Big Sur - History - Artists and Popular Culture

Artists and Popular Culture

In the early to mid-twentieth century, Big Sur's relative isolation and natural beauty began to attract writers and artists, including Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Edward Weston, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Emile Norman, and Jack Kerouac. Jeffers was among the first of these. Beginning in the 1920s, his poetry introduced the romantic idea of Big Sur's wild, untamed spaces to a national audience, which encouraged many of the later visitors. In the posthumously published book 'Stones of the Sur', the Carmel landscape photographer Morley Baer later combined his classical black and white photographs of Big Sur with some of Jeffers' poetry. Henry Miller lived in Big Sur from 1944 to 1962. His 1957 novel Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch described the joys and hardships that came from escaping the "air conditioned nightmare" of modern life. The Henry Miller Memorial Library, a cultural center devoted to Miller's life and work, is a popular attraction for many tourists. Hunter S. Thompson worked as a security guard and caretaker at Big Sur Hot Springs for eight months in 1961, just before it became the Esalen Institute. While there, he published his first magazine feature in the nationally distributed Rogue magazine, about Big Sur's artisan and bohemian culture. Jack Kerouac spent a few days in Big Sur in early 1960 at fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in the woods, and wrote a novel titled Big Sur based on his experience there. Big Sur acquired a bohemian reputation with these newcomers. Henry Miller recounted that a traveler knocked on his door, looking for the "cult of sex and anarchy." Apparently finding neither, the disappointed visitor returned home. Miller is referenced in Brautigan's A Confederate General at Big Sur, in which a pair of young men attempt the idyllic Big Sur life in small shacks and are variously plagued by flies, low ceilings, visiting businessmen with nervous breakdowns, and 2,452 tiny frogs whose loud singing keeps everyone awake.

Big Sur also became home to centers of study and contemplation - a Catholic monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage in 1958, the Esalen Institute, a workshop and retreat center in 1962, and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Buddhist monastery, in 1966. Esalen hosted many figures of the nascent "New Age", and in the 1960s, played an important role in popularizing Eastern philosophies, the "human potential movement," and Gestalt therapy in the United States.

The area's increasing popularity and incredible beauty soon brought the attention of Hollywood. Orson Welles and his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth, bought a Big Sur cabin on impulse during a trip down the coast in 1944. They never spent a single night there, and the property is now the location of a popular restaurant, Nepenthe. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in the 1965 film The Sandpiper, featuring many location shots of Big Sur, and a dance party scene on a soundstage built to resemble Nepenthe. The Sandpiper was one of the very few major studio motion pictures ever filmed in Big Sur, and perhaps the only one to identify real Big Sur locales by name as part of the plot. The DVD, released in 2006, includes a Burton-narrated short film about Big Sur, quoting Robinson Jeffers poetry. Another film based in Big Sur was the 1974 Zandy's Bride, starring Gene Hackman and Liv Ullman. An adaptation of The Stranger in Big Sur by Lillian Bos Ross, the film portrayed the 1870s life of the Ross family and their Big Sur neighbors.

From 1964 to 1971, the Big Sur Folk Festival was held annually on the grounds of the Esalen Institute, with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Mimi Farina frequently performing. (Celebration at Big Sur is a documentary of the 1969 Big Sur festival.) The Beach Boys devoted the three parts of their California Saga on the band's 1973 album Holland to a nostalgic depiction of the rugged wilderness in the area and the culture of its inhabitants. The first part describes the outdoor environment of the region, the second part is an adaption of the Robinson Jeffers poem The Beaks of Eagles, and the third part discusses local literary and musical figures. Big Sur is also mentioned by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in their 2000 single "Road Trippin'". The song tells of a road trip in which lead singer Anthony Kiedis, guitarist John Frusciante and bassist Flea surfed at Big Sur following John's return to the band. Among other notable mentions of Big Sur in music are Buckethead's song "Big Sur Moon" on the album Colma, and the song Big Sur by Irish indie band The Thrills from their album So Much for the City. Death Cab for Cutie's song "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is about a bridge (Bixby Creek Bridge) near the cabin in which Jack Kerouac stayed.

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