Henderson the Rain King

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Henderson the Rain King
First edition cover
AuthorSaul Bellow
Cover artistBill Preston[1]
CountryUnited States
PublisherViking Press
Publication date
February 23, 1959
Media typePrint
Preceded bySeize the Day 
Followed byHerzog 

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 more popular works.

The novel is said to be Bellow's favorite among his books. It was ranked number 21 on Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels in the English language.


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, destroying the frogs and the village's cistern.

Henderson and Romilayu travel 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 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 with an optimistic and uplifting note.


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.[2]

A week before the novel appeared in book stores, Bellow published an article in The New York Times titled "The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story."[3] 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, in the opinion of some people. 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.

Scholars such as Bellow biographer James Atlas and others have shown that quite a few passages and ideas were lifted from a book titled The Cattle Complex in East Africa (1926) written by Bellow's anthropology professor Melville Herskovits who supervised his senior thesis at Northwestern University in 1937.[4]

Pulitzer Prize[edit]

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.[5][6]

Other media[edit]


  1. ^ Bound books - a set on Flickr
  2. ^ Walsh, 50 Plus One Great Books You Should Have Read, p. 194
  3. ^ Bellow article on symbols
  4. ^ Koy, Christopher (2008). "The Reformulation of Ethnological Sources and Orientalist Discourse in Bellow's 'Henderson the Rain King'". American and British Studies Annual vol. 1: 25–40.
  5. ^ McDowell, Edwin. "Publishing: Pulitzer Controversies", The New York Times, 11 May 1984: C26.
  6. ^ Heinz Dietrich Fischer, Erika J. Fischer, Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction (Munich: K.G. Saur, 2007), 21
  7. ^ Hilburn, Robert (1996-12-07). "Joni Mitchell looks at both sides now: her hits – and misses". SouthCoastToday. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2016-09-19. I was reading Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He's on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.