(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Henderson the Rain King is a mad, antic fantasy, perhaps the most comic of Bellow’s novels. Rich, world-weary Eugene Henderson, like the heroes of myth, seeks escape from the burden of the world and embarks on a journey to unknown lands in search of meaning and peace. The unknown land is Africa, and Henderson arrives there in poverty of spirit, having, like lshmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), the need to find purpose in his life. Henderson is a kind of Tommy Wilhelm in reverse, except that Henderson, a graduate of an Ivy League university, has a broader perspective, a core of reference that is beyond Tommy’s imagining. Whereas Tommy seeks meaning in the financial markets and then in the urbanized coldness of his father’s disapproval, Henderson, already financially secure, seeks meaning in the pastoral and the primitive. Where Tommy seeks relief in futures, Henderson seeks salvation in a kind of past, a land primeval and innocent.

His first adventure is in the land of the Arnewi, in a village in the midst of mountains and clean air. The landscape suggests a primordial world of Edenic innocence, and Henderson at first is a kind of Adam, ready to start fresh. The novel, in fact, is rich in suggestive allusions to biblical and secular literary characters. As a new Adam, however, Henderson is a failure. As Moses, armed with his faith, had parted the waters of the Red Sea to save his people, so Henderson, armed with the weapons of technology, attempts to rid the life-giving well of an infestation of frogs. His role as savior backfires: He blows up the well, bringing...

(The entire section is 659 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The seeker in Saul Bellow’s fiction is no Ulysses, Hamlet, Don Quixote, Gulliver, Huck Finn, or Ishmael. He is the philosophical clown, the innocent American, and adventurous discoverer of a spiritual quest that begins with the knowledge that “man’s character is his fate” and ends with the realization that “man’s fate is his character.” Eugene Henderson is a tremendously comic figure, oversized in physique, great in his appetites, obsessed by the demands of an “I want, I want” that clamors without appeasement within him. He is fifty-five years old and has a violent temper; he has more money than even his eccentric needs demand, a second wife, and an assortment of children. He turns his home into a pig farm, learns to play the violin, and acquires a reputation for drinking and crude manners. When he tries to sum up his life, it is, as he says, a mess, a fact he realizes without knowing the reasons for it. When he can no longer face himself, his family, or his past, he flees to Africa with dreams of becoming another Dr. Grenville or Albert Schweitzer. Africa, as Henderson sees it, is an empty and secret land, the last outpost of the prehuman past, a land unmarked by the footprints of history.

With a native guide, Romilayu, he arrives in the land of the Arnewi, where he engages in a ritual wrestling bout with Itelo, the champion of the tribe. Even in that remote place, however, he cannot escape his past; he remains a millionaire, a wanderer, a violent man looking for peace and happiness. The queen of these gentle people tells him that his malady is the grun-tumolani, the will to live instead of to die. Accepted by the Arnewi and courted by the queen’s sister, Mtalba, Henderson plans to cleanse the tribe’s sacred cistern, which is infested with frogs. His homemade bomb, however, blasts away the wall of the cistern, and the water seeps into the parched earth. Rather than face the consequences of this disaster, he runs away.

Henderson next turns up among the Wariri, a more warlike and savage tribe. The king is Dahfu, a ruler considerably more educated than his subjects, for he studied in a missionary school and can speak to Henderson in English. While watching a tribal festival, Henderson is moved to lift the statue of Mummah, goddess of clouds, after several of the Wariri have...

(The entire section is 948 words.)