Sam McManis

June 3, 2012

Discoveries: Quirky world of author Henry Miller preserved near Big Sur

The weather-beaten sign out front proclaims "The Henry Miller Memorial Library Where Nothing Happens."


Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

BIG SUR – The weather-beaten sign out front proclaims "The Henry Miller Memorial Library Where Nothing Happens."

As if it's trying to scare off the unaware, ward off the unenlightened. As if some tourist cop were motioning for gawkers to move along, folks, nothing to see here but the mad scrawls of a balding, priapic novelist better known for being banned than read.

Don't let the sign fool you. Everything is happening inside the gates of this museum and art space amid the redwoods along Highway 1. Pop culture and counter-cultural – and everything between – from a more repressed era of American life can be exhumed and examined in corners and alcoves, down on the baseboards and dangling from the ceiling.

"I've been coming here for many, many years," said Gary Merrill of Santa Cruz. "It's a stop we make every time we come to Big Sur. It's fascinating and a little strange. It's on the edge of ordinary life. It's on the edge of the continent. And, as you know, Henry was on the edge of society."

The thing is, many don't know. In his lifetime (1891- 1980), Miller was at once the talk of literary Paris and something of a pariah in his homeland. He wrote frankly about sex and was dubbed by many as sexist. He mixed surrealism, mysticism and stark social commentary in a fictional stew that engrossed or enraged readers in equal measure.

That's if you had heard of him at all.

Please note, this is not the dude who wrote "Death of a Salesman." None of Henry's work is taught in high school. It was branded pornography until the 1960s.

"Most of the people just randomly walk in; they have no idea who Henry Miller was," said Mike Scutari, one of the caretakers for the nonprofit. "They just want to use the bathroom. Seriously, every day, I get 10 people asking, 'What is this place?' There's a lot of confusion with Arthur Miller.

"But we do get hard-core disciples, most foreign. He's a lot better known in Europe. Here, he's been under the radar his whole career."

A better question might be, why did the cosmopolitan, globetrotting Miller hole up in Big Sur from 1944 to 1962, seemingly the prime of his writing career?

One answer is that he wanted a peaceful place to write. (The library, by the way, is not Miller's former residence; that's four miles south on a ridge. This is the former home of Miller's best friend, Emil White, who vowed to memorialize the writer.) But his retreat quickly turned into a hotbed for artistes both local and foreign.

On display at the library is a hand-scrawled note Miller penned titled "Notice to Visitors." He hung it on his front door:

"The undersigned wishes to inform all and sundry that he has long since left the Abode of Peace, that he no longer has any comfort or inspiration to offer, and that even the migratory birds avoid this spot. Prayers are offered up daily – without charge. The garden has been transformed into an open air Vespasienne. When you come please be so kind as to check your neuroses and psychoses at the gate."

A leftist libertine with an irascible sense of humor, Miller went about his writing and painting in Big Sur not giving a fig about public opinion, which made him beloved among outsiders and hipsters of the day. The fact that people had to smuggle in his seminal novel, "Tropic of Cancer," before it was finally published here with great controversy in 1961, only burnished his back-alley street cred.

Given such a colorful character straddling fame and infamy, you would not expect a Henry Miller "library" to be dull. And it's not. The place is hopping, with rock music blaring from speakers in the living room to provocative sculptures in the yard, to crumpled pages of old manuscripts and letters and even scrawled notes pinned to the walls.

Miller's books, once so salaciously hush-hush, now dangle from strings attached to the ceiling, like forbidden fruit aching to be plucked. His poor penmanship is on display with reproductions of notes such as the pithy "Beatniks, Beatles and Hippies, I don't like any of them."

Add to Miller's ephemera the eclectic work of local artists, and you get a mind-bending trip amid Big Sur's postcard-perfect views.

There are no tours or docents or any logical floor plan for the library. The curators make it seem like the stuff just accumulated over the years. Foreign currency serves as curtains, and provocative art objects, such as a woven-wood Jesus being crucified on a cross made of 1990s-era computer monitors, seem something Miller might've painted had he lived in the cyber age.

Book nerds will marvel at the original manuscript from Miller's novel "Nexus," laminated to preserve the brittle paper. They also can purchase nearly all of Miller's books – no brown-paper covering required in our enlightened era – as well as novels by more modern writers with excellent literary chops.

This may be the most exclusive quasi-bookstore in the nation. No "popular best-sellers" on display, just writers in the "spirit" of Miller: David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Cormac McCarthy, Ken Kesey, Franz Kafka, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson .

Musicians such as Patti Smith and Dan Bern have performed benefit concerts on the lawn, the latter singing about what would've happened to Marilyn Monroe if she had married Henry, not Arthur.

Actually, if Marilyn had married Henry, this funky little abode off the highway probably would be overrun with Monroe-obsessives seeking psychic communion with the bombshell.

Better that this gem remain small and cozy, a literary retreat on a fog- enshrouded highway.


48603 Highway One, Big Sur

(831) 667-2574;

Hours: 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Wednesday through Monday. (Closed Tuesdays)

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