I analyze Saul Bellow's 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King as a prime example of a postwar American transformation in the idea of culture, in which anthropological ideas of culture as a whole way of life partially displaced an idea of culture as refinement. Bellow's protagonist, Eugene Henderson, is not a trained anthropologist, but he represents this transition from one idea of culture to another. The scion of a literary New England family, Henderson leaves his library to travel among Africans he hopes to encounter as cultural equals. Henderson the Rain King is an ethnographic novel asking central anthropological questions: What are the patterns of culture? How far do they determine human thought and behavior? How and when do they change? However, given the novel's comic tone and Henderson's ludicrous failures in intercultural communication, it is also an anti-anthropological novel, a parody of a field its author abandoned, having majored in anthropology, studied with Melville Herskovits, and begun a PhD in anthropology before becoming a full-time writer. Henderson's buffoonery highlights the ordinariness of Africans he meets, precisely the effect that anthropologists sought to achieve in their writing. On the other hand, the novel consistently subordinates African culture to the psychological drama of Henderson's (and perhaps “America's”) midlife crisis. I turn to a reading of Bessie Head's 1965 story “The Woman from America,” in which the friendship between Head's Botswanan female narrator and the title character, built on customary practice and everyday communication, serves as a postcolonial riposte to Bellow's imaginary Africa.

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.