Henry Miller
Henry Miller (COURTESY VALENTINE MILLER)
YOU MIGHT SAY that the Big Sur spirit might not exist in its present form if Henry Miller had never lived there. The author's legacy lives on in three ways. Miller wasn't the first writer to discover Big Sur, but it's likely he made it better known to the world at large, mainly through his 1957 memoir "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch."

His presence there attracted artists and writers, as well as myriad free thinkers, creating the Big Sur zeitgeist that persists to this day. Some came just to see what it was all about, like the man who knocked on Miller's door, looking for the "cult of sex and anarchy," as the author recalled in his memoir.

A permanent reminder of Miller's life is the Henry Miller Memorial Library, located in a little redwood cabin on Highway 1. Thousands of visitors come each year to pay homage to the man who was at one time America's most reviled writer.

"More and more people come here every year," said Magnus Toren, the library's executive director. "For these visitors, it's definitely part of the reason why they come to Big Sur."

The library, set in a lush meadow surrounded by towering redwoods, invites contemplation and thought. The beautiful setting also makes it an ideal gathering place and, in more recent years, a performance venue.

The mission of the Henry Miller Library is to promote the author's literary and artistic works, but just as importantly, it celebrates local history and culture.

Miller has been hailed as one of the greatest authors of the20th century, although he first became famous - and infamous - for his 1934 novel "Tropic of Cancer," banned in the United States for more than a quarter of a century because of graphic depictions of sex that violated obscenity laws of the time. Americans man-aged to read it anyway because it was often smuggled into the States from Europe, which had a more liberal view of Miller's work.

It took a U.S.

Henry Miller’s daughter, Valentine, as a child in Big Sur
Henry Miller's daughter, Valentine, as a child in Big Sur (COURTESY VALENTINE MILLER)
Supreme Court decision, with the justices determining that the book was literature and not pornography, to finally pave the way for publication in the United States in 1961.

Miller first came to Big Sur in 1944, fell in love with the area, and decided to move there almost immediately, according to the Henry Miller Library Web site www.henrymiller.org. Upon his arrival, Miller wrote, "Here I will find peace. Here I shall find the strength to do the work I was made to do." He would continue to write well-regarded novels, as well as pursue watercolor painting.

Although at first he struggled to make ends meet, Miller soon began receiving overseas royalties for his novels and was able to buy a house on Partington Ridge, where he lived with his third wife, Lepska, and children Valentine and Tony.

Miller lived in Big Sur until 1962 and then moved to Los Angeles, where he died in 1980 at age 88.

The library never would have come to pass if it were not for Miller's friend and confidante, Emil White, who came to Big Sur to be the author's private secretary.

After Miller's death, White decided to maintain his property as a memorial to his friend and as a gallery where local artists could show their work. He converted his home into the library in 1981 with the help of the Big Sur Land Trust, and became the first library director.

In 1997, the library became independent of BSLT and is now its own nonprofit organization. Visitors can see Miller memorabilia and a permanent collection of his artwork, as well as buy his books and those of other authors there.

Toren said the library doesn't keep track of how many visitors pass through, but says "many thousands come every year," not only from the United States but also Europe and Asia, where Miller's books are well known.

In fact, he estimates that more non-Americans than Americans make the pilgrimage to the library. "Sometimes it's like the United Nations out on the deck," he said.

The library attracts a wide variety of other travelers as well. It's become a venue for musical and literary performance, with celebrity Miller fans like Marianne Faithfull, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and Neil Young turning up there to support the library, as well as a host of local and regional musicians, poets, writers and filmmakers.

Foreign money taped to the window at the Henry Miller Memorial Library
Foreign money taped to the window at the Henry Miller Memorial Library (DAVID ROYAL)
 

Musicians often donate proceeds from the concerts to the library, Toren said: "We're had an amazing response from famous people who have come here to perform. This allows us to operate without being stressed about money."

Toren said other events at the library include open mic nights, gatherings of local groups and organizations, writing workshops and community fundraisers.

One event that has grown considerably is the annual Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series, now in its fifth year, in which short films from around the world are shown weekly during the summer months.

Also of prime importance, although more hidden from public view, is the library's mission to archive Miller's writings and materials. A full-time archivist is now cataloguing and managing these items.

"The archive project is something we're always working on, the preservation of that history," said Toren.

The Henry Miller Memorial Library is on Highway 1 in Big Sur a quarter-mile south of Nepenthe. It's open every day but Tuesday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; for details, call(831) 667-2574 or go to www.henrymiller.org.


Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.