At Aldous’ birth, the Huxley family and their relatives already commanded literary and philosophical attention in Victorian England. Huxley’s grandfather, biologist T. H. Huxley, gained recognition in the nineteenth century as the writer who introduced Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to a wide public and coined the word “agnostic.” The elder Huxley’s writing contributed to the growing debate on science and religion, a theme that would capture the imagination of his grandson, Aldous.
Huxley’s mother was a niece of poet and essayist Matthew Arnold, who expressed the moral struggles of the modern age and the retreat of a religion-based culture. Matthew’s father, Thomas Arnold, head of Rugby School, had presided with earnest devotion over the theory and practice of education in his time. Thus Aldous grew up in an atmosphere in which thought on science, religion, and education informed and even dominated family life.
Living up to the expectations of “Grandpater,” as T. H. Huxley was known in his family, constituted a full-time, exhausting job for the children — Aldous included. Academic and professional brilliance was expected as a matter of course, with no excuses allowed. A family tendency toward depression compounded by this pressure may have contributed to the suicide of Trevenan, Aldous’ elder brother.
At sixteen, the sudden onset of keratitis punctate, an eye disease, left Aldous nearly blind and almost ruined his own chances for success. Fortunately, surgery corrected some of his vision, but Huxley would suffer from complications in vision for the rest of his life.
Like all the sons of his family, Huxley attended Eton, a prestigious preparatory school, and Balliol College, Oxford. His education, then, represented a privileged road to power for wealthy and well-born British men who sometimes displayed real brilliance. Huxley was among the best of them, certainly. Poor sight caused by the eye disease prevented his pursuit of his first career choice, medicine, but he threw himself into study of literature, reading with the help of a magnifying glass. In 1915, Huxley took a First (highest honors) in English Literature.
A less formal, but nonetheless important part of Huxley’s education was his regular attendance at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s get-togethers, which provided many literary, artistic, and political reformers and experimenters the chance to meet and talk. Here Huxley met novelist Virginia Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes, and critics Bertrand Russell and Clive Bell — some of the most important writers and thinkers of the time. Huxley’s early exposure to the ideas of such a diverse and progressive group deeply influenced his world-view and his writing.
After taking his degree at Oxford, Huxley returned to Eton to teach. Among his pupils was Eric Blair, who would later write such classics as 1984 and Animal Farm under the pseudonym “George Orwell.”
From 1919 to 1921, Huxley worked as an editor on the London journal Athenaeum, one of the best-known publications of the time. Huxley also contributed to Vanity Fair and Vogue before devoting himself entirely to his own fiction and essay writing in 1924.
Huxley’s first published work was a collection of his poetry, The Burning Wheel (1916), written when he was still in his early twenties. French novelist Marcel Proust praised Huxley’s early efforts, and Huxley seemed destined for life as a poet. But with the publication of his first two novels, Crome Yellow (1921) and Antic Hay (1923), Huxley emerged as a particularly witty chronicler of modern life among the educated and pretentious.
Huxley further solidified his reputation as a satirist with the novel Point Counter Point (1928), a scathing study of the breakdown of commonly held social values. Huxley followed up with another satire, which would prove to be his most popular work — Brave New World (1932).
Like his previous novels, Brave New World is a “novel of ideas,” in which the themes the author wishes to explore take center stage, determining the action as well as the characterization. Brave New World continued in Huxley’s familiar irreverent fictional style, showing readers the absurdity of strongly held but little examined beliefs.
The work also marked a change in Huxley himself. The setting of Brave New World — a future London rather than the familiar country houses and town houses of his previous fiction — seems to have broken Huxley out of some habits of mind. In Brave New World, Huxley takes the problem of evil much more seriously than in the past. The satirist had begun to evolve into the social philosopher.
After the publication of Brave New World, Huxley left England, living with his wife, Maria, first in New Mexico — the site of the Savage Reservation in Brave New World — and later in California, where surgery restored much of his vision.
In his new home, Huxley became involved in the study and practice of mysticism. His new philosophical outlook informed his novel Eyeless in Gaza (1936), which promoted pacifism on the eve of World War II. After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939) makes the case for the emptiness of materialism. Gradually, Huxley moved toward mystical writings, far from the tone of his early satire. The Perennial Philosophy (1945) and The Doors of Perception (1954) represent Huxley’s non-fictional expression of his interests, including even experimentation with psychedelic drugs.
In Los Angeles, Huxley wrote screenplays for film versions of fictional classics such as Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Alice in Wonderland. He also continued writing fiction, notably Ape and Essence (1948), a futuristic fiction set in Los Angeles after a nuclear war. With Grey Eminence (1941) and The Devils of Loudon (1952), Huxley looked backward to historical events to examine what he believed to be the hypocrisy of organized religion. In addition to his fiction and screenplays, the planning and writing of biographies, essays, and other works of non-fiction occupied him constantly during these years.
Huxley’s last novel, Island (1962), returns to the theme of the future he once explored so memorably in Brave New World. The later novel, in which Huxley tried to create a positive vision of the future, failed to come up to readers’ expectations. Brave New World Revisited, a series of essays addressing the themes of his early novel, represents a more successful rethinking of future (and present) social challenges.
Huxley died of cancer in California on November 22, 1963. Although his novels — especially Brave New World — still enjoyed great popularity, Huxley’s death received little notice in the media at the time. The nation’s shock over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy overshadowed news of the writer’s death.
Honors and Awards
Huxley won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction from the University of Edinburgh in 1939 for his novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. In 1959, he received the Award of Merit and Gold Medal from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and accepted an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of California. The year before his death, he received the Companion of Literature from the British Royal Society of Literature.