Aldous Huxley Biography

Aldous Huxley’s screenplay of Alice in Wonderland may have been rejected by Walt Disney because it used too many big words, but the rest of the world really appreciated Huxley’s writing. Had it not been for a disease that affected his eyesight, though, Huxley might never have become a famous author. Born in 1894, he came from a family of distinguished scientists and wanted to follow in their footsteps. His poor vision, however, forced him to give up that dream. Instead, he first turned to teaching, which Huxley proved not very good at—lucky for the literary world. He then began to focus solely on his writing, digging deeper into himself through practiced meditation, until he eventually produced his masterpiece, Brave New World, in 1932.

Facts and Trivia

  • Huxley was denied U.S. citizenship (though he lived in the States for thirty years) because he refused to play any part in the military defense of the United States.
  • George Orwell, author of the books 1984 and Animal Farm, was one of Huxley’s students.
  • Huxley took the drug LSD while he lay on his death bed.
  • Huxley died on the same day as President John F. Kennedy and C. S. Lewis, famed author of The Chronicles of Narnia.
  • Huxley is so influential he’s even managed to penetrate pop culture. The Beatles used a picture of him on the cover of their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Biography

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Last Updated on August 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2233

Article abstract: Through far-sighted, iconoclastic thought and prolific, diverse writings, Huxley not only recorded but also transcended his age, greatly enriching intellectual life for the twentieth century and beyond.

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Early Life

Aldous Leonard Huxley, the third son of Leonard Huxley and Julia Frances Arnold, descended from two distinguished families: one known for high achievement in the sciences and the other equally renowned for contributions to education and literature. On his father’s side, Thomas Henry Huxley, the eminent biologist and popularizer of English naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, was Aldous’s grandfather. On his mother’s side, Dr. Arnold of Rugby was his great-grandfather, Matthew Arnold (poet and educator) was his great uncle, and the novelist Mrs. Humphrey Ward was his aunt. His schoolmaster father became an editor of the Cornhill Magazine, and his mother founded a very successful school for girls.

Huxley attended Hillside Preparatory School and then was sent to Eton at age fourteen. He was an intellectually precocious youth who had already almost reached his full height of 6 feet 4 inches. A few months later Huxley suffered the first of three losses that deeply affected him. In November of 1908, his much-loved mother died of cancer at age forty-five. Years later, he expressed some of the devastation he experienced in Eyeless in Gaza (1936), perhaps his most autobiographical novel.

In 1911 came another life-altering trauma. He contracted a serious eye disease that resulted in near blindness for eighteen months, forced him to leave Eton, and left him visually handicapped for the rest of his life. Not knowing whether he would ever see again, Huxley faced this crisis with courage and patience by teaching himself to read Braille. Although he eventually recovered some sight, his visual impairment caused him to abandon his plan to become a doctor.

A third tragedy occurred in 1914 when his older brother, Trevenen, committed suicide at age twenty-four, a victim of depression over his failure to achieve first-class honors at Oxford University and a place in the Civil Service. An unhappy love affair may have been an additional factor, but Huxley believed it was “just the highest and best in Trev—his ideals—which have driven him to his death.” Failure to achieve academic distinction might be a disappointment for an ordinary person, but to be a Huxley was to be aware that one is not ordinary, and Trevenen, a particularly sensitive young man, was destroyed by his failure to live up to his brilliant promise. Huxley’s other brother, Julian, achieved eminence as a biologist and a writer.

These early shocks left their mark on Huxley: His visual impairment caused him to turn toward literature rather than science, and much of the literature he created reflected a concern with physical suffering, malignant disease, decay, and death. Additionally, his brother’s death seemed a demonstration of the potentially tragic conflict between ideals and reality and of the way that ideals can take on a life of their own and even kill if held too rigidly or unrealistically. It is unsurprising to find that skepticism about conventional social values as well as pleas for agnosticism, tolerance, and pacifism became characteristics of his works.

Despite the need to read with a magnifying glass, Huxley attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he wrote and published poems and short stories, finished with first honors in English, and won the Stanhope Historical Essay Prize. His allowance ended when he graduated from Oxford, and his lack of money prevented him from marrying Maria Nys, a young Belgian he had met at Lady Ottoline Morrel’s country house, Garsington Manor. A brief, unhappy stint as a schoolmaster at Eton and Repton from 1916 to 1919, during which time he continued to write, convinced him that the only way remaining to make a living was to become a professional writer. After his marriage to Maria at Bellem, Belgium, in 1919, Huxley began working as a literary journalist for various publications, at the same time working on his novels, short stories, and essays. Finally, after the publication of three works of fiction (Limbo, 1920; Chrome Yellow, 1921; and Mortal Coils, 1922), three collections of poems (The Burning Wheel, 1916; The Defeat of Youth, 1918; and Leda, 1920), and a book of essays (On the Margin, 1923), Huxley signed the first of many three-year contracts with Chatto & Windus Publishers (an arrangement that continued throughout his life), which finally provided financial security for Aldous, Maria, and their three-year-old son, Matthew. Huxley eventually produced forty-seven books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays.

Life’s Work

Huxley’s satirical novels of the 1920’s established him as a major, although controversial, writer. Critics attacked Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925), and Point Counter Point (1928) for promoting attitudes of sexual permissiveness, emotional detachment, postwar disillusionment, cynicism, brutality, and even hatred of existence. They complained that his characters lacked depth and were unsympathetic. (A few of his friends, such as D. H. Lawrence and Lady Ottoline Morrell, recognized themselves in the novels and were not pleased). The perennial issue became Huxley’s whole approach to the craft of fiction: his tendency to be discursive, to be more interested in ideas than in telling a story. The lack of a central, unified consciousness in his novels and their formlessness were further transgressions against the novelist’s art as practiced by such masters as Henry James.

If Huxley had detractors, he also acquired a large number of admirers who appreciated his witty, brilliant style and who were not in the least put off by his failure to observe the conventions of fiction. Such readers saw in these novels not heartlessness or cruel reveling in human foibles, but clear-eyed exposure of a hollow age much in need of liberation from sham and outmoded Victorian and Edwardian ideas.

Huxley’s best-known work, the antiutopian novel Brave New World (1932), provoked a bewildering array of reactions. In Australia it was banned for four years because it was perceived to be obscene. Writers such as H. G. Wells and Wyndham Lewis attacked it as “an unforgivable offense to Progress,” while other reviewers dismissed it as a “thin little joke.” Still others, totally missing the satire, thought Huxley was actually recommending this dystopia as a solution to social problems. A few discerning readers, such as the philosopher Bertrand Russell and writer Rebecca West, saw the novel’s meaning and understood its relevance, which has increased to an uncanny degree in the years since it was written. Huxley’s vision of the future as a nightmare of efficiency controlled by the most advanced scientific and technological means (test-tube babies, behavioral conditioning to stunt intellect and emotion, and the mindless pursuit of pleasure through total sexual freedom and the drug Soma) became a specter ever more haunting as the twentieth century wore on.

Despite an obviously superior intelligence and vast erudition—an effortless command of science, art, history, languages, philosophy, and religion—Huxley was no ivory tower intellectual. It delighted him to know that ordinary people read his books, and his graciousness and charm were legendary. He was unaffected by even his harshest critics, perhaps in part because he seldom read criticism of his work, whether good or bad. However, he was passionate about some issues of his day, such as the pacifist movements following World War I. He also cared greatly about some issues that his own age was too myopic to see but that have since emerged as major problems, such as overpopulation and environmental degradation.

Inevitably, Huxley’s bold advocacy of unpopular views, particularly his pacifism, caused still more controversy. In What Are You Going To Do About It? (1936) and Ends and Means (1937), he argued for the view that war is not a biological necessity but an avoidable evil that humans are morally obligated to resist, a view that was dismissed as naíve and unrealistic. Then, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Huxley, with his wife and child, left England in 1937 for the United States, eventually settling in Southern California. In England, as elsewhere in Europe, Huxley’s change of residence provoked some resentment and charges of leaving home to avoid a war. It was pointed out that crossing the Atlantic was not one of his acceptable answers to the question posed in his pamphlet, What Are You Going To Do About It? Huxley said his purpose was to place his son in an American school, but the fact remains that the United States became Huxley’s permanent home, although he continued his habit of wide and frequent travel throughout the world.

In the 1940’s Huxley’s interests turned toward mysticism (Grey Eminence: A Study in Religion and Politics, 1941; Time Must Have A Stop, 1945; and The Perennial Philosophy, 1945), a development that astonished his many followers but that reflected his need to move beyond reason and the philosophy of humanism in his explorations toward the unfathomable mystery of life. More shocking was his much-publicized interest in and medically supervised use of the hallucinogenic drugs lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and mescaline as an aid to visionary experience during the last eleven years of his life. Needless to say, Huxley’s attitude toward hallucinogenics remains problematic, but it seems unfair to bracket him with the infamous popularizer and high priest of psychedelic drugs Timothy Leary, whom Huxley had met at Harvard University and whose irresponsible behavior Huxley deplored. Huxley’s view was that some drugs may be useful to some people on some occasions, if used intelligently. He did not claim they were essential to or would necessarily produce positive mystical visions, nor did he approve of their hedonistic, frivolous, or “recreational” use. In The Doors of Perception (1954), he described his experiences and explained their value: “To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value.”

Huxley’s wife Maria died of cancer in 1955. One year later he married Laura Achera, a psychotherapist and longtime friend. Although he continued to write, much of his time was taken up giving lectures at major universities and institutes and attending conferences throughout the world. In 1961 his Los Angeles home, along with his library and all of his papers, was destroyed by a brush fire, an irreparable loss not only for him but also for students of literature and biographers. Aldous noted, “there is no more tangible link with the past” but gamely added, “It is an interesting challenge and I hope I shall be able to cope with it properly.” However, little time to cope remained. In 1962 he suffered a recurrence of a cancer believed to have been cured two years earlier. This time neither cobalt nor radiation treatments availed. His death on November 22, 1963, was overshadowed by the death of President John F. Kennedy a few hours earlier.

Summary

No summary can convey the significance of the astonishingly diverse achievement of Aldous Huxley nor do justice to his mercurial, complex, paradoxical nature—a nearly blind man who became a seer, who tried to reconcile the competing claims of flesh and spirit, science and humanism, and Eastern and Western philosophy. Despite a life lived at the center of intellectual and artistic circles and frequently in a glare of publicity, he remains elusive, one who will continue to fascinate. His works will continue to draw readers who, like him, are not afraid of shedding light “in dark places,” who wish to explore many worlds, who want always to experience and learn more.

Bibliography

Bedford, Sybille. Aldous Huxley: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. The only complete biography of Huxley, by a novelist who knew him. Draws on his letters and diaries as well as interviews with friends to give a full account of his life. Includes forty-four photographs, a detailed chronology, and an index.

Clark, Ronald W. The Huxleys. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Chronicles the Huxley family of geniuses, beginning with T. H. Huxley. Valuable in understanding the intellectual heritage and the expectations it imposed. Three chapters are devoted to Aldous. Includes a select bibliography and an index.

Firchow, Peter. Aldous Huxley: Satirist and Novelist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972. Discusses Huxley’s poems and novels, and concludes that despite mystical leanings, Huxley belongs with the empiricists. Considers Point Counter Point (1928) a pivotal work separating the earlier “destructive” satire and the later “constructive” satire that affirms positive values. Index.

Murray, Nicholas. Aldous Huxley: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003. Murray’s 500-plus page biography and intellectual history is a wide-ranging survey of Huxley’s writing and his social, personal, and political life. The book stretches from Huxley’s early satirical writing to his peace activism, from his close relations and friendships with Hollywood filmmakers and other intellectuals, to his fascination with spirituality and mysticism. Illustrations, bibliography, and index.

Thody, Philip. Aldous Huxley: A Biographical Introduction. London: Studio Vista, 1973. By connecting the major themes in the literature with relevant biographical facts, Thody provides an insightful, integrated overview of Huxley and his work, which his biographer did not attempt. Selective index.

Watt, Donald, ed. Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan, 1975. A compilation of representative critical reviews of Huxley’s works (chiefly fiction) from 1920 through 1962. Essential for anyone interested in Huxley’s historical situation, his reading public, and the shifting winds of literary taste.

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