Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Henderson the Rain King

A Philip Roth interview with Saul Bellow is in The New Yorker this week. I've pasted the portion on Henderson the Rain King below since that's the one I bought last weekend and New Yorker links are transitory.

Memo to self: renew subscription to NYer.

"As much a disease as he is a man” perfectly sums up “Henderson the Rain King.” [Bellow is alluding to a description of Henderson I’d used in my question.] Henderson is of course looking for a cure. But the bourgeois is defined by his dread of death. All we need to know about sickness as it relates to bourgeois amour propre and death we can learn from Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.” The difficulty in approaching Henderson following this outlook is that Henderson is so unlike a bourgeois. In his case, the categories wither away.

It seems to me that I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote “The Rain King.” I was looking for my idea to reveal itself as I investigated the phenomena—the primary phenomenon being Henderson himself, and it presently became clear to me that America has no idea—not the remotest—of what America is. Europeans would agree, enthusiastically, with this finding. They will tell you that America is inculte or nyekulturny. But how far does that get us? It is true that culture is not one of Henderson’s direct concerns. He could not compete with his father’s gentlemanly generation—his immediate ancestors who knew Homer and read Dante in Italian. He had a very different take on American life. You refer to this, rightly, as his wacky anthropology. To a young Chicagoan it seemed the science of sciences. I learned that what was right among the African Masai was wrong with the Eskimos. Later I saw that this was a treacherous doctrine—morality should be made of sterner stuff. But in my youth my head was turned by the study of erratic—or goofy—customs. In my early twenties I was a cultural relativist. I had given all of that up before I began to write “Henderson.”

Roth likes “Henderson,” and I am grateful to him for that. He sees it as a screwball stunt, but he sees, too, that the stunt is sincere and the book has great screwball authority. I was much criticized by reviewers for yielding to anarchic or mad impulses and abandoning urban settings and Jewish themes. But I continue to insist that my subject ultimately was America. Its oddities were not accidental but substantial. Again, Roth puts it better than I could have done. Henderson is that “undirected human force whose raging insistence miraculously does get through.” The wacky Henderson led me through my last and wackiest course in anthropology. My diploma, if I had been given one, would have told the world that I was a graduate of the college of dionysiacs. Did I know what I was doing? Not very clearly. My objective was to “burst the spirit’s sleep.” Readers would share this—or they would not. Alfred Kazin asked what Jews could possibly know about American millionaires. For my purposes, I felt that I knew enough. Chanler Chapman, the son of the famous John Jay Chapman, was the original of Eugene Henderson—the tragic or near-tragic comedian and the buffoon heir of a great name. I can’t imagine what I saw in him or why it was that I was so goofily drawn to him. Those years were the grimmest years of my life. My father had died, a nephew in the Army had committed suicide. My wife had left me, depriving me also of my infant son. I had sunk my small legacy into a collapsing Hudson River mansion. For the tenth time I went back to page 1, beginning yet another version of “Henderson.”

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