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Saul Bellow: Henderson the Rain King

It is no accident that Eugene Henderson’s initials are E. H. His similarities to Hemingway are clearly no accident. As well as the initials and the trip to Africa, Henderson, like Hemingway, is a physically big man who likes his bottle. He likes physical hard work, is insecure and can get into fierce tempers. Of course, he is not Hemingway. He is a millionaire who believes he has the right to bully – family, employees, anyone. In short, he is a good Bellow hero, a man with a spiritual void and you know that the novel is going to be about his attempts to fill the void. Other Bellow heroes find a need to go abroad to find themselves – Augie March goes to Mexico and ends up in France, for example – but Henderson, like Hemingway, heads off to Africa. The first place he visits he nearly destroys when he helps clear their water supply of frogs but, in the second place, he inadvertently brings rain, hence his title. The king of this tribe, Dahfu, then asks him to help capture a lion which, according to Dahfu, contains the spirit of Dahfu’s predecessor and Dahfu needs it to secure his position on the throne. As with other Bellow heroes, it is Dahfu’s chat with him that helps Henderson fill his spiritual void and he ends up a better person. This book has been hailed by some as Bellow’s best book, not least because of the meeting of two very disparate cultures but, while I found it enjoyable, it does seem somewhat contrived to me.

Publishing history

First published 1959 by Viking