Henderson the Rain King is not my favorite Bellow novel: Henderson’s sojourn in Africa is unconvincing and borders on Orientalism, the novel’s symbolism is heavy, and some disjointed sections feel superfluous, as when Henderson writes letters to his wife, Lily, in Chapter 19, or when he discusses the lion hunts with King Dahfu. Still, even Bellow batting below average scores more hits than most writers at their best, and in rereading Henderson I remember why I like Bellow so much—he’s so alive, and his characters ceaselessly try to expand their own lives and learn to encompass this big thing we call life. Granted, they’re always unsuccessful at the latter, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s an impossible quest just to understand life—especially humanity in all its varieties—let alone encompassing it, is probably impossible.
This might feed into what Bellow, like some other great novelists, so disliked about academic research and writing, as academics by definition try to define and elucidate, while so much of Bellow’s writing shows why some major factors of life simply can’t be elucidated. Therefore, academics and critics like me are ourselves going on a futile quest in our attempts to comprehend Bellow, who wrote novels like Henderson that show why the explaining isn’t possible; as Sam Tanenhaus wrote regarding the Library of America edition of Bellow, “It may be heretical, or just foolish, for a book review editor to admit it, but there are times when criticism is beside the point.” Indeed, and it makes me wary in writing this. No wonder Bellow liked Blake’s poetry, as I see some of the same defiance of full explanation in Blake, especially his later work. Henderson is a particularly strong example of this tendency, with the protagonist’s constant drive toward something he can’t seem to articulate beyond “I want, I want,” forming a base for the unnameable: what does Henderson want? Life? Experience? Knowledge? Something else?
Much of Henderson is, I think, intended as comic, given its outlandish events. Still, those events, like the lion hunt or the moving of the statue, are too symbolically endowed for my taste. They seem more like a statement of Henderson’s character than necessary events to the novel. Such scenes also parallel to too great a degree Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. That book came out in 1949 and Henderson in 1959, and during the period between them Bellow might have read or at least heard about Hero. Many of its elements show in farcical ways: the call to adventure is through narcissistic desire that leads to departure from the United States for Africa; failure in the blown-up water cistern; initiation in the form of moving a statute; and eventual success, after a fashion. Henderson is more concerned with himself than anyone or thing else, however, and rather than reconciling himself with his society he thinks that, “this is the payoff of a lifetime of action without thought” when he’s forced to imitate a jungle beast. As he says elsewhere, noting the ridiculousness of his own situation, “If I had to shoot at that cat, if I had to blow up frogs, if I had to pick up Mummah without realizing what I was getting myself into, it was not out of line to crouch on all fours and roar and act the lion.”
Yet in Henderson those comic aspects are also a critique of the quest narrative, as Henderson can’t find wholeness or completion. He searches for an abstraction layer not available through travel, even when elements of home—the United States—follow him: “It was just my luck to think I had found the conditions of life simplified so I could deal with them—finally!—and then to end up in a ramshackle palace reading these advanced medical texts.” The issues keep coming: “And though I’m no expert I guess he’s [King Dahfu] thinking of mankind as a whole, which is tired of itself and needs a short in the arm from animal nature.” If that weren’t enough, he continues: “Anyway, I begin to ask (or perhaps it was more a plea than a question), why is it always near me—why! Why can’t I get away from it awhile? Why, why!” Why indeed: it’s a question religion doesn’t answer, or at least not satisfactorily anymore, and that philosophy seems to have failed at answering despite its numerous and increasingly verbose attempts, and that novels pose and don’t seem to answer. In the mythology Campbell discusses, you come back from your quest whole and ready to take your place in the adult community or you die and uphold the standards of that community or you transcend life; in Henderson and later, ironic texts, your quest is forever incomplete, because like Henderson, you can’t answer that pivotal question that becomes an exclamation: “Why, why!”
Why, why! indeed, and Bellow keeps setting up the questions through exploration without giving answers. The closest he comes, I think, is in Ravelstein, where Chick marvels at the “creature” that is Ravelstein while also being resigned to accept his fate. Whether this is an improvement on the manic energy of earlier Bellow novels or a depressing acceptance of the end is a matter of perspective on which I have no opinion. But, like the master, I will try to frame the issue, even if the issue has a habit of being larger than that frame. And so the critic struggles with Bellow like Itelo wrestling with Henderson, and even champion critics don’t seem able to win. But this preoccupation with trying to explain Bellow stays with me, and this is not, I suspect, my last word on the subject, even if my attempts are as futile as Henderson’s.