The man who keeps Henry Miller alive
Photo courtesy of the Henry Miller Library / www.henrymiller.org
Reading him draws inspiration in the sense that you, as a reader, can live your own life, express your individuality. You don't have to follow convention. Life is great!
What does it say about literature when so much of what we read is crap? You look at what we have today in cinema, television, the drugs we take, and it seems the true spirituality of art, the wisdom, is lost.
Rogue of the month
The man who keeps Henry Miller alive
By Dell Franklin
Why do people love the writer, Henry Miller?
“His writing has a sense of freedom,” says Magnus Torén, curator (or executive director) of the Henry Miller Library off Highway 1 in the heart of Big Sur. “He was not bound by style, fashion, Or political correctness. Reading him draws inspiration in the sense that you, as a reader, can live your own life, express your individuality. You don't have to follow convention. Life is great! Do not ever take eating, drinking and fucking for granted.”
Magnus finds himself immersed in a culture that would be the envy of anyone whose passion is literature and nature, and a serenity drawn from the beauty and grandeur of an area that is visited by thousands of people yearly from all over the world.
“There was no plan that I end up here,” says Magnus, a tall, lanky Swedish man, as we sit near the stage in the fenced-in glade just off the Highway 1 where jam sessions occur every Wednesday night.
“I was sailing around the world, and I tied up here. I knew I would never end up in a big city, because I sailed. There was a romantic aspect to my search. I liked being out on the ocean, thousands of miles from land.”
Magnus ended up staying in Big Sur, where he is now a recognized figure from Ragged Point to Monterey, because he suffered a terrible motorcycle accident on Highway 1, not far from where we sit. It just happened that the woman who stopped and “scraped me off the asphalt,” as Magnus puts it, was the woman who not only performed first aid, got him to a hospital, nursed him back to health, and literally saved his life, but became his wife. This was 1984.
“How did you end up running the Henry Miller Library?”
“That was by chance, too. People would like to think I am a literary scholar and professor,” he says in perfect English, with just a tinge of his Swedish origin. “But actually I am just a person who reads a lot, and of course I knew of Henry Miller, I live up on Partington Ridge where he lived and wrote about Big Sur. When the opportunity came to run the library, I read all of Miller, and of course I love his writing. He represents so much of what I believe about life, and how it should be lived. At least from my perspective.”
“When did you take over the library?”
“1994. The place was a bit neglected. The previous curator was a wonderful writer, but he was not enough of a businessman in the sense that he was so in love with literature and the idea of literature that he ended up giving books away. This was the attitude of Big Sur, anyway. People tended to pass things around and share, rather than hold onto things. We in Big Sur look at ourselves as visitors.”
“What did you do for ten years before taking on the library?”
“I waited tables at Ventana, and did maintenance there, too, and later I worked at the Post Ranch. And my wife and I had a sewing business.”
“What is it like working here, if one can call it work?”
“I feel I am truly blessed. I speak French, Swedish and English and since many of the people who visit here are European and from other parts of the world, I have a wonderful personal life, or I should say a social life, right here. Besides the locals coming around for coffee, I have people to talk to every day. It is interesting these people loving literature and Henry Miller, and travel…a small percentage of people who come here are specifically on a pilgrimage. They actually kiss the ground, because Henry Miller has made such a huge difference in their lives. We even have interns, from Smith College back East, who live in tents on the grounds and study Mr. Miller.”
“What makes Henry Miller so special and such an inspiration? He seems to have a profoundly spiritual effect on his readers, and on other writers.”
“I believe it is his philosophy of life as he incorporated it into his writing. His writing was really without shape, or plot, or contrivances, or devices.”
“Is there anybody around today like him?”
“Are there any writers around today who inspire you?"
“What is it with Miller?”
“Well, you have to realize what time he wrote—the 1930s. He could not get published in this country because they felt he was pornographic. To me, he was not pornographic, as he was honest, and not afraid to break boundaries. Here he was, in the middle of the Depression, without a penny to his name, having to live off his friends and sleep on their floors and couches…he was this destitute, struggling man, and yet he wrote some of his finest literature, and he was the happiest man alive. Do we have anybody like him around today, celebrating life and art without a pot to piss in?”
“He returned to travel through America in 1939 after 10 years abroad and wrote of the joyless emptiness of materialism (The Air Conditioned Nightmare). He was sickened by it. Would he be sickened by what is going on today?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“What would he think of what is being published today?”
“Speaking for myself, and understanding Miller, he would be disappointed. When you look at the catalogs of books that are available today, eighty percent are of some kind of New Age spiritual guidance and self help. The New Age stuff is overwhelming nonsense for the moss-brained. It breeds this increasing narcissism and self-absorption.
Now, Henry Miller might have had these traits, but he had a wonderful tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about himself, and much of his writing is hilarious. Being a writer, an artist, he was open and honest about himself. But what does it say about literature when so much of what we read is crap? You look at what we have today in cinema, television, the drugs we take, and it seems the true spirituality of art, the wisdom, is lost. Nothing I see written today is ‘current.’ Ezra Pound said, ‘Literature is news that stays news.’ That is why this library is stocked with authors that Mr. Miller read and was inspired by. He would have wanted his shrine to provide writers like we have here—Proust, Strindberg, Knute Hamsun, Dostoevski, Emerson, Thoreau…the classics, who remain current. Everything they wrote is timely today. If more people read them, instead of junk, we might have a better idea of how to deal with things.”
“How much money did those guys make from their writings, and how many talk shows and book tours did they go on?”
“Look, I think, today we shy away from good literature. Maybe it is too painful. People want to read HOW-TO books. How to lose weight. How to invest and make a million dollars. What pills to take to prolong your life. How to keep your body and face preserved. How to fuck. It goes on and on.”
“In the face of all this, how does this library stay alive?”
“Donations. We are a nonprofit. We do rent out to events, like weddings, or private parties, but only twelve times a year. We are already booked up. We want no more than that. We get donations from the NEA, and various organizations, and from people who love Henry Miller and want this place to survive.”
“It’s a golden day here. There is nothing like it.”
“Yes. Big Sur has hardly changed physically. Well, perhaps a bit incrementally.”
“You mean the building?”
“Yes, like most places with a coastline and a spectacular view, the old homes are going down, and wealthy people build mansions. Fortunately, most of them are hidden from the highway.”
“In your twenty-three years here, has this place changed as far as the attitude of the locals?”
“The will to embrace the notion that Big Sur symbolizes tran-quility is still here, along with the illusion we have retained freedom of a wild and rural character. But we have lost a lot of our inter-esting and eccentric characters who were here when I first arrived. There is a history of these characters, and Miller wrote of them during his stay on Partington Ridge. But because the prices of homes and rentals have grown so high, people are driven out. The business people here should think about building quarters for employees who live here and want to live here because they love the isolation. What is vanishing is the old philosophy of the Beatnik culture—live simply.”
“It seems like the same story everywhere you go.”
“Yes, there is a feeling of increasing frustration. I feel, the way things are going, that the only way to express our feelings about these things, and other problems, is through politics and art. Let’s hope it stays that way.”
“What is your favorite book by Henry Miller?”
“The Colossus of Maroussi.”
“I feel it is his most balanced work, it has a sentimentality and a religious quality.”
Henry Miller religious? Perhaps his religion was a devotion to spontaneity and to his senses, his taste and appetite for women, his appreciation of the foibles and follies of fellow humans, and his child-like gusto for being alive. Not to mention his delving into the human soul and psyche, which enabled him to achieve the purity and beauty and depth to eventually place him on book shelves alongside the finest writers our world has known and from whom he drew the essence of being.
As we do, too.§
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Vocie. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
HENRY’S COLLECTION The Henry Miller library in Big
Sur survives on donations from the NEA, and various organizations, and from people who love Henry Miller and want the place to survive.
Meet some of our previously featured "rogues" here: