B is for Big Sur (and Henry Miller)


Henry Miller mentioned the peace, the quiet and the fog rolling in and out over the velvety hills and blessed it, for here, Miller argued, man could hide from all of the world’s ugliness and experience the serene security created by a handful of people who lived in harmony with nature, the noble old trees, the wormwood, the wild lovely lilacs, the poppies, the squirrels, the rattlesnakes, the buzzards, the eagles, the humming birds, and the infinite vistas of sea and air. He was referring to Big Sur, the place he called home the last few decades of his life.

While the fifties and sixties in the San Francisco Bay Area were dominated by the noise of the counter culture of hippies, Beats and protesting students, the American novelist Henry Miller withdrew on a lonely hilltop in Big Sur.

In his very own way, Miller had contributed to a counter culture of sorts, or rather he was the eye of his own storm with the publications of his early work which was declared obscene and banned for years so it could not appear on the bookshelves of American libraries and bookshops.

Timing is everything in life, and Henry Miller came too early because by the time the sexual revolution was over and done with, the books of Henry Miller were controversial once again because feminists complained about the misogyny of his oeuvre.

Miller has never been properly understood in this puritanical country: because of the sex, readers and critics were immediately distracted, and so… didn’t read on to experience the real richness of Miller’s prose. In Miller’s memoir on Big Sur (Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch) there is not a single sex scene but what you see is the power and talent of his Whitmanesque observations and his unusual vision. What you also see is the Edenic beauty of Big Sur’s coast. Big Sur is not only one of my favorite spots in California, but Miller’s book about Big Sur is also one of my favorite Henry Miller books.

Miller’s opening remarks in the book are true in that prior to the construction of the dramatic and coastal Highway 1 (1921-1937) Big Sur could not be reached by car. Miller also mentioned that a region like Andorra fits three times inside of Big Sur, and though it may remind the visitor of the Mediterranean, others have compared its ruggedness to Scotland.

But comparisons, Miller argues, are useless: Big Sur has its own character and climate. It is, Miller wrote, a place of extremes where one is always aware of the weather, the space, the vastness and the silence. It’s a place also to watch migrating birds and Miller claimed that Big Sur has the greatest variety of birds altogether, although maybe none are as majestic as the soaring hawk or eagle, gyrating over California’s quiet canyons.

For Miller, who returned to the States in the 1940s after he had lived a life of abandon in Paris and elsewhere in Europe, Big Sur may have been the only place in America where he could reconcile himself with his home country. Believing that America had become an “airconditioned nightmare” where money, materialism and the power of companies seemed to be the things that counted, Big Sur offered the only alternative: simplicity, nature, beauty and innocence, and not only for Miller…

In the 1960s, many came to Big Sur to come to their senses. The American novelist Richard Brautigan lived there too, in a primitive hut with such a low ceiling that he constantly hit his head. In A Confederate at Big Sur he didn’t only write about his illustrious neighbor Henry Miller, but also about the many wannabe artists and burned-out businessmen who knocked on his door.

Jack Kerouac also got inspired by Miller, stopped off in Big Sur and wrote his novel Dharma Bums about the experience. Movie stars Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth were equally drawn to Big Sur’s wild beauty and bought a home on a steep rock in 1944. They never spent one night there but the house was sold and eventually converted to the famous restaurant Nepenthe, where, on a clear day, you can sip wine on the outdoor patio while hanging between sea and sky. Watch out because you may think that you have died and gone to heaven…

Due to the tireless efforts of the local population (the last Census counted no more than a thousand residents) the region has been preserved and feels pristine, having avoided the interference of project developers or mass tourism. Moreover, In 1972, the California Coastal Act came into being which means you can’t just move to Big Sur, and buy or develop large parts of the land. Only millionaires like Ted Turner and Steve Martin can touch the few plots of land and they aren’t exactly roughing it like Miller who lived there without proper sewage, a well or a generator.

When Miller lived at Partington Ridge there wasn’t even a post office, telephone, sewage or trash service. In order to make it on the map, Miller joked that Big Sur might need a brothel, prison or an electric chair with gold lettering. He himself  voted for a nice Jewish deli, betraying his New York roots.

There was one prediction Miller made that never materialized; at the time, he thought Big Sur might eventually become a suburb of Monterey, but fortunately that has never happened.

Today Big Sur has become a destination for meditation and prayer. There is a Catholic monastery (New Camaldoli Hermitage), as well as a Buddhist one (Tassajara Zen Mountain Center) and there is the famous Esalen Institute where, some people believe, the New Age was born in an attempt to fuse the philosophies of East and West. Esalen organizes workshops and it is, like Nepenthe, known for its awesome views where, from a Jacuzzi above the roiling ocean you can plumb the depths of your soul.

For Henry Miller fans a visit to the Henry Miller Memorial Library is worth the trip: old music records are hanging from trees, there is a Jesus on the cross made of computer monitors and electrical wires (title: Y2K) and there is a sunny outdoor patio as well as an eclectic bookshop with memorable Henry Miller quotes on the walls.

Once you leave to continue your way on Highway 1, switch on the Beach Boys and hear what they said about Big Sur:

Do do do do do do do do do
Cashmere hills filled with evergreens
Flowin’ from the clouds down to meet the sea
With the granite cliff
(Big Sur mount)
As a referee
Crimson sunsets and golden dawns
A mother deer with their newborn fawns
All under Big Sur skies
(Big Sur mount)
That’s where I belong.

Big Sur I’ve got plans for you
Me and mine are going to
Add ourselves to your lengthy list of lovers
(Big Sur mount)
And live in canyons covered in springtime green
Wild birds and flowers to be heard and seen
And with my old guitar
I’ll make up songs to sing.
Where bubbling springs from the mountainside
Join the Big Sur River to the Oceanside
Where the kids can look for sea shells at low tide
Big Sur, my astrology it says that I am made to be
Where the rugged mountain meets the water

And so while stars shine brightly from up above
The fog rolls in through a redwood grove
And to my dying fire I think I’ll add a log.

From time to time I must go away
The thoughts of Big Sur won’t let me stay
Away from Big Sur
Oh Big Sur.

Yep, Big Sur rocks… but then, so does Henry Miller: if you haven’t read my novella about Henry Miller yet, you can buy Euro Trippy, A Novella about Midlife Crisis, Henry Miller and Living Large or borrow it as an e-book on Amazon. Just click the blue Euro Trippy smart link above, to take you to the novella’s webpage on Amazon.




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