BORN: 1894, Godalming, Surrey, England
DIED: 1963, Los Angeles, California, United States
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
Crome Yellow (1921)
Point Counter Point (1928)
Brave New World (1932)
Brave New World Revisited (1958)
Aldous Huxley. Huxley, Aldous, photograph. AP Images.
British author Aldous Huxley published more than thirty nonfiction pieces that ranged from travelogues to social criticism to examinations of literature. He wrote plays, short stories, poetry, and screenplays. Despite Huxley’s facility and prolific output in these various genres, he is best known for novels such as Crome Yellow, Point Counter Point, and Brave New World.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Aldous Leonard Huxley was born on July 26, 1894, in Godalming, England, into a family of intellectuals. Huxley and his siblings were strongly encouraged to carry on the family tradition of intellectual pursuit. His brother Julian became a practical biologist who gained considerable fame for popularizing science. Aldous himself was pursuing a career in science when he was beset with an eye affliction that left him blind for over a year. The condition made the long hours of reading and research that the scientific field required impossible. He never completely recovered, and the course of his life s work was forever changed.
Literary Friendships. Huxley attended Balliol College at Oxford University, where he completed his studies with high honors in English. While at Oxford, Huxley was introduced to Philip Morrell, a member of the British Parliament, and his wife, Lady Ottoline. Because of his family’s reputation, Huxley was soon accepted into the Morrells’s circle of friends. He began spending time at Garsington, the Morrells’ country estate, where he met such influential literary figures as Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, H.G. Wells, and D. H. Lawrence—with whom he would later forge a great friendship.
Huxley’s eye problems disqualified him for military service in World War I, a brutal conflict in which many of Huxley’s contemporaries died. In fact, Huxley’s generation was decimated by the war: nearly 900,000 British soldiers lost their lives between 1914 and 1918, and nearly twice that many were wounded. After World War I Huxley engaged in literary journalism and was on the staff of the Athenaeum, edited by John Middleton Murry. For the greater part of 1923-1930 he lived in Italy; after 1926 he spent much time there with D. H. and Frieda Lawrence. Lawrence was a strong influence on Huxley, particularly in his mistrust of intellect and trust in physical instincts.
Social Critiques. Huxley’s early period was characterized by skeptical, brilliant portraits of the decadence of post-World War I upper-class British society, particularly its younger members. Many young people in the 1920s felt moved to ‘‘live it up’’—partly as a way of forgetting the war, partly because the war taught them that life is short. The decade was marked in the United States and Europe by frivolity and sensual excess. The nonstop partying was labeled liberating by some writers and artists, but others saw it as empty and shallow. Huxley, like fellow English writer Evelyn Waugh, used his consider able satiric wit to skewer the rich, vapid revelers of the 1920s. This was the period of the novels Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), and Point Counter Point (1928). Huxley’s growing disgust with the modern world was not limited to the younger generation. His disdain for the twentieth-century obsession with science, technological development, and commercial and industrial advancement would become explicit in Brave New World (1932), his best-known work.
The Search for Meaning. After Brave New World, Huxley’s fiction and nonfiction both became increasingly concerned with his interest in religious mysticism. Huxley left England and settled in Southern California, where he became interested in the work of Gerald Heard, who had become interested in the Hindu tradition of Vedanta, a seeking of self-realization. Although Eyeless in Gaza (1936) and Time Must Have a Stop (1944) are both concerned with religious quests, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939), which satirizes the popular culture of Southern California, displays some of the comic irony for which Huxley became famous in the 1920s.
Much of Huxley’s later energy was devoted primarily to nonfiction, both in essays presenting social criticism, and in works like The Perennial Philosophy (1945), which collects and comments on the texts that Huxley considered the vital essence of the world’s mystical writings. Indeed, Huxley’s career and personal life turned more and more toward mysticism as he aged, which is one of the points of contention his critics had with him.
During the last ten years of his life, Huxley engaged in experiments with the hallucinogenic drugs mescaline and LSD, under the supervision of a physician friend. In The Doors of Perception (1954), he wrote about his experience with these drugs. The books later became popular with members of the countercultural movement in the United States in the 1960s. In fact, the influential rock band the Doors took its name from Huxley’s book and the band’s enigmatic singer and songwriter, Jim Morrison, quoted Huxley often.
Huxley’s health, which was never robust, took several turns for the worse in the early 1960s. As he continued to work on a variety of projects, his strength continued to slip away. He died in his Los Angeles home on November 22, 1963, the same day fellow British writer C. S. Lewis died and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Huxley's famous contemporaries include:
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940): An American novelist best known for his critique of high society in the 1920s, as expressed in The Great Gatsby.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954): A Mexican painter widely recognized for her vibrant style. She was influenced by Realism, Symbolism, and Surrealism.
William Faulkner (1897-1962): An American novelist associated with the Southern Gothic tradition of literature.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): An Irish poet honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945): The thirty- second president of the United States, who served four terms in office.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Huxley was deeply interested in exploring unconventional paths to understanding life and the world. His works show his interest in mysticism and drug-induced altered states of consciousness. Other works that explore unconventional views of reality include:
The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968), an anthropological work by Carlos Castaneda. Castaneda's hugely popular, but controversial, book deals with his research into the practices of a Mexican shaman named Juan Matus.
The Razor's Edge (1944), a novel by Somerset Maugham. Disillusioned after his experiences in World War I, the protagonist of this novel seeks transcendence in India.
The Dharma Bums (1958), a novel by Jack Kerouac. Beat novelist Kerouac blends Buddhism and an American faith in the power of landscape in this novel about hitchhiking and roaming through the West.
Works in Literary Context
Huxley was connected to many of the leading literary figures of his time. These artists influenced his work and thinking, especially D. H. Lawrence, who was a great friend and mentor. Nonetheless, Huxley was able to carve a niche for himself in speculative fiction in the form of science fiction, drawing on the traditions of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and influencing later science fiction novelists like George Orwell and even more recently David Mitchell.
Satirical Science Fiction. Brave New World is certainly Huxley’s most famous novel. It has been in print ever since its publication, is taught widely, and remains a point of reference for political scientists, editorialists, newscasters, and freelance pundits. The book has many passages of intellectual interest; however, its enduring success is probably best explained by Huxley's mastery of the form. Economical in structure and sure-handed in its treatment of scene and character, the novel is moralistic without being essayistic. Perhaps only George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) rivals Brave New World in rendering as a story for millions of readers the enduring perplexities of technology, social development, and political enfranchisement.
Influence. Huxley was connected to many of the leading literary figures of his time. These artists influenced his work and thinking, especially D. H. Lawrence, who was a great friend and mentor. In Brave New World, Huxley produced an enduring novel in the science fiction genre, and one of the most brilliant satires in English literature. Although other intellectuals before Huxley—H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Karel Capek—had experimented with science fiction romances as a method of social criticism, Huxley's novel remains a seminal work and a remarkable achievement, which influenced many later writers from George Orwell to Robert Silverberg.
Works in Critical Context
Although Huxley wanted to be remembered as a social novelist and essayist, he was aware that his extraordinary emotional detachment limited his ability to create sympathetic characters. In addition to noting his limitations as a fiction writer, many critics who admired his satire deplored his rejection of rationalism and his long devotion to the cause of mysticism. Yet Huxley’s later work testifies to the seriousness of his religious quest. However, Huxley will probably owe his enduring reputation not to the writing describing his spiritual search but to his efforts as a satirist, and ultimately, perhaps, to the brilliant, imaginative satire in Brave New World.
Brave New World. The numerous concepts suggested by Brave New World have made the novel a study centerpiece for social scientists, teachers, and technology mavens, and a favorite among readers for several generations.
While critic Edward Cushing found Huxley's narrative technique of average strength, he did admire the author's intent and the novel's moral. Cushing wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature that ‘‘Mr. Huxley is eloquent in his declaration of an artist’s faith in man, and it is his eloquence, bitter in attack, noble in defense, that, when one has closed his book, one remembers.’’ New York Times Book Review contributor John Chamberlain found Huxley’s novel a humorous attack on progressive global thought. In his review he contended that Brave New World satirizes ‘‘the imminent spiritual trustification of mankind, and has made rowdy and impertinent sport of the World State whose motto shall be Community, Identity, Stability.''
Brave New World Revisited. In 1958, twenty-six years after the appearance of Brave New World, Huxley published Brave New World Revisited, a book that examines Western life in the prosperous era following World War II. Contending that the society depicted in Brave New World will eventually come to be, Huxley calls for the human race to take note of, and reverse, its course. Brave New World Revisited received a substantial amount of attention upon its publication, partly due to the book's relation to Huxley’s most famous novel. Many critics, however, felt that the book was an important work in its own right, one that related significant detail on modern society. ‘‘Brave New World Revisited is of the utmost importance for the knowledge of growing psychic pressures in a world in transition,’’ appraised New York Times Book Review contributor Joost A.M. Meerloos. While viewing the book as a departure from Huxley's fiction, Saturday Review critic Granville Hicks commented that ‘‘if we have lost something in the way of entertainment, what we have gained is more important.'' Commenting on the author's talent for presenting invigorating arguments, Christopher Sykes wrote in the Spectator that ‘‘Mr. Huxley’s writing remains as compelling and as brilliant as ever.’’ Huxley also used Brave New World Revisited to clarify the intentions of his 1932 novel. Whereas critics such as the New York Times Book Review’s Chamberlain saw Brave New
World as a satirical take on complacency and conformity, the book’s author clearly felt otherwise. As Huxley states in Brave New World Revisited: ‘‘Any culture which, in the interests of efficiency or in the name of some political or religious dogma, seeks to standardize the human individual, commits an outrage against man’s biological nature.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Using the Internet and the library, research some of the controversies involved in the debate over whether cloning should be legal. In a short essay, reflect on these issues as they relate to Brave New World. Consider, for example, whether you think cloning is a step toward the dystopia described in the novel.
2. Read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and compare it in tone, content, and message to After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. Both Gibran and Huxley have been described as mystics or as being highly concerned with mysticism. Based on these readings, try to analyze what it means to be a ‘‘mystic’’—is it a philosophy, a way of reasoning, or a state of mind?
3. Read Doors of Perception. Given what is now known about the harmful effects of the drugs Huxley took in order to write this text, how do you think this text would be received if it were written today?
4. Read both Brave New World and Jonathan Swift’s ‘‘A Modest Proposal.’’ In some way, each of these texts is a work of satire. In a short essay, compare the tones of these texts.
Bedford, Sybille. Aldous Huxley: A Biography. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1973.
Birnbaum, Milton. Aldous Huxley’s Quest for Values. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971.
Brander, Laurence. Aldous Huxley: A Critical Study.
Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1970.
Carlson, Jerry W. ‘‘Aldous Huxley.’’ Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 6: Modern Writers, 1914—1945.
Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1991. Dasgupta, Sanjukta. The Novels of Huxley and Hemingway: A Study in Two Planes of Reality. New Delhi, India: Prestige, 1996.
Deery, Jane. Aldous Huxley and the Mysticism of Science. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Firchow, Peter. Aldous Huxley: A Satirist and Novelist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
Greenblatt, Stephen J. Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.
Izzo, David Garrett. Aldous Huxley and W. H. Auden: On Language. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 1998.
Kuehn, Robert E., ed. Aldous Huxley: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Meerloos, Joost A.M. ‘‘How Will Man Behave?’’ New York Times Book Review (November 16, 1958).
Sykes, Christopher. ‘‘Teacher without Faith.’’ Spectator (February 20, 1959).