On an idyllic windy day in late August, my mother and I drove down the California coast from Carmel Valley, where she raises cattle, to Big Sur’s Henry Miller Memorial Library. I spent all summer reading Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Colossus of Maroussi and Tropic of Cancer on benches in Tompkins Square Park and in my apartment in Bushwick, only a few miles from Henry Miller’s childhood home. Having grown up in northern California, I’d been to Big Sur many times before and have always cherished the place. Yet I think I never really understood the spirit of Big Sur until I read Miller’s Big Sur, a book which encompasses the place extremely well though it hardly really describes it at all.
I knew nothing about Henry Miller until I accidentally came upon a copy of Justine by Lawrence Durrell in a Salvation Army shop in Paris, Texas. I have this sort of addiction to reading Wikipedia articles about everything known to man, and by the time I got my hands on a copy of The Alexandria Quartet in its entirety, I was back in Brooklyn and knew that Durrell had been friends with Henry Miller and Anais Nin (whose book Little Birds shocked me at a very young age when I, bored with the children’s library, went browsing through my mother’s shelf). I began reading Miller solely for his book on Big Sur, being pretty much clueless concerning all of the things he is “best known” for (Tropic of Cancer, being an alleged sexist pig, etc). Of course I had read the Wikipedia article, but was too enthralled by Big Sur to pay much attention. Erica Jong wrote that, for her, Colossus of Maroussi is Miller’s masterpiece. But Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch will always be my favorite, because of the connection I feel to the place, because Miller writes things like, “It was here in Big Sur I first learned to say Amen!” That quote is posted at the entrance to the Henry Miller Memorial Library. In the case of Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, his is religious writing, in the deepest sense of the word, and embodies one of the most sacred places in our country.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library is really more of a bookstore, record shop, cafe, sculpture garden, outdoor concert venue and shrine to Henry Miller. It is located in a small cabin right off the road which was once inhabited by Henry Miller’s close friend, Emil White. The word “EMIL” is still on the mailbox. A pathway winds through a sculpture garden towards a lawn. On the deck outside the cabin, there is tea and coffee for sale on the “honor’s system.” There is a large outdoor stage where Fleet Foxes and Philip Glass have played, to name a few. The shows sell out online in seconds. Inside the cabin Henry Miller’s books hang on string suspended from the ceiling, and many of his favorite books are for sale.
Sadly not many of Miller’s own books were for sale (I was expecting them to have his entire bibliography in stock), at least on the particular day of my visit, maybe because they had been depleted by those avid fans and travelers who had come before me. Honestly I wondered what Henry Miller the anarchist would think of this place of commerce devoted specifically to him. He would probably think it hilarious! After all, Miller said, “To laugh at yourself is the most important thing”; to laugh at the Henry Miller Memorial Library is to laugh at Henry Miller, and Henry Miller would not mind laughing at himself. The intention of the Library is ultimately good and reflects what Henry Miller found in Big Sur, which was peace and happiness. The place still shines with the afterglow of his spirit. It reflects the love that so many feel for Henry Miller because of the joy which his writing has contributed to the universe.
I found Erica Jong’s book on Miller, The Devil at Large, in a dusty bookcase in a corner of the Library. Jong’s book on Miller stands alone as a great work of literature and insight into both Miller and American society. I spent the rest of the day reading on Pfeiffer Beach, which is somewhat of a secret treasure of the area due to its discreet location. Generally the beach is relatively deserted but that day (the only totally clear day I think I have ever witnessed in Big Sur) it was crowded with tourists and kayakers, picnicers and proud dog owners. In some ways Henry Miller is responsible for turning Big Sur from unknown utopia to destination of all starving artists seeking inspiration to the spa resort destination of the rich and privileged that it is today. Somehow I think Henry (if he were here, or if we could hear him, anyway) would be able to displace the blame for this act of blasphemy against his most beloved home.