless fire (an allusion to Prometheus's gift) for the material glister of "small gold objects."

Moses Kilolo

My previous attempts at reading Bellow were not that interesting. For some reason I could not go into the spine of the Humboldt's Gift, and Herzog was some tough material for me. Could be I was not really ready for him or his kind of writing. But that has now changed with my reading of Handerson the rain King, and I plan to attempt Bellow again some time soon. The man Handerson is a wild and funny one, but very deep and weird in his own sense. He does not settle for what society seemingly lays in his path, and he now has to flee to Africa. As he confesses towards the end of the book, in search of wisdom, or a way of life or whatever it is that Americans leave their land to look for in remote places. His trip is in most part not very interesting. He goes through all sorts of trials and meets Itelo the first King before he meets Dahfu, the second King, who teaches him a lot. Basically, the essentials of life! Great book to learn a lot from, especially about fear, and why we should be like lions.

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