When the UCLA Extension Literature Program hosts its "Henry Miller Centenary Celebration" Saturday, the guest of honor, who died in June, 1980, at the age of 88, will be a vibrant presence.
"He'll be electronically present," says filmmaker Robert Snyder, whose three movies about the controversial writer--"The Henry Miller Odyssey," "Reflections on Writing" and "To Paint Is to Love Again"--are major components of the UCLA program.
Miller will also be represented on audiotape, as well as in readings, discussions of his vast oeuvre and the comments and reminiscences of a number of his intimates and admirers.
That is as it should be for Miller, who was known as a fascinating raconteur, a man who, in the words of his friend, Erica Jong, "was as important for the figure he cut as for the voice he invented."
He was also widely misunderstood, vilified as a sexist and a degenerate and forced to suffer the fate of seeing his most significant books--among them "Tropic of Cancer," "Black Spring" and "Tropic of Capricorn"--banned in the United States, his own country, until the early 1960s, nearly 30 years after their initial publication in France.
It appears that a full-scale rehabilitation of Miller is under way, a process begun by the publication earlier this year of two biographies--Robert Ferguson's "Henry Miller: A Life" and Mary Dearborn's "The Happiest Man Alive"--and spurred by UCLA and the plethora of other commemorations scheduled to take place up and down the California coast.
San Francisco will host three events this weekend, beginning on Friday with an "Open Mike Night" of readings from Miller's books at the Studio Theatre in North Beach and continuing with a presentation of films about the author at the Roxy Cinema on Saturday and a stripped-down version of the UCLA celebration on Sunday.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur will throw the biggest bash Oct. 29-31, a three-day festival honoring Miller's life and art, featuring panel discussions, photographic exhibitions, presentations, an auction of Miller memorabilia and a birthday party with dinner and cake.
The UCLA program began to take shape two years ago, with the ideas of Snyder and Ron Gottesman, a professor of English at USC and editor of the forthcoming "Critical Essays on Henry Miller."
"Bob had been at the 80th birthday celebration at UCLA in 1972," Gottesman says, "and he suggested we talk to them about the 100th too." At the same time, Jerry Kamstra, director of the Miller Library, was working out a plan for festivities in Big Sur. "The whole thing sort of mushroomed," says Snyder. "The idea was that we could pool our resources."
"It's a happy coincidence of timing," Kamstra says, "the result of a groundswell of interest in the man and his work."
The depth of that groundswell is evidenced in the number of independent observances of Miller's 100th birthday, observances that have no direct connection to the more formal celebration.
In Los Angeles, radio station KPFK has presented selections from "The Colossus of Maroussi" on its "Morning Reading" since Oct. 7 in a program that wraps up this week.
Until Nov. 17, the Coast Gallery in Big Sur will feature a centennial retrospective of more than 100 of Miller's watercolors, the largest collection of the author's artwork ever presented in the United States. In addition, Coast Publishing has just released "Henry Miller--The Paintings: A Centennial Retrospective," a companion volume to the gallery show, with color plates of 90 paintings as well as excerpts from Miller's writings on art and comments by various collectors about him.
"The Paintings" is just one of at least 10 titles issued or in the works, ranging from old friend William Webb's chatty, informal gathering of photographs and reminiscences, "Henry & Friends," to "Crazy Cock," a lost Miller novel from the 1920s published this month for the first time by Grove Weidenfeld.
New Directions has published "Aller Retour New York," a legendary work Miller wrote in the 1930s that was previously available only in a limited edition privately distributed to the author's friends.
Kamstra credits the release last year of Philip Kaufman's film "Henry & June" with helping to stir up interest in Miller. Kaufman and Fred Ward, who played Miller in the movie, will participate in the San Francisco event on Sunday.
But Kamstra also stresses the relevance of Miller's writings to the way we live now. "We're entering the age that Miller predicted," he says, "an age of madness, suicide, corruption, of rampant materialism that destroys the soul. People are starting to understand that he was absolutely prescient, very far ahead of this time."
"Henry's case was absolutely a scandal," says Jong. "He was tarred with the brush of a pornographer because our puritanical culture expects us to be hypocrites in public."
A large part of the UCLA and San Francisco celebrations will focus on this theme, with panel discussions about "Censorship in the Arts" and "Miller and the First Amendment."
In San Francisco, one of the speakers will be Elmer Gertz, the Chicago attorney who represented Miller in many of the more than 60 obscenity trials that stemmed from the 1961 Grove Press publication of "Tropic of Cancer."
At UCLA Extension, the emphasis will be on a dialogue about the broader question of censorship as a whole. "Miller wrote four very important essays on the subject," Gottesman says, "and it was always the intention to use his views to highlight the issues of censorship, obscenity, pornography and the freedom to read and write."
Although censorship tends to be viewed these days as a muzzle that conservatives want to impose upon artists of liberal bent, Miller's case is special because his unabashed descriptions of sex and bodily functions have alienated left-wing critics as well.
"The sexism charge is a difficult one," says Jong, who will sit with Miller's daughter, Valentine, and others on a panel at Big Sur devoted to the recollections of women who knew Miller. "But we have to set him in a historical perspective . . . and realize he was not promoting sexism, but reflecting it."
In spite of the controversy that continues to surround Miller's work, the main point of these centennial activities is to revel in the legacy of art and ideas he left behind. "This is absolutely celebratory," says Snyder. "It's a Festschrift that would amuse the hell out of Henry."
In that spirit, the UCLA Extension will include as part of its program a production called "Remembering Henry Miller: A Collage," directed by Francine Parker. The hour and 45 minutes of some of Miller's best-known work is performed by actors including Ed Asner, Harold Gould and John Randolph. On Tuesday night, the Miller Library plans to premiere "Point of Departure," a play about the author written in the 1940s by Miller's Big Sur neighbor, Bruce Arris, and only recently discovered.
Kamstra and other conference organizers hope that the California celebrations will inspire a series of worldwide festivities, and there are already events scheduled in Tokyo, Phoenix and New York.
Whether the action refocuses widespread attention on Miller's place in the literary pantheon or not, his influence is already assured. "Henry Miller's voice brought American literature back into pulsing, breathing life," Jong says. "Despite being put down, he went on, with tenacity and exuberance."
That's a description Miller probably would have appreciated, the kind of thing he might well have said of himself. Expatriated and alone in Paris nearly 60 years ago, at the beginning of "Tropic of Cancer," Miller wrote: "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive."
The UCLA Extension program is scheduled from 1 to 5 p.m. and the Robert Snyder films from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday in Lenart Auditorium and the Fowler Museum on the UCLA campus. Fee is $55 for the entire program, $40 for the day program only and $20 for the evening only. Information: (213) 825-9415.