Henderson the Rain King
First edition cover by Bill Preston, 1959
|February 23, 1959|
|Preceded by||Seize the Day|
Henderson the Rain King is a 1959 novel by Saul Bellow. The book's blend of philosophical discourse and comic adventure has helped make it one of his most enduringly popular works.
It is said to be Bellow's own favorite amongst his books.
Eugene Henderson is a troubled middle-aged man. Despite his riches, high social status, and physical prowess, he feels restless and unfulfilled, and harbors a spiritual void that manifests itself as an inner voice crying out I want, I want, I want. Hoping to discover what the voice wants, Henderson goes to Africa.
Upon reaching Africa, Henderson splits with his original group and hires a native guide, Romilayu. Romilayu leads Henderson to the village of the Arnewi, where Henderson befriends the leaders of the village. He learns that the cistern from which the Arnewi get their drinking water is plagued by frogs, thus rendering the water "unclean" according to local taboos. Henderson attempts to save the Arnewi by ridding them of the frogs, but his enthusiastic scheme ends in disaster.
Henderson and Romilayu travel on to the village of the Wariri. Here, Henderson impulsively performs a feat of strength by moving the giant wooden statue of the goddess Mummah and unwittingly becomes the Wariri Rain King, Sungo. He quickly develops a friendship with the native-born but western-educated Chief, King Dahfu, with whom he engages in a series of far-reaching philosophical discussions.
The elders send Dahfu to find a lion, which is supposedly the reincarnation of the late king, Dahfu's father. The lion hunt fails and the lion mortally wounds the king. Henderson learns shortly before Dahfu's death that the Rain King is the next person in the line of succession for the throne. Having no interest in being king and desiring only to return home, Henderson flees the Wariri village.
Although it is unclear whether Henderson has truly found spiritual contentment, the novel ends on an optimistic and uplifting note.
Henderson can, despite the age of the protagonist, be viewed as a Bildungsroman because he attains maturity and also as a romantic novel because of the primacy accorded to passions, ideas, and experiencing life and because of Henderson's search for pure, untrammeled nature and his quest to satisfy the needs of his spirit. Henderson learns that a man can, with effort, have a spiritual rebirth when he realizes that spirit, body and the outside world are not enemies but can live in harmony.
Henderson didn't leave on a journey or quest for any philosophic reason. He was simply fed up with his day to day job and life.
A week before the novel appeared in book stores, Saul Bellow published an article in the New York Times entitled “The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story.” Here, Bellow warns readers against looking too deeply for symbols in literature. This has led to much discussion among critics as to why Bellow warned his readers against searching for symbolism just before the symbol-packed Rain King hit the shelves.
The ongoing philosophical discussions and ramblings between Henderson and the natives, and inside Henderson's own head, prefigure elements of Bellow's next novel, Herzog (1964), which includes many such inquiries into life and meaning.
As in all Bellow's novels, death figures prominently in Henderson the Rain King. Also, the novel manifests a few common character types that run through Bellow’s literary works. One type is the Bellovian Hero, often described as a schlemiel. Eugene Henderson, in company with most of Bellow’s main characters, can be given this description. Another is what Bellow calls the "Reality-Instructor"; in Henderson the Rain King, King Dahfu fills this role. In Seize the Day, the instructor is played by Dr. Tamkin, while in Humboldt's Gift, Humboldt von Fleisher takes the part.
In 1960 the Pulitzer Prize committee for fiction recommended Henderson the Rain King be awarded the prize for that year. The Pulitzer board, which have final say over the awarding of the prize, overrode their recommendation and chose Advise and Consent by Allen Drury instead.
- Leon Kirchner adapted Henderson the Rain King into the libretto for his opera Lily, which premiered at the New York City Opera in the spring of 1977. It was not a success, and was Kirchner's only foray into opera.
- "Rain King" is a song by Terence Boylan from his 1977 album Terence Boylan. It is clearly based on Bellow's novel.
- "Rain King" is a song by Sonic Youth from their album Daydream Nation.
- "Rain King" is a song by the Counting Crows from their 1993 album August and Everything After. "Henderson the Rain King" and its characters were an inspiration in the song's writing.
- One passage in the novel inspired Joni Mitchell to write the song "Both Sides Now" in 1967. 
- "Rain King" is the name of an episode of The X-Files in which Mulder and Scully investigate a man who claims to be able to control the weather.
- Henderson the Rain King was mentioned as the favorite book of the character Ally McBeal, in Season 1 Episode 3 of Ally McBeal, titled "The Kiss."
- Bound books - a set on Flickr
- Alsen, Romantic Postmodernism in American Literature, p. 41
- Walsh, 50 Plus One Great Books You Should Have Read, p. 194
- Bellow article on symbols
- McDowell, Edwin. "Publishing: Pulitzer Controversies." The New York Times 11 May 1984: C26.
- Heinz Dietrich Fischer, Erika J. Fischer, Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction (Munich: K.G. Saur, 2007), 21