Thursday, March 2, 2000
Books and Authors
When Magnus Toren gave up his medical studies in Sweden in 1977 to sail around the world, he had no idea he would eventually wash up in Big Sur, fall in love, marry, and play an important role in preserving the memory of one of America''s great authors.
With his skipper''s license his only formal degree, Toren has been the executive director of the Henry Miller Library on Highway 1 in Big Sur since 1993. And Miller himself probably could not have picked a better person to keep his legacy alive among the redwoods and rocks he so treasured.
It''s fitting that Toren is Swedish, given that Europeans have always appreciated Miller more than his American compatriots. Toren, like Miller, seems to hold a limitless reserve of youthful enthusiasm for exploring and rejoicing in life and the creative spirit.
Miller often lamented in one way or another that "we live in an age when the art and the things of the spirit come last." Toren, with the help of others, is not only preserving Miller''s legacy, he''s building an oasis where art and things of the spirit come first.
Miller wrote in his memoir of his nearly 20-year stay in Big Sur: "To be a poet of life, though artists seldom realize it, is the summum. To breath out more than one breathes in. To walk two miles when asked to walk one. Thus to honor, obey and worship the Creator."
Toren seemingly walks three miles when asked for just one. His soft-spoken, light-hearted nature belies all he has taken on at the library.
Indeed, while it was Miller''s long-time friend and personal secretary Emil White who established the library upon Miller''s death in 1980, Toren has made the library into an increasingly busy yet homegrown cultural center. He''s continued to show local art as White did, but he''s also launched diverse avant-garde events at the library, including the Experimental Music Festival held every May, poetry slam competitions, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, children''s writing workshops, environmental education fairs, and regular Sunday poetry readings, some of which have been aired on National Public Radio.
Now, in addition to organizing exhibits and events, selecting sculpture for the library''s redwood encircled lawn, designing the library''s Web site, paying the library''s taxes, and sweeping the floor, Toren is overseeing the acquisition of two major Miller collections--collections that will make the library the second most extensive repository of Miller books, manuscripts, letters and ephemera in the world, next only to UCLA. He''s also overseeing the expansion of the library to accommodate the collections, as well as to better serve the Big Sur community.
The Miller Library''s AcquisitionsWith the acquisition of two major Henry Miller collections, Big Sur''s Henry Miller Library is becoming one of the world''s major repositories of Miller materials. Says Miller bibliographer Roger Jackson, speaking from Ann Arbor, Mich., either one of the collections makes the library "an important stop" for Miller researchers. But to have them together in Big Sur is "a glorious gift."
The first of these collections, the Ashley Collection, is the world''s most complete collection of English language Miller editions, including almost every published version of Tropic of Cancer (over 120 in all). The collection was put together and is being donated to the library by Henry Miller Library board member William Ashley.
The second collection, the Emil Schnellock Archive, includes all the Miller books, manuscripts, letters and ephemera collected by Schnellock, Miller''s lifelong friend and mentor from Brooklyn. The collection includes the hitherto unknown first draft of the Tropic of Cancer, which Miller originally called "The Last Book." There are also hundreds of letters to and from Miller, including some that he wrote on the backs of Paris cafe menus and on stationery from Western Union, Miller''s former employer during his New York days, which he referred to as the "Cosmodemonic Telegraphic Company."
Jackson explains that the original letters are extremely significant because they show Miller''s development as a writer during his formative Paris years. "Miller found his writing style through writing personal letters," Jackson says. "His early attempts at writing pale in comparison to [his] beautiful letters." Jackson also notes that to have such a complete collection from Miller''s Paris years is "astonishing."
The Schnellock Archive was acquired from an anonymous seller who, according to Jackson, could easily have made more money by selling the collection to a university or breaking it up and selling it piecemeal. Donating $110,000 (almost half) of the collection''s estimated value, the seller apparently had strong feelings about the Schnellock Archive making its way to Big Sur.
Miller Library Executive Director Magnus Toren has already raised another $36,000 for the archive from individual donors. Now he is raising another $125,000 to pay off the Monterey County Bank loan the library took out to purchase the archive. Toren notes appreciatively that bank officers "bent over backwards" to arrange a loan the library could handle.
If you would like to donate to the archive fund, contact Toren at 667-2574.
The library, which has been closed since November for these renovations, will reopen March 15.
Toren says the new collections will enable him "to satisfy the expectations" of the library''s visitors, many of whom are foreigners who come to the area specifically to pay homage to Henry Miller. Europeans "embrace" their literary heroes, says Toren, noting that the French treat the birthplace of Victor Hugo almost as a shrine. Americans, on the other hand, could do "a little bit bettter," he feels, in honoring their literary and artistic heritage.
Although no date has been set for construction to begin, award-winning Post Ranch Inn architect Mickey Meunnig has already drawn up and donated plans for the renovation. The plans carefully preserve the feel of the main building space, which was Emil White''s home, but they include the addition of a large exhibition gallery where art classes and children''s programs will be held.
Toren says he plans to begin an ongoing series of exhibits that will draw from the collections in exploring various aspects of Miller''s work, as well as the social histories that surround his writings--histories of censorship, the changing mores of society, and the story of bookmaking, to name just a few. Toren also hopes to establish an internship program so scholars can come to the library to conduct their own research.
But Henry Miller would likely be pleased to know that there is no danger of his namesake library turning into an ivory tower institution. Toren is not about to let down the Big Sur art and literary community Miller inadvertently helped establish.
"Magnus is a true visionary," says Big Sur resident, painter and art teacher Ronna Emmons. When she and her husband moved to Big Sur 19 years ago, they were surprised to find that, despite Big Sur''s reputation as an artists'' haven, "it just wasn''t happening artistically." Today, she says, the Big Sur art community is alive and well again, and she credits Toren in part with the comeback.
"He really encourages us to come out and show our work," Emmons says, adding that the library has sort of become "our salon."
Emmons looks forward to having the new Miller collections in Big Sur. "Henry Miller is such a legacy here. The more he can be revered, the more it helps us reach our artistic spirit,"she says.
Tim Green, a library board member and Big Sur resident of 25 years says that, as "the only place of its kind" in Big Sur, the library has provided a needed meeting space for the community. Because the renovations include building a temperature- and humidity-controlled room to store the new Miller collections, Green also sees the library as having the potential to house other Big Sur historical items such as the journals of deceased local painter George Choley. The journals, which Green "inherited," are filled with colorful representations of Big Sur''s "old guard," the free-spirited characters that built the area''s reputation.
Toren is quick to credit all those who are making the library expansion possible. He gratefully acknowledges the $100,000 contribution made by an anonymous local donor, as well as Mickey Meunnig, McLeod Construction, Kronlund Company and Ross Systems Services, which are all donating their services to the project.
Toren says he would be pleased to be the caretaker for most any literary figure''s library, but Miller offers something other authors don''t. Miller maintained a "youthful exuberance ''til the day he died," Toren says. "He was an omnivorous consumer of culture and cultural expression in all their different varieties and he was such an enthusiast for those things--poetry, painting, writing, music."
And, he adds with a broad, somewhat mischievous grin, working in Miller''s world has been a lot of "fun."
Magnus Toren will present "The Happiest Man Alive," a talk on Henry Miller, at the Thunderbird Bookstore in the Carmel Barnyard on Monday at 7pm. Call 624-1803.