Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

"I Want, I Want!": Transcendental Epiphanies in Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

"I Want, I Want!": Transcendental Epiphanies in Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King

Article excerpt

Life is our dictionary.... Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made.

--Emerson, "The American Scholar"

In July of 1845, Henry David Thoreau left his home in Concord, Massachusetts, and went to live on nearby Walden Pond. An experiment in simple living, Thoreau's foray into the woods yielded the most important work of his literary career: the epitome of transcendental writing, Walden. The book depicts a year in the life of the narrator who, like Thoreau, lives in the solitude of the woods and comes to numerous realizations about what he views as being the true meaning of life. Walden, however, is not an autobiographical piece about Thoreau himself. Rather, it utilizes Thoreau's experiences with nature as a way by which Thoreau (the author) can espouse his transcendental philosophy of life. Simply put, Walden demonstrates the view that man's communion with nature is also man's communion with God, what the transcendentalists refer to as "the Oversoul." Thoreau's journey into the woods is as much a journey of the spirit as it is as a physical one, a transforming adventure that changes the course of his life.

Just as Thoreau's expedition into nature had an altering effect on his spirit, the narrator of Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King (1) also undergoes a life-altering experience with nature. Published in 1959, well after the height of the transcendental movement, Bellow's novel can be read in many ways as a revisitation of transcendental themes. The story depicts Eugene Henderson, a wealthy, albeit hypochondriac, pig-farmer, and his chaotic search for happiness. Disillusioned by life and driven by an inner calling, Henderson travels to Africa with friends, only to leave them behind when he wishes to go deeper into the unknown regions of the continent. Henderson hires an African guide, Romilayu, and proceeds to travel to Arnewi village, where his tendency toward impulsive decision-making leads him to destroy the village's entire water supply. Embarrassed by his mistake, Henderson and Romilayu venture further to the Wariri village, where he befriends the English-speaking king. King Dahfu dies, however, in an attempt to capture a lion, and Henderson returns to America, refreshed and invigorated in spirit from his long stint in Africa. Henderson is transformed by his trip to Africa, a transformation that demonstrates the transcendental notions of spiritual wealth, self-reliance, and the relationship between nature and God.

One of the important underlying beliefs of transcendentalism is an emphasis on spiritual wealth above material wealth. The meaning of life, for the transcendentalists, lies in a connection with community and with God, not in the acquisition of money or objects. This is, in fact, one of the driving themes of Walden. Thoreau's life in the woods was one of material poverty; he built his own house and furnished it with only the few things he needed to survive. The first chapter of Walden, significantly entitled "Economy," is almost wholly dedicated to stressing the importance of spiritual over material wealth. For example, Thoreau presents a detailed list of the expenses he incurs during his time at Walden Pond as a means of demonstrating the importance placed on material goods and on money in modern society. He counters this love of wealth when he writes, "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind" (14). He also says, "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone" (60). Such comments downplay the importance of wealth, not as a means of inspiring his readers to go into the woods and live in a small cabin as he did, but to encourage his audience to cultivate an interest in their spiritual lives. The simplicity in Walden encourages self-understanding and love of community, for, as Thoreau says, "The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful. …

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