California Writers: Henry Miller and Big Sur

(This post, as many of the previous ones, is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir “America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad”.)

The aspect of writing that Henry Miller opened up to me was voice.  Until then I had heard a thousand voices – I had always been a voracious reader – and certainly some of those writers’ voices were unique:  Henry David Thoreau, for instance, or Jack Kerouac.  But never had I heard a writer’s voice as clear as a bell one-of-a-kind as Henry Miller’s.  From the first few lines of “Tropic of Cancer” he had me hooked.  It was so free, so exuberant, so lively, so bawdy, so irreverent, so iconoclastic, so different, so strong, so vibrant, so poetic.  And the wonderful thing was that it didn’t make me want to go out and try to write like Henry Miller, as so many writers I had read in the past caused me to try to imitate them.  No, it made me want to write like myself.  It caused me to understand that the writer and his life and his voice were one.  It set me upon a journey to seek out the words hidden in my soul, a journey that is still ongoing.

I have written elsewhere of Henry Miller’s impact upon me.  What I want to touch on here is his own journey as a writer that caused him to wander from New York to France to Greece, from thence to traverse the United States and finally to settle in Big Sur.  His book “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” says much about his attachment to Big Sur, though it doesn’t tell it all.  Doubtless Miller himself didn’t grasp what drew him to Big Sur.  It was somewhat in the nature of a mystical experience.

In my youth I was always drawn to California myself, but it’s difficult to explain why.  It was an ambiance, something in the light, a quality of the sun and air.  It was also its literary tradition, of course.  Long before I knew of Henry Miller I was pulled there by the works of John Steinbeck and Jack London.  But even before I knew I had to be a writer I ended up in California, in the Bay Area, seemingly by accident, when I followed my sister down to Santa Clara University to study.  What I found there were vestiges of the hippy movement, the Summer of Love, the Grateful Dead, Fillmore West, and the drug culture.  Experimenting with drugs caused me to short out, in a sense, and lose valuable years of my life.

But I digress.  I was speaking of Henry Miller.

What really drew Henry Miller to Big Sur?  The wild landscape?  The vastness of the Pacific?  The surrounding community of misfits and artists?  Perhaps it was a place that was remote enough so that the collective culture of the United States wasn’t in his face all the time, where he could contemplate the scenery, take walks, have visitors, and write what was still struggling to get out without the hindrance of the millions of clamoring voices of a big city.  The fact is, all of his artistic life he had wandered without a home, from place to place.  Perhaps the settling down somewhat appealed to him.

He didn’t return voluntarily to the United States.  He was forced to return.  He was in Greece and World War II found its way there and he had no choice but to evacuate.  I have been in that situation several times.  When I was in India I thought I would never leave, that I had found my place, but my visa options dried up.  When I was in Greece, as I have explained, I thought I would end my days there, and yet here I am again embarked on another journey.  Henry Miller doubtless sincerely intended to return to Europe after the war, but he never did.  He ended his days in the United States, in California, though not in Big Sur but in a house he bought, when he finally got a little money coming in from the sale of his works, in Pacific Palisades.

It is as I have said before:  home is an abstraction.  This is true not only for writers and other artists but for everyone, but most people hunker down close to where they came from and don’t move.  Some have no desire to venture forth, and live meaningful lives where they are; others would desperately like to make a change but lack the courage.  These live as undeveloped embryos, as caterpillars that never managed to make it out of their cocoons.  A writer, though, can ill afford such timidity.  A writer either goes forth to find his voice and his destiny or never becomes what he is capable of becoming.  I speak spiritually, metaphorically, of course, and not physically.  You don’t have to circumnavigate the globe to fulfill your artistic destiny.  Look at Thoreau:  he hardly ventured farther than his backyard of New England, and yet his words transcended neighborhoods, regions, states, countries.

I still want to visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library someday.  I’m sure I’d have a great time.  I know I would love Big Sur too.  I don’t think I have ever passed through there, though I have made innumerable journeys up and down the length of California.  If I did on one of my hitchhiking forays from the Bay Area to Los Angeles or vice-versa, I don’t remember it.  That’s why I think I haven’t done it.  The coastal landscape of California has made a profound impression on me: the redwood forests of the north, with pounding waves smashing upon the craggy shoreline in great glittering spray; the flamboyant tidal pools and offshore islands teeming with seals of the Bay Area; the unbelievably deep blue vast Pacific Ocean that seems to go on forever without end and reminds one of eternity.  For many years, the years of my youth as I wandered the West Coast this was as much home as any place was to me.  As I have said, I was drawn to California again and again; there was a mystique, a tantalizing glimpse of something more and better, a siren-call I could not ignore.  In the end, though, for me it was not enough.  I was at the beginning of my journey, not the end.  I had many places to go and many things to do.  I could not tarry in this illusion.  Remember, after all, who the sirens really were.  They were not benevolent muses; your ship would smash on the rocks and you yourself would be consumed and lost.

Henry Miller, on the other hand, when he ended up at Big Sur, had completed much of his journey:  his physical journey, at least.  He had many more words in him that had to be released, but by that time he could live anywhere; his voice was flowing; the compulsion to move ever on was not as strong.  So he stayed, and wrote, and thrived.

As for me, at this point I cannot say.  If I had the means and the freedom I would travel the west coast, but I have neither.  I cannot pack a duffle bag and stick out my thumb, trusting to find meals and places to lay my head when I need them, as I used to do.  The United States has changed, and I have changed.  I’m almost sixty years old, for God’s sake.  Neither can I cut loose and take off without a care, because I am responsible for others besides myself.  I have, however, thank God, come to the point where I can sit down and write anywhere.  I am no longer dependent on constant physical motion and changes for my inspiration.  I have been many places and done and seen many things, and I have enough inspiration stored up to last several lifetimes.  Sometimes I wish I knew what I know now when I was a young struggling writer, dirt-poor and hitchhiking from place to place.  I could have avoided a lot of grief, but on the other hand the longing to satiate the hunger that accompanies ignorance is an impetus that can propel us towards great adventure.  So it was in my case, and so it was in the case of Henry Miller when he left New York for France.  His circuitous route eventually led him to Big Sur, and there he found a modicum of rest for a time.

Where my destiny will eventually lead me I cannot say.  I have a feeling I will not stay here in San Diego for long.  I haven’t yet found my base, my home, my port in a storm.  I think about it sometimes:  how nice it would be to have a modest house with some land around it in a rural area, somewhere I could keep my books, come back to when I need a rest, invite my family and friends for visits.  I have no idea where that place might be, and I wonder if when I get to it I will know it, as Henry Miller seemed to know instinctively that Big Sur was the place for him to stay.

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