Henderson, the Rain King

by Saul Bellow

Paper Book, 1996




New York : Pengiun Books, 1996.


Bellow evokes all the rich colour and exotic customs of a highly imaginary Africa in this comic novel about a middle-aged American millionaire who, seeking a new, more rewarding life, descends upon an African tribe. Henderson's awesome feats of strength and his unbridled passion for life earns him the admiration of the tribe - but it is his gift for making rain that turns him from mere hero into messiah. A hilarious, often ribald story, HENDERSON THE RAIN KING is also a profound look at the forces that drive a man through life.

Media reviews

L. EUGENE HENDERSON, a multimillionaire by trade and a pathetic, swaggering clown by nature, reached an imaginary point of no return when he was 55 years old and felt that he had to go to Africa. His incessant follies, his alcoholism (he was often drunk before lunch) and his mordant discontent were
Show More
more than he could bear. Henderson was “moody, rough, tyrannical and probably mad.” But he was bored. He was unhappy. Raising pigs, learning to play the violin, doing hard physical labor on his estate near Danbury--nothing could soothe his tedium vitae and general agony of spirit. Henderson was a champion sufferer, a fabulously strong giant of a man with a sentimental heart and no common sense whatever. He is the hero and narrator of “Henderson the Rain King,” a peculiar, prolix and exasperating novel by Saul Bellow. Saul Bellow is a talented and ambitious writer best known for his “The Adventures of Augie March,” which was published six years ago. The comic extravaganza about the absurdities and trials of modern life was also written in the first person by a narrator a trifle touched in the head. But rhapsodic, tedious and stupefying as “Augie” often was, it was also intermittently funny and spangled with examples of Mr. Bellow’s richly inventive imagination. As much cannot be said for “Henderson the Rain King,” which is an unsuccessful experiment, noble in purpose but dismal in result. Threefold Wellspring of Prose "Henderson the Rain King" contains three major elements: grotesque comedy, which hardly ever seems comic; fantasy and adventure in Central Africa, an Africa deliberately distorted so far from reality that one half expects to meet Tarzan and his faithful Waziri on any page, and a solemn quest for “the great principles of life”--for spiritual peace, happiness and communion with truth and deity. All three elements are mixed thoroughly together, with Henderson writing a supercharged prose unlike anything ever recorded in print before, with conversations between. . . .
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood

Difficult to know just what to make of this shaggy dog story written by Saul Bellow and published in 1959. It certainly bears all the hallmarks of a Bellow novel in that passages of fine descriptive writing and intense storytelling are infused with some turgid
Show More
philosophical ramblings. The story of Eugene Henderson's vivid sojourn amongst remote African tribes is so laced with the unreal that I could only think that it was a feverish dream of a rash, blundering man fearful of holding it all together. That the dream is not in the end a nightmare gives the novel a feel of a bildungsroman especially as it is written in the first person.

"When I think of my condition at the age of fifty-five when I bought the ticket, all is grief. The facts begin to crowd me and soon I get a pressure in the chest . A disorderly rush begins - my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my face, my soul! I have to cry, No, no, get back, curse you, let me alone! But how can they let me alone? They belong to me. They are mine, and they pile into me from all sides. It turns into chaos."

This is Henderson explaining why he bought that ticket to Africa and why he chose to strike out in search of primitive tribes who were out of reach of civilisation. It is not the language or the actions of a college professor and by and large Bellow hits the right note in his portrayal of a man who is rash and unlucky and acts without sufficient reflection. He bulldozes his way through life perhaps breaking heads and certainly treading on toes in the process, describing himself as a high spirited kind of guy and we all probably know people just like him.

Henderson almost on a whim travels with a married couple to Africa in search of something else. He soon splits from them hiring a guide (Romilayu) to take him outside the scope of civilised Africa. He is led to the tribe of Anewi and finds them in despair because their cattle are dying of thirst. They treat their cattle as part of the family, sitting up with them and caring for them when ill. A species of frogs have invaded the water cistern and Henderson believes that he can solve their problems by rigging up a bomb from the ammunition he is carrying. First he has to wrestle with the tribe's champion and when he wins he comes under the spell of his auntie the queen; an enormous African woman who is prepared to buy him with her dowry. Henderson thinks she can straighten him out with her simple philosophy of the love of life.Things do not go well and soon Henderson and Romilayu are forced to seek out a neighbouring tribe the Wariri. Their king Dahfu is guarded and cosseted by over fifty naked Amazon women and he explains to Henderson that he can only survive as long as he can service his harem. He has other problems; the tribe believes that the previous king exists as a lion and Dahfu must capture this lion to keep his kingship, however he has already caught a lioness who the tribe believes is bewitching their king. Henderson is befriended by the king who sees in the powerful American an ally. Dahfu is an educated man and has theories about how the soul shapes the outward appearance of a man and that all men bear a close relationship to a species of animal, soon Henderson is being encouraged to walk in the lions den..........

The portrayal of the African tribes is pure anthropological fantasy, something that might have been invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but Bellow seems to want his readers to believe in the unreality as one of the themes of his novel is reality and unreality. How real is the world of Henderson? Of course one could accuse Bellow in wallowing in some racial fantasy, but I think this would be missing the point and of course the Amazon women have to be naked. Henderson thinks he may have found some answers to his search for meaning in his life through the chief Dahfu, but the readers of the novel will soon be convinced that Dahfu is as much of a crackpot as the culture of the tribe in which he is intrinsically part of. However much energy Bellow spends in trying to make Dhafu's philosophy palatable he really only succeeds in miring up the novel, if it is supposed to be funny then it was lost on me.

This is a novel that loses it's grip on reality by straying too far into the world of hokum. It is hokum that could also cause offence, but then the character of Henderson is just as likely to cause offence. Is Bellow being deliberately provocative and if so does he get away with it? I think this is very much for the individual to decide. I have read that this is one of his most popular novels, perhaps this is because of the attractions of the anti-hero or perhaps the fantasy world African primitivism appeals. I have mixed feelings, while I admire some of the writing I really cannot see where it is going other than a parody of novels which feature a hero's redemption through coming to terms with primitive cultures, there are plenty of those on the bookshelves. A generous 3.5 stars.
Show Less
LibraryThing member sjmccreary
Despite the nearly universal praises for this book among the reviews posted here, I just can't get through it. I'm nearly 3/4 finished and every chapter has been a struggle. Henderson is a wealthy, middle aged man in the midst of a mid-life crises. He is so totally self-absorbed and whiney that I
Show More
just don't care what he has to say, what he wants, or what he does. The review posted by Blackdogbooks contains an excellent synopsis of the plot, such as it is.
Show Less
LibraryThing member beelzebubba
When I was younger, I dreamed of going to Africa. Going on safari, staying with a Masai tribe, scaling Kilimanjaro... It just seemed at the time the best thing I could ever do. Of course, I never made it. What is it about Africa that beckons and tempts a young man? To return to the birthplace of
Show More
humanity, and experience life on the most basic level? To prove something to yourself, something along the lines of "If you can survive being out in the Serengeti, with death being a lion or tsetse fly away, you are now a man, my son." Or maybe I had just read too much Hemingway.

After reading "Henderson, the Rain King," I started feeling those old urges again. Of course, that Africa probably doesn't exist anymore. Just as well. Now in my mid-forties, proving something to myself consists of trying to survive my current mid-life crisis, and fighting the urge to not permanently piss off my wife, and come home in a Porsche 911. Giddy up, Simba!
Show Less
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
831 Henderson the Rain King a novel, by Saul Bellow (read 23 Nov 1965) I have read I think six Bellow books and hated every one. This book was particularly off-putting and it stands in my memory as a book I despised.
LibraryThing member ElisabethZguta
One of my favorites of all time - Saul Bellow was such a great writer, with subtle wit he was the King. He developed the most foul of characters yet they were all so believable. As a reader, you liked them and wanted them to grow up. I first read this in 1976 and was never the same.
LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
Eugene Henderson is a man who seems to have everything — he's a millionaire pig farmer with a beautiful wife and a big family — yet he still wants something, even if he doesn't know what that something is. And thus we have the situation in Saul Bellow's 1959 novel “Henderson the Rain
Show More

Henderson's quest for what turns out to be his purpose in life takes him to one of the most isolated parts of central Africa, where he befriends two chieftains and tries to help solve their tribes' water problems. In the first village he only makes matters worse and has to leave in disgrace. In the second, his presumed success in bringing rain turns him into the honored rain king and a close confident of the tribe's king, who slowly teaches Henderson how to roar like a lion, both literally and figuratively.

This is a big, brawling novel, like Henderson himself, yet its message is simple: to find yourself, lose yourself. By the time he leaves Africa, Henderson has decided to give up pigs and go to medical school. He may be in his mid-50s, but for him life has just begun.
Show Less
LibraryThing member andyray
i like to post my impression about halfway through the book. i was forced to read it at the University in 1971 as one of the "important modern novels" and loved it then. I remember that, but seemingly in the 35 years or so that have passed, I am less radical in my actions and thought. I find Gene
Show More
Henderson to be a well-drawn character, but lacking in all social niceties. Right now he is facing the problem of dying cattle and a frog-filled pond. I find that amusing. One doesn't laugh out loud necessarily reading this or other American humorists, but one laughs in his mind and his soul. I am doing so. I suspect there are people who read who do not have any sense of irony or cannot think in two tracks to det the double entendres. i pity them. right now i'm enclined to give this one a three star rating (on page 65) -- let's see what it's like at the end.
Well, it's over (Thank God). It somehow grabs you with the lion and the king. That's the essence of the story, but the frogs thingie is a good contrapuntal episode. The rating is up because I finally got used to what was bothering me -- Bellow's bellow. He is aptly named. I'm even going so far as to call this a classic read!
Show Less
LibraryThing member maryjomac
Very odd book. Originally picked it up because of the rumor that the Counting Crows song Rain King is inspired by this book. Understand some of the positions because of when the book was written. I was a hard book to get through.
LibraryThing member litc
On the first page of the first chapter of this book, Henderson, the protagonist, describes himself in this way: "... but I thought myself a bum and had my reasons, the main reason being that I behaved like a bum. But privately when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I
Show More
could find some helpful words, and one day I read, "The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required." This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself."
For me, this opening set off brain itch and intimations that I would be doing a lot of head scratching going forward, and oh did that prove true. (Apology to member brownheidi82 for using the "itch" image, whose review I hadn't read before writing the previous sentence. Great minds think alike!)
On the surface, this book is Henderson's explanation of what made him take a trip to Africa and an account of his adventures and misadventures, but his journey is really a soul-searching spiritual quest to try to get some kind of understanding of the human condition. Henderson, like all of us, is a troubled person. Here's how he describes it:

But there comes a day, there always comes a day of tears and madness. 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 it got even stronger. It only said one thing, I want, I want! And I would ask, "What do you want?" But this was all it would ever tell me. It never said a thing except I want, I want, I want!

Henderson's trip to Africa is his attempt to find an answer to his wanting, a yearning that I believe is embedded in human nature. You may think he's crazy, a clown, a buffoon, but he's also honest, aware of his shortcomings (or sins, if you prefer), courageous, loyal, and a whole lot of other things. He's fully human, engaged in life, trying to make sense of himself, and get at the meaning of life. And he does believe that there's meaning in life.

Sometimes the book can be slow moving, but I grew to like H. and sometimes, emphasis on the sometimes, he reminded me of myself.
Show Less
LibraryThing member rameau
A satire of Hemingway. A nod to Tarzan. A full-speed tearing into the nature of existence. And lions.
LibraryThing member aketzle
Gave up on this a long time ago. Boring and weird.
LibraryThing member mikemillertime
A kooky romp involving a larger-than-life humanitarian/a**hole presented in a flashback-filled journey of self-discovery through the African wilderness. Funny and heavy, some of its expository passages are far too long, yet the hero's rambling inner monologue frequently produces truly quotable and
Show More
brilliant poetry and philosophy.
Show Less
LibraryThing member brownheidi82
Made my brain "itch" so to speak. It was tough to get through, but once started, I had to finish. It was confounding and irritating at times, but there is something about his writing that made it impossible for me to stop. That is not something I would say very often, usually I either love a book
Show More
or can't get past the first few chapters. This one is neither.
Show Less
LibraryThing member hbergander
A restless American, instead of going east, goes to Afrika and attains maturity. A modern novel in the trousers of romanticism.
LibraryThing member mabroms
One of my many personal resolutions (that are often left incomplete) is to re-read Modern Classics to see whether I have an increased appreciation after all these years.

When it comes to Henderson, the answer is unfortunately "No." The only thing that I appreciate more is that I not only didn't turn
Show More
out like Henderson, but I have successfully avoided "Hendersons" along the way.
Show Less
LibraryThing member NanceJ
I read this in school. I like the song Rain King by Counting Crows better than this book that it was based on, but the book was still interesting, as it was about a man in Africa and I love other cultures. I should probably read it again.
LibraryThing member marysargent
A wonderful, unique book. What a character. So far all of his main characters are very appealing men to me, very flawed, but very self-aware. And Henderson, especially, under all that craziness and bluster, very sweet. A tender spot for animals and children. Wonderful descriptions. Wonderful
Show More
appreciation for beauty and just for stuff in general. Crazy plot. I'm just so surprised this existed all these years and I didn't know about it. How did I misjudge Bellow so badly? Where did I get my ideas?
Show Less
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Told from the point of view of one of the more larger than life characters in literary history, Bellow's novel portrays a search for the kernel of life, the desire for the good. Henderson explores the further reaches of Africa (at least in his mind) and comes closer to understanding his own deepest
Show More
desires. While demonstrating rough edges in his somewhat flawed character, Bellow achieves a delightful synergy of comic and philosophic reflection that, in the end, redeems Henderson and uplifts the reader (at least this one).
Show Less
LibraryThing member jmoncton
Eugene Henderson is a boor. He is wealthy, has high social status, is physically strong and uses all of this to hi advantage. He is rude, inconsiderate and almost goes out of his way to annoy people. But being dissatisfied with his life, Henderson decides to join a friend on his honeymoon in
Show More
Africa. But after he has a falling out with his friend's new bride, Henderson leaves them to see the 'real' Africa and both physically and spiritually goes on a journey. The transformation from a total jerk to a man with flaws, but with a true desire to help others was wonderful to read. The book is very satirical and at first I thought this was going to be one of those humorous slapstick style comedies. But there are little snippets of philosophy that really make this book worthwhile.
Show Less
LibraryThing member charlie68
An amusing trip through Africa with buffonish Henderson. Sometimes his observations are profound and at other shallow and infantile. Romaliyahu seems to be the one who knows what's going on, but can't stop Henderson from making a fool of himself.
LibraryThing member jmcdbooks
Rated: A-
The New Lifetime Reading Plan: Number 128

"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
Show More
breaks. Becoming people are very unlucky, always in a tizzy. The Becoming people are always having to make explanations or other justifications to the Being people. While the Being people provoke these explanations."

"But maybe time was invented so that misery might have an end. So that is shouldn't last forever?"
Show Less
LibraryThing member redbike
I tried reading this book, I really wanted to like it, but I found the main character too grating too continue.
LibraryThing member BadCursive
I thought this book was good, but not great. I guess I had expectations for more going in. Bellow wrote some beautiful passages though and this is what kept me going. I'll share my favorite here:
"Oh, you can't get away from rhythm, Romilayu...You just can't get away from it. The left hand shakes
Show More
with the right hand, the inhale follows the exhale, the systole talks back to the diastole, the hands play patty-cake, and the feet dance with each other. And the seasons. And the stars, and all of that. And the tides, and all that junk. You've got to live at peace with it, because it's going to worry you, you'll lose. You can't win against it. It keeps on and on and on" (319).
Show Less
LibraryThing member Michael_Godfrey
We all read, we are constantly reminded by post-modern critics, through the lenses of our individual life-experience. True enough, too. Reading Henderson the Rain King through the filters of post-colonial studies is likely to produce a wildly different perspective and review to reading it through
Show More
filters of “Studies in Modern Jewish-American Literature.” As it happens it was through a casual reading closer to the latter set of filters that I decided to venture into the Bellow arena, but that particular reader’s perspective was no more than a momentary blimp in my narrative: I knew little of Bellow beyond his name and Nobel Prize, and decided, having been reminded of his literary existence whilst reading an article on Jewish literary giants, to order in a few of his novels. That achieved Henderson the Rain King just happened to be the first I grabbed in a lackadaisical, rainy afternoon mood.

But I must have forgotten to read the blurb. Had I done so I would have prepared myself for what is described as “A hilarious, often ribald story.” Instead I set about reading something that I expected to be rather Kafkaesque: denser, symboliste, terribly demanding. In the moments when I had time to read over the next ten days I kept wondering why I did not find it difficult, demanding, or soporific. On the final sitting, a day off, I covered the second two thirds of the novel at a sitting. Slowly it dawned on me that deep existentialist angst was not the filter through which to read at least this Bellow.

What was then? Unfortunately my many years of absorption in D.H. Lawrence also kept attempting to claim the ascendancy of filter selection. There were similarities, and they kept distracting me. There were moments of deep, a-sexual (or, the psycho-sexual critics would tell me, a-genital) man-love: The mutual fascination and admiration of Henderson and Dahfu was an echo of Lawrence’s Birkin and Crich rolling naked in the pine needles in Women in Love:”What happened to your labium inferiorum?” (228) is not quite the repressed eroticism of Birkin and Crich but neither is it your average afternoon conversation (and yes, I do realize that labium inferiorum is hardly an erotic obsession). Google “labium inferiorum”, incidentally, and you will be taken to Saul Bellow, and to reviews of Henderson the Rain King . The great tribal rites of chapters 12-14 are far more entertaining than Lawrence’s self-indulgent militarist rite-fantasies of Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent or the execrable “The Woman Who Rode Away”, but have similar echoes of communal-collective liturgical rites that attempt to transcend nature and alter history. Bellow’s description of the lioness Atti (see especially 226-227) show all of Lawrence’s undoubted skill in description of animals Birds, Beasts and Flowers and the rabbit in The Rainbow,while the psychological mumbo-jumbo of Dahfu’s lectures come perilously close to the self-indulgent psycho-babble Lawrence offers in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. Lawrence’s work, with all its Blavatsky-esque narcissism, pseudo-intellectual psycho-sociological analysis, and weird obsession with ganglia, or even the ghastly aberrant “discipline” of phrenology beloved of George Eliot alongside Lawrence’s (see 238) fade into self-indulgence precisely because they attempt to take seriously that with which Bellow and his Dahfu playfully flirt.

But slowly it dawned on me: where Lawrence is so terribly earnest and didactic, Bellow is full of fun and self-deprecating. Furthermore, where Lawrence’s characters are as narcissistic as their creator, Bellow’s Henderson is something of a loveable buffoon (not, I would imagine, if I were reading through a post-colonial critique, but otherwise …) who slowly grows, aided not least by the ever-loyal Romilayu (who could be a Defoe-esque or Conrad-esque “noble savage” insult to a post-colonialist critique), to a denouement-epiphany, caring genuinely if momentarily for an other, an orphan child fleeing Syria. Bellow gently chides: Lawrence earnestly and cloyingly preaches.

With filters changed I realized I was reading (devouring by now), a delightful parodic romp. In Bellow’s hand a sentence like “Humankind has to sway itself more intentionally towards beauty” (282) no longer sounds like the focal text of a soporific sermon, as it would in Lawrence’s hands, or even an ambiguous Christo-Zen koan like Dylan’s over-blown existential quasi-biblical nonsense about “hanging in the balance of the reality of man / Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” Rather Bellow’s mashal (proverb) is simply a playful aphorism from which the reader may build a complicated aesthetic, but should more likely scamper on happily to the end. There the reader will find at last the redemption of the “nosy, gross phantom” (283) Henderson, who eventually learns to dance with a child on the ice that surrounds a re-fuelling strato-cruiser, man and child making their way West to new and vastly different redemption-beginnings in the Land of the Free.
Show Less
LibraryThing member BayardUS
Henderson the Rain King deconstructs the pulp adventure novel. A wealthy ex-soldier from the West travels to Africa, and with a native guide ventures into parts barely touched by modern civilization. There he uses modern technology to attempt to solve one problem, and a feat of strength in another
Show More
instance. He is raised to a high position by a more-or-less savage tribe of warriors, eventually being named its king, but must make his escape from the treacherous Bunam and make his way back to civilization. Unfortunately, Bellow gives us a version of the adventure novel that isn't any fun. The writing is fine, but Bellow bangs you over the head with certain things- I'd be hard pressed to name a book that so blatantly tries to get you to hate the main character as Henderson the Rain King does in its first two chapters. The whole book, despite the New York Times article Bellow published concurrently with Henderson the Rain King, is so jam-packed with symbols that make the whole work feel like it was written specifically for the benefit of English Literature PhDs. There are probably piles of academic papers written on the role of Water in Henderson the Rain King, or the meaning of the different animals in the text, from pigs to cows to frogs to lions to bears. There's nothing wrong with a book lending itself to literary analysis, but on its own that doesn't improve the work for me. Are any of the passages exciting? Do they convey the sense of adventure that the old pulps did? Is the story or the writing enjoyable? To me, the answer to these questions was 'no.' Deconstruction shouldn't be an end unto itself, but should produce something of merit in its own right. Unfortunately, I found Henderson the Rain King to be an adventure tale with the best characteristics of that genre stripped away, and nothing of enough interest in their place to counterbalance their absence.
Show Less



Page: 0.1837 seconds