Sunday, March 03, 2019

Henderson the Rain King (1959)

The first of two Saul Bellow novels on the Modern Library list of the best of the 20th-century offers another occasion for complaining. I like Bellow enough to concede he has a place on the list—but not two. Then the one I like best is down at #81 (The Adventures of Augie March) while Henderson the Rain King is much higher at #21. It's not a novel that has aged well, with the self-infatuated comic hero millionaire Eugene Henderson heading off to Africa to find fulfillment, or something. What the hell, he can afford a first-class midlife crisis, amirite? Most notably its view of a fictional African interior is painfully caricatured, verging dangerously close to racism. This novel needs to see the movie Black Panther immediately. We can write off its goofs as "of the times" and there are reasons to read and enjoy it, but Modern Library's high ranking is misplaced at best. I admit when I first read Henderson, in the '70s, I thought a lot more of it. Bellow has a robust and invigorating voice and he makes wonderful sentences, half jeering Bugs Bunny American bonhomie and half posturing intellectual. It's the latter half where he generally starts to lose me, trying to fit heavyweight philosophizing into slangy conversational style. This tendency would get much worse in the novel that followed, Herzog. If you can rock along to the personal drama and thumping adventure farce, Henderson is reasonably entertaining, especially the first half. But as the profundity quotient is inflated with lions, formal rites of passage, and mystic rituals it gets to be harder going. I don't discount the comic value here. But most of the humor derives from shared midcentury images of Africa out of Tarzan movies and National Geographic photo spreads. I'm old enough that I recognize these sources and "get" the jokes. But Africa is Africa, with its tragic history, and we know better than Johnny Weissmuller movies now. Thus, I grew peevish with the fiction reader's faithful companion, willing suspension of disbelief. Obviously participants in the Modern Library rankings, not to mention personal fans of Henderson the Rain King, are likely to find my complaints unbearably politically correct. Well that's fine too. "[F]irst to knock, first admitted..." I can still laugh at some of those old Warner Brothers cartoons too, but not all of them—can't abide Speedy Gonzalez, for example. Everybody has to draw the line somewhere. Some of Saul Bellow's best sentences are in Henderson but they might be barely worth it. For God's sake, if you're going to read one novel by Bellow, make it Augie March.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. I'm with you, Jeff. When I did my college thesis on Jewish-American novelists in 1968, I liked Henderson the least of the six novels Saul Bellow had published at that point, and doubted that I'd ever want to read it again, haven't thus far. My thesis was a study of the extent to which my subjects' novels reflected their own Jewish backgrounds, and Henderson was no direct help there, as he seemed to be not just a gentile, but one who was acting out an ultra-goyboy Hemingway macho fantasy. As it happens, I'm currently in the middle of re-reading James Atlas's wonderful 2000 biography of Bellow, and he has an ironic twist on my take on Henderson: "Henderson, Bellow's least autobiographical creation, was the one he identified with the most. Years later, when an interviewer asked him which of his characters most resembled him, he replied: 'Henderson -- the absurd seeker of high qualities.'" (p. 274) Hmm -- must give this some thought. Atlas, incidentally, finds no high qualities in the novel's too frequent racial stereotypes, as you've noted. I'd definitely put Augie March higher than Henderson on any ranking of Bellow's novels, Jeff, though I'm also a lifelong fan of Herzog, which you don't seem to be. I think that book is a stronger portrait of who Bellow really was, warts (compulsive sexism, show-off of his philosophical and anthropological knowledge at the wrong moments, etc.) and all. And I love Bellow's inextricably vulgar-and-lofty language, and the definite 1960's vibe to it all.
    -- Mr. Riegel's Planet

  2. Yeah, maybe I'll have to give Herzog another chance. All those H titles -- this, that, and Humboldt's Gift too!