Henry Miller is considered one of the greatest writers of the early 20th-Century, and justifiably so. Miller was far from the first to document his personal experience, philosophical beliefs and fiction; however, he was the innovator of combining them all into a singular form. His writing style is characteristically straightforward, but flows in a way that feels as familiar as a street-corner storytelling.
Miller’s most notable novels include Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936), Tropic of Capricorn (1939), and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (1949-59), all of which are based on his experiences in New York and Paris. Through these works, he broke away from existing literary forms, and developed his new form of writing – a blend of fiction, semi-autobiography, philosophical reflection and social criticism. Through his writing, Miller paved the way for a generation of writers to follow – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Bukowski.
Appealing to a wide range of social classes, Miller started to gain a “larger-than-life” reputation when his Tropic novels were first published in America. He was a rebel and a bohemian. Miller’s life of scarcity and poverty until his late 30’s leading up to the publishing of Tropic of Cancer has been well documented. He went from living as a Parisian street beggar, to Tropic of Cancer selling over two and a half million copies in the first two years of publication.
Miller’s books were banned in America for a period of time, but as his notoriety and literary fame began to grow, the ban on his books were finally lifted and he moved to California’s Big Sur in search of a haven to write. Soon after the move, he established the area as an artists’ colony, himself taking the lead. This became a pilgrimage destination for fans and artists alike at the time, which ironically defeated his quest for solitude. His time and experience in Big Sur is eloquently told in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, first published in 1957.
Miller was a champion of artistic freedom and embraced its ability to lead to self-discovery. In his essay, “Of Art and the Future” he writes:
“To put it quite simply, art is only a stepping stone to reality; it is the vestibule in which we undergo the rites of initiation. Man’s task is to make of himself a work of art. The creations which man makes manifest have no validity in themselves; they serve to awaken, that is all.”
Following his passing in 1980, friends and admirers of Miller and his work founded the Henry Miller Memorial Library in order to continue the writer, artist and Big Sur resident’s legacy of using art to pursue self-discovery. The library also serves as a cultural resource center, store, gallery, and performance space for artists, musicians, writers and students. Throughout the summer months, the library hosts lectures, book signings, film screenings and open mics. Tucked into a grove of redwoods off Highway 1, the library is really just a small cottage and a welcome break from the large, dramatic moments of Big Sur. It’s the kind of place that encourages you to hang out for a second. There are used records for sale with a larger than normal selection of Paul McCartney and Neil Young work. A cat naps on a bench in a quiet corner, and a young woman keeps the music overhead on and interesting. It’s a quiet, understated space to stop and think about the life of a unique and transformative artist.
A couple of our team members visited Henry Miller Memorial Library on recent treks to California – Mel caught a screening of David Lynch’s Documentary on Transcendental Meditation back in September. She shared the experience of her trip on a previous blog post. Most recently, Reid stopped by to pay respects to the namesake of his beloved hound dog who has made quite a few appearances in Ledbury photo shoots, Henry.
Miller experienced decades of poverty for his belief in artistic and personal freedom. However, he held his ground and produced works that he believed in, which places him in his own lane from most of the writers from his era. He was supportive of artists, and understood the importance of creativity and its impact on humanity. A true legend in our books.