Last reviewed: June 2017
British-born American satirical novelist and essayist
July 26, 1894
Laleham, near Godalming, Surrey, England
November 22, 1963
Los Angeles, California
Aldous Leonard Huxley, the spokesman of the so-called literary modernists, is one of the best chroniclers of the generation that came to maturity between World Wars I and II, especially of the artistic and intellectual elements of that generation. He was one of four children born into an eminent family, which bequeathed to him several strains of Victorian intellectualism. His father, Leonard Huxley, a professor of Greek, was the son of Thomas Henry Huxley, the biologist and chief defender of Charles Darwin’s theories. His mother, Julia Huxley, was the niece of Matthew Arnold. Huxley’s elder brother, Julian, was also a respected biologist and a prolific writer.
Aldous Huxley was educated first at Eton College, during which time he was partially blinded, and then the University of Oxford. In 1919, Huxley married Maria Nys, with whom he had a son, Matthew. He began his writing career by working for the magazines Athenaeum and the Westminster Gazette. His early novels, which appeared to flout convention and set aside traditional moral codes, were received with spectacular approval in the 1920’s. These works reveal Huxley’s distrust of materialism and his longing for some validating religious experience. A number of critics believe that Huxley was strongly influenced by the nineteenth-century satirist and novelist of ideas Thomas Love Peacock, as well as by Huxley’s older contemporary Norman Douglas. Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s novels of the 1920’s—Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point Counter Point—are witty, mischievously satirical, and filled with brilliant epigrams. The characters are entertaining caricatures rather than representations of actual human beings. The author’s favorite device was to gather together at a country house a group of wits, theorists, voluptuaries, hedonists, liberated and uninhibited females, and an occasional innocent, and then to set them to talking. Those Barren Leaves is set in Italy and introduces a serious strain not present in the two previous books. Point Counter Point is something of a roman à clef, in which many of Huxley’s contemporaries, easily recognizable, are savaged; Mark Rampion, the vitalist who is the standard by which all the other characters are judged and found wanting, appears to represent D. H. Lawrence. Several of Huxley’s slightly younger contemporaries were, if not imitators, at least of very like mind. Evelyn Waugh (whose early work is often associated with that of Huxley), Anthony Powell, and Nancy Mitford were also writing novels featuring stylized characters who were sophisticated, amoral, irreverent, and witty.
A decided change in Huxley’s thinking is apparent by 1932 with the publication of Brave New World. His novels of the 1920’s by and large had argued the case for the life of the senses, for freedom from outmoded moral restraints, for a kind of enlightened paganism. Yet his famous dystopia is a society that recognizes no moral restraints, encourages ceaseless self-gratification, and has technologically banished all negative effects of promiscuity. It has also banished religion, art, and personality. The reader identifies with the doomed protagonist, John Savage, who by chance has missed the genetic programming of the brave new world and is still capable of feeling the antediluvian emotions of fear, guilt, and anguish. Here, too, Huxley led the way for writers of his generation: In 1949, George Orwell published his famous vision of the totalitarian world, Nineteen Eighty-Four; in 1953, Waugh brought out his novella Love among the Ruins, the bitter portrait of an arid and soulless England of the future.
By the 1930’s, a longing for spirituality was clearly spreading through the British literary community. Waugh and Graham Greene were converted to Roman Catholicism, and T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and others returned to Anglo-Catholicism. Huxley, however, was drawn to Eastern mysticism. He was very much under the spell of Buddhism when he wrote Eyeless in Gaza. The amoralist had become a moralist. One result of the metamorphosis, long didactic essays in the novel, especially troubled those critics who had praised the early works.
Whereas in the 1920’s Huxley had advocated the vitalism of D. H. Lawrence, in the 1930’s he joined the pacifist movement of Gerald Heard. He moved to Hollywood, California, in 1937 and lived the rest of his life in the Los Angeles area. In the United States, he continued to pursue his interest in the mystical state, especially as reflected in Buddhism and Hinduism. The experience of his first years in the United States gave him the material for After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. This novel satirizes the American’s coarse display of wealth but primarily dramatizes the conflict between science and mysticism. Huxley probed the mystical experience and the nature of reality in nonfiction works as well: Ends and Means appeared shortly before After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, and Grey Eminence shortly thereafter.
Huxley’s next novel, Time Must Have a Stop, was a return in manner and style to his earliest fiction. Ape and Essence reflects his frustration and pessimism as the decade of the 1940’s was coming to a close. His pacifist and occult lecturing having had no apparent effect on humankind, he painted a bitter portrait of a species in retrogression following a third world war. The Genius and the Goddess appeared in 1955, the same year his wife Maria died; he married Laura Archera in 1956. In 1959, Huxley was offered knighthood in his native Britain but declined.
Huxley had been taking drugs since 1953 in an effort to mimic chemically the mystical state. He was one of the earliest experimenters with the hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and his writings served to popularize its use. He died of cancer in Los Angeles on November 22, 1963, the same day on which writer C. S. Lewis died, but their passing was overshadowed by John F. Kennedy’s assassination on that date. Although a few books containing Huxley's correspondence and essays were published following his death, much of his unpublished work was lost to a house fire in 1961.
As a novelist, Huxley has been faulted for his flimsy plots, which serve primarily as the context for long lectures disguised as dialogue. Yet he had the skill to make the discussion of ideas tremendously exciting and entertaining. He was also a brilliant, if rather heartless, satirist. His writings are an excellent barometer for gauging the shifting intellectual movements in the first half of the twentieth century.