“The face of the Earth as the creator intended it to look.”
In 1940, Miller returned to New York; after a year-long trip around the United States, a journey that would become material for The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, he moved to California in June 1942, initially residing just outside Hollywood in Beverly Glen, before settling in Big Sur in 1944, calling the area “the face of the Earth as the creator intended it to look.”
But how did Miller actually make it to Big Sur? Good question.
For an answer, we pull heavily Arthur Hoyle and his book The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur. In December 1943, The New Republic published an open letter from Miller complaining that James Laughlin, the editor at New Directions, had failed to publish his banned books in the states. This letter was read by fellow artist, the sculptor Jean Varda, who promptly invited Miller to come stay with him in Monterey.
One day Varda drove Miller down to Big Sur to meet Lynda Sargent, a friend of Varda who was writing a novel. She lived in a cabin overlooking the sea. The cabin had an open room and she offered it to Henry. He accepted the offer.
“I have much work to finish and am seeking peace and isolation.”
Prior to settling in Big Sur, Miller wrote a letter to Anais Nin, and looked ahead towards the new phase in his life. “I have much work to finish and am seeking peace and isolation. I am completely out of the world there [in Big Sur]. The stores are 35 miles away. I have no car. Depend on the mail mail to bring food—mail twice a week. Precisely what I want.”
In 1942, shortly before moving to California, Miller began writing Sexus, the first novel in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, a fictionalized account documenting the six-year period of his life in Brooklyn falling in love with June and struggling to become a writer. Like several of his other works, the trilogy, completed in 1959, was initially banned in the United States, published only in France and Japan.
In other works written during his time in California, Miller was widely critical of consumerism in America, as reflected in Sunday After The War (1944) and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). His Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, published in 1957, is a collection of stories about his life and friends in Big Sur.
“This is the first good break I’ve had since I’m living in America…”
In 1944, Miller met and married his third wife, Janina Martha Lepska, a philosophy student who was 30 years his junior. During this period Miller’s life took on a semblance of normalcy, thanks in part to Lepska, who brought order and structure into their home. Miller became a family man again, bought property for the first time, and saw his European audience expand significantly after the liberation of France at the end of the war.
In February 1945, as he settled into a cabin on Partington Ridge, Miller wrote to Lawrence Durrell: “I have a wonderful cabin you know, dirt cheap—ten dollars a month…This is the first good break I’ve had since I’m living in America…”
Miller and Lepska had two children: a son, Tony, and a daughter, Valentine. They divorced in 1952.
“No power on earth can effectively stop the circulation of thought.”
While Miller was living in Big Sur, the Tropic books, then still banned in the USA, were being published in France by the Obelisk Press and later the Olympia Press. There they were acquiring a slow and steady notoriety among both Europeans and the various enclaves of American cultural exiles.
As a result, the books were frequently smuggled into the States, where they proved to be a major influence on the new Beat Generation of American writers, most notablyJack Kerouac. (In 1959, Miller wrote a three page introduction for Kerouac’s novel, The Subterraneans.)
“It gets more and more difficult to do any continuous work here.”
In 1953, Miller married artist Eve McClure, who was 37 years his junior. Around this time, Lepska agreed to share custody of Tony and Valentine and leave them in Big Sur for the summers. To keep the children amused and away from Henry’s writing studio—he was still struggling to get Nexus off the ground— Eve organized craft classes for the local children, an enterprise that endeared her to the Big Sur community.
However, it was also during this time that Big Sur’s lack of culture stimulation, not to mention the vicissitudes of daily life—the storms, the slides, the power outages—began to have an effect on Miller. While still working on Nexus, he wrote to Durrell noting in 1957, “It gets more and more difficult to do any continuous work here. Living on the land, two children, endless visitors, endless chores, no recreation except ping-pong and a half hour’s reading a day…”
“The American way of life is an illusory kind of existence.”
In 1957, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch was published. The book was a love letter to Miller’s adopted home, a place far removed in space, in ambience, and in spirit from the Brooklyn of his youth. The book consists of a medley of the usual Miller topics and interests: glimpses of daily life and routine, profiles of neighbors, poetic descriptions of the scenery, and mystical speculations about the laws of the universe mixed with frequent wisdom pronouncements drawn from his life experiences.
Miller observes that people seek out places like Big Sur because they have discovered “that the American Way of Life is an illusory kind of existence, that the price demanded for the security and abundance it pretends to offer is too great.”
“Certainly I had no bad feelings—how could I?”
In April of 1960, Miller accepted an invitation to serve on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival. The trip, according to Hoyle, marked the beginning of Miller’s “disengagement from Big Sur.” While in Europe, Eve wrote Henry requesting a divorce. However, she made it clear the divorce would be amicable and that she would not exit Miller’s life.
In a subsequent letter to Eve, Henry wrote, “I think all you say is quite right and I’m glad you feel alright about everything. We’re still friends…Certainly I had no bad feelings—how could I?” (In a way—and this is conjecture on our part, Mille could have just as easily been speaking to Big Sur.)
Indeed, once back in California, Henry’s restlessness did not abate. He drove from Big Sur to Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, to be near his children and give Eve privacy. In February 1963, Miller moved to 444 Ocampo Drive, Pacific Palisades where he would spend the last 17 years of his life.
Miller, Big Sur, and the Quest for Self-Actualization
Ultimately, Miller’s time in Big Sur is important because it was against this backdrop that he relentless pursued his goal of what Hoyle calls a timeless “message of self-realization,” an expression used in psychology, spirituality, and Eastern religions and defined as the “fulfillment by oneself of the possibilities of one’s character or personality.”
And so we’ll let Hoyle have the last word:
“Miller believed that only the individual could be saved from the fate that awaited mass man, a fate that he likened to a living death in which people mechanically lived their lives in obedience to ignorant and inhuman taboos. Social movements, political revolutions, only produced more of the same.
“For Miller, the way to individuation was through art, and it was the role of the artist to point the way for others by being an example of how to escape the prevailing system and achieve personal freedom.”