Track of the Day: ‘Rain King’ by Counting Crows

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Confession: I’ve never read one of Saul Bellow’s novels. (If you’ve got a strong case to make for which one I should start with, feel free to send me a note.) But I’ve been taught by enough people who love him to recognize his monumental place in American literature. Christopher Hitchens wrote about that influence in our November 2007 issue:

At Bellow’s memorial meeting ... the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. ... Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed of non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian Mc­Ewan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal. ...

Bellow in his time was to translate Isaac Bashevis Singer into English (and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into Yiddish), but it mattered to him that the ghetto be transcended and that he, too, could sing America.

On that note, my colleague Emma has written a piece today about the complex history of Jewish identity in America, at a time when the self-described alt-right movement has given anti-Semitism an ugly new presence in public discourse. Read it here (and let us know if you have a related personal experience to share).

But speaking, as Hitchens does, of singing and transcendence and the translation of art into other forms and languages, I remember being thrilled to discover during a high-school AP English class that one of the Counting Crows songs I’d been listening to on repeat was titled after one of Bellow’s novels: Henderson the Rain King. The song’s narrator is scared, trapped, frustrated, and overlooked, and seems to invoke Henderson as a figure who represents many of those feelings:

Hey, I only want the same as anyone
Henderson is waiting for the sun
Oh, it seems night endlessly begins and ends ...

There’s a vision of freedom, though, in the wistful opening lines: “When I think of heaven ... I think of flying.”

Back to Hitchens on Bellow, Henderson, and flight:

Sever­al of his heroes and protagonists—including the thick-necked Henderson, his only non-Jewish central character—rise above the sickly and the merely bookish. They tackle lions and, in the case of Augie March, a truly fearsome eagle. They mix it up with revolutionaries and bandits and hard-core criminals. Commenting on Socrates’ famous dictum about the worthlessness of the unexamined life, the late Kurt Vonnegut once inquired: “What if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?” Bellow would have seen, and indeed did see, the force of this question. Like Lambert Strether’s in The Ambassadors, his provisional answer seems to have been: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” And the tough-guy Henderson, so gross and physical and intrepid (and so inarticulate when he speaks, yet so full of reflective capacity when he thinks), cannot repress his wonder when flying: He keeps pointing out that his is the first generation to have seen the clouds from above as well as below:

“What a privilege! First people dreamed upward. Now they dream both upward and downward. This is bound to change something, somewhere.”

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