First posted in November of 2002.
Other than a passing comment made in the 60s by my Grandmother about ‘that banned writer’, my first experience with Henry Miller came through one of my painting teachers. During our required class time in ‘Beginning Painting’ he would often throw out a quote by Miller from one of the Tropics or Rosy Crucifixion books, but it wasn’t until a few years later, after I had moved to Berkeley, that I sat down and read him for myself.
I started with Tropic of Cancer, then moved on to Tropic of Capricorn, Black Spring, The Colossus of Maroussi and then just about any of his work that I could get my hands on. My craving for, and curiosity about, his work was insatiable. Every week I would go up to Telegraph Ave. to search the stacks at Moe’s and Shakespeare & Co for new Miller cast offs.
Miller enchanted me in a way that no living man ever can or will. His tell-it-like-it-is style of writing, his use of phrasing, the way he could start on one topic and go through ten others before making his first point, went straight to my heart. He was a master of run on sentences and he painted images with his words. He was a breathless beast, a man open to new experiences and cultures and philosophies. He wrote like I thought. And I read as fast as the thoughts would come. His work could be obsessive, brutal, harsh, honest and gentle. His reflection on life and living, sex and religion, and his comments on the life of an artist, became my How-To Manual for Living. He could be cruel and insensitive and then insecure. He was human. He was definitely in his skin. And … he was vulnerable. That, above all things, is what draws me to this man.
Big SurStats: Henry Miller was born on December 26th, 1891 in Yorkville Manhattan and died in 1980 in Pacific Palisades, California. He grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. His years living in Big Sur (1944 -1962) were preceded by nine expatriate years in Paris (1930-39) and one in Greece (c1940), a year touring the American countryside on a roadtrip (c1941), and two years in Southern California (1942-44). After his years in Big Sur, he lived out the rest of his life in Pacific Palisades. And that is all I really need to tell you about Henry Miller. Because the very best way to find out about his life is to read his books.
The Henry Miller Library is a small, intimate place, cached under redwood trees and sunlight. A place that celebrates and archives the life of this Great American Writer and his friends, and documents living life in Big Sur. Walking across the yard, I feel like I am entering into someone’s home. Maybe that is because the library is actually housed in the old home of artist Emil White, the man who worked as Henry Miller’s secretary and to whom the book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch is dedicated. The yard contains a small covered proscenium from which musical performances and poetry readings can be staged, a small sculpture garden, and the road weary. There also happens to be a ping-pong table. The chairs on the porch invite me to sit and relax, to have a cup of tea, but instead I enter and introduce myself to the man behind the counter.
The man behind the counter is *Ted Jauw, and we strike up a conversation. He is easy to talk to and seems to love to talk about Miller and the library. We walk around the room and discuss things as we see them. We talk about living in Big Sur. I want to know how he can afford to live here and he wants to know how I can afford to travel. We talk about the old Life magazine spreads from 1959 that are framed and hanging on the wall, showing Miller yakking it up with his pals at a night out at Nepenthe. There are other photographs on display that were taken around Big Sur. A little line drawing by Bob Nash hangs on a column – delicate and intriguing.
Some of Miller’s small paintings hang in the room but they don’t interest me. His words, his thoughts are the things that attract my attention. Miller is a writer. His painting, to me, was his pastime, a way to break from the burden of his thoughts…
Titles by other authors are dispersed between the volumes of Miller. Anais Nin. Lawrence Durell. One of my other favorites, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, sits on the corner of one of the tables. “I love this book,” I say. Ted replies by saying that I am not the first person to say that recently. I tell him that I always recommend it to folks who are traveling. He looks at me quizzically and I say that “Pilgrim has nothing to do with a particular place but has everything to do with learning to see. Once a person reads Pilgrim, they see the world differently – nature, architecture, art, everything.”
Ted points to some boxes that are stacked in a back room and says “Tropic of Cancer is in there, in those boxes. It’s a collection of the original letters and manuscripts …” as if he were teasing me, or daring me, to go there. Instead he steers me to a table by the window, where one of Miller’s old typewriters sit. This I can touch. On this I can pretend to write. There is no ribbon so I have to pretend. I reach out and touch a key with my right index finger. Then the left. I use the hunt-and-peck-one-finger-method to write out my imaginary pretend sentence, much in the same way that Miller wrote out the realities of his life.