Huxley, Aldous (1894–1963)

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HUXLEY, ALDOUS (1894–1963)


English novelist and essayist.

Aldous Leonard Huxley was born in the last years of the nineteenth century, but his work constantly addresses itself to the present moment, forming a link between the world of the high Victorian liberal intellectual and the modern era. His paternal grandfather was the distinguished Darwinian scientist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) and his maternal great-uncle the equally famous poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822–1888). His work, in its intelligence, its vivacity, and in the way it constantly pushes back the boundaries of thought, along with its assured grasp of the worlds of science and literature, placed him at the center of English writing in the twentieth century.

Welcomed into the Bloomsbury salon of Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873–1938) as a precociously brilliant undergraduate at Oxford during World War I, Aldous Huxley met in that milieu the writer D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), who became a lifelong friend. Despite poor sight resulting from an infection contracted on the playing fields of Eton and that caused temporary blindness, Huxley published his first collection of stories, Limbo, in 1920 and his bold and witty satirical first novel, Crome Yellow, in 1921; both made an immediate impact. Subsequent novels established him as a clever and provocative anatomist of the stuffy old-fashioned world of middle-class England. His writings were laced with the anger of a younger generation that had lost so many of its number in the war. This iconoclastic phase, during which Huxley supported himself with a flow of essays, articles, and travel books, culminated in his two most substantial novels, Point Counter Point (1928) and Eyeless in Gaza (1936).

Huxley spent much of the 1920s and the early 1930s living abroad, first in Italy, then in the south of France, where he was happiest at a house on the Côte d'Azur at Sanary-sur-Mer, in the company of other foreign writers such as Cyril Connolly (1903–1974) and Edith Wharton (1862–1937). The life at Sanary has been memorably captured in the writings of Sybille Bedford (b. 1911), who knew Huxley and his wife at this time and later became the writer's first authorized biographer.

In 1936, to the disappointment of some of his readers, the iconoclast was displaced by the moralist as Huxley, alarmed at the direction of world events in the 1930s, threw himself into the antiwar movement, publishing An Enyclopaedia of Pacifism in 1937. In 1932 he had already published what would prove to be his most famous novel, Brave New World, a dystopian portrait of a world where human beings are mass-produced in test tubes like cars on an assembly line. The novel expresses his lifelong distaste for "Fordism" and the manipulation of the individual by advertising and political propaganda. Now his nonpartisan political engagement became increasingly pronounced.

In 1937 Huxley and his wife, Maria Nys (1898–1955), left England on a lecture tour of the United States, which turned into a permanent residence after Huxley was offered work as a Hollywood screenwriter, though the work did not agree with him. While living mostly in California, where the light relieved his eyesight problems (about which he published a book called The Art of Seeing in 1942), Huxley became increasingly interested in the mystical tradition, Western and Eastern, and published an anthology of its key texts, The Perennial Philosophy (1946). But his most famous nonfictional work would prove to be The Doors of Perception (1954), an account of an experiment with mescaline, the result of his desire to explore the limits of human consciousness. Scientific in aspiration, the book, and its sequel, Heaven and Hell (1956), coming as they did at the start of the 1960s drug culture (which Huxley deplored), intensified his fame in the last years of his life when, as an honorary professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960, he drew record crowds attracted by his guru status. In his California years he continued to write fiction and essays and was a close friend of the writer Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986). His last novel, Island (1962), was an attempt to balance the dark dystopian premonitions of Brave New World with a bright vision of utopia drawing on all his beliefs of nonviolence, transcendence, and hope for human regeneration.

Aldous Huxley died of cancer at his home in Hollywood on 22 November 1963, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. His second wife, Laura Archera Huxley, is said to have administered a dose of LSD to the writer at his request as he lay dying.

See alsoBloomsbury; Fordism; Lawrence, D.H.; Pacifism.


Primary Sources

Huxley, Aldous. Unpublished letters. A surprising number of letters can be found in manuscript collections at the Humanities Research Center at Austin, Texas, the Huntington Library in California, the British Library in London, the Royal Library in Brussels, Balliol College Oxford, the University of Reading (Chatto Archive), and elsewhere.

Huxley, Julian. Memories. Vol. 1. London, 1970. Recollections by Huxley's older brother.

Smith, Grover, ed. Letters of Aldous Huxley. London, 1969.

Secondary Sources

Bedford, Sybille. Aldous Huxley: A Biography. 2 vols. London, 1973–1974. Outstanding authorized biography by a writer who knew Huxley and his wife intimately.

Huxley, Julian, ed. Aldous Huxley. London, 1965.

Murray, Nicholas. Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual. London, 2002. Now the standard biography.

Watt, Donald, ed. Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage. London, 1975. The major reviews of Huxley from 1918 to 1965.

Nicholas Murray