Biography of Aldous Huxley, British Author, Philosopher, Screenwriter

Author of Dystopian Novel 'Brave New World'

Portrait Of Novelist Aldous Huxley
Portrait of novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley with dictionary of Peter Bayle, 1957.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Aldous Huxley (July 26, 1894–November 22, 1963) was a British writer who authored more than 50 books and a large selection of poetry, stories, articles, philosophical treatises, and screenplays. His work, especially his most renowned and often controversial novel, Brave New World, has served as a form of social critique to the ills of the current era. Huxley also enjoyed a successful career as a screenwriter and became an influential figure in American counterculture.

Fast Facts: Aldous Huxley

  • Full Name: Aldous Leonard Huxley
  • Known For: His eerily accurate portrayal of dystopian society in his book Brave New World (1932) and for his devotion to Vedanta
  • Born: August 26, 1894 in Surrey, England
  • Parents: Leonard Huxley and Julia Arnold
  • Died: November 22, 1963 in Los Angeles, California
  • Education: Balliol College, Oxford University
  • Notable Works: Brave New World (1932), Perennial Philosophy (1945), Island (1962)
  • Partners: Maria Nys (married 1919, died 1955); Laura Archera (married 1956)
  • Children: Matthew Huxley

Early Life (1894-1919)

Aldous Leonard Huxley was born in Surrey, England, on July 26, 1894. His father, Leonard, was a schoolmaster and editor of the literary journal Cornhill Magazine, while his mother, Julia, was the founder of Prior’s School. His paternal grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, the famed zoologist known as “Darwin’s Bulldog.” His family had both literary and scientific intellectuals—his father also had botanical laboratory—, and his brothers Julian and Andrew Huxley eventually became famed biologists in their own right. 

Aldous Huxley
English novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley, 1925. Edward Gooch Collection / Getty Images

Huxley attended Hillside school, where he was taught by his mother until she became terminally ill. Subsequently, he transferred to Eton College.

In 1911, at age 14, he contracted keratitis punctata, an eye disease that left him practically blind for the next two years. Initially, he wanted to become a doctor, but his condition prevented him from pursuing that path. In 1913, he enrolled in Balliol College at Oxford University, where he studied English Literature, and in 1916 he edited the literary magazine Oxford Poetry. Huxley volunteered for the British Army during World War I, but was rejected due to his eye condition. He graduated in June 1916 with first-class honors. Upon graduating, Huxley briefly taught French at Eton, where one of his pupils was Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell.

While World War I was raging, Huxley spent his time at Garsington Manor, working as a farmhand for Lady Ottoline Morrell. While there, he became acquainted with the Bloomsbury Group of British intellectuals, including Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. In the 20s, he also found employment at the chemical plant Brunner and Mond, an experience that greatly influenced his work.

Between Satire and Dystopia (1919-1936)

Fiction

  • Crome Yellow (1921)
  • Antic Hay (1923)
  • Those Barren Leaves (1925)
  • Point Counter Point (1928)
  • Brave New World (1932)
  • Eyeless in Gaza (1936)

Non-Fiction

  • Pacifism and Philosophy (1936)
  • Ends and Means (1937)

In 1919, literary critic and Garsington-adjacent intellectual John Middleton Murry was reorganizing the literary magazine Athenaeum and invited Huxley to join the staff. During that period of his life, Huxley also married Maria Nys, a Belgian refugee who was at Garsington.

In the 1920s, Huxley delighted in exploring the mannerisms of high society with dry wit. Crome Yellow poked fun at the lifestyle they led at Garsington Manor; Antic Hay (1923) portrayed the cultural elite as aimless and self-absorbed; and Those Barren Leaves (1925) had a group of pretentious aspiring intellectuals gathered in an Italian palazzo to relive the glories of the Renaissance. Parallel to his fiction writing, he also contributed to Vanity Fair and British Vogue. 

In the 1920s, he and his family spent part of their time in Italy, as Huxley’s good friend D.H. Lawrence lived there and they would visit him. Upon Lawrence’s passing, Huxley edited his letters. 

A selection of Brave New World covers.
alaina buzas/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In the 1930s, he started writing about the dehumanizing effects of scientific progress. In Brave New World (1932), perhaps his most famous works, Huxley explored the dynamics of a seemingly utopian society where hedonistic happiness is offered in exchange for the suppression of individual freedom and the adherence to conformity. Eyeless in Gaza (1936), by contrast, had a cynic man overcome his disillusionment through Eastern philosophy. In the 1930s, Huxley also started writing and editing works exploring pacifism, including Ends and Means and Pacifism and Philosophy. 

Hollywood (1937-1962)

Novels

  • After Many a Summer (1939)
  • Time Must Have a Stop (1944)
  • Ape and Essence (1948)
  • The Genius and the Goddess (1955)
  • Island (1962)

Non-Fiction

  • Grey Eminence (1941)
  • The Perennial Philosophy (1945)
  • The Doors of Perception (1954)
  • Heaven and Hell (1956)
  • Brave New World Revisited (1958)

Screenplays

  • Pride and Prejudice (1940)
  • Jane Eyre (1943)
  • Marie Curie (1943)
  • A Woman’s Vengeance (1948)

Huxley and his family moved to Hollywood in 1937. His friend, the writer and historian Gerald Heard, joined them. He spent a brief time in Taos, New Mexico, where he wrote the book of essays Ends and Means (1937), which explored topics such as nationalism, ethics, and religion.

Heard introduced Huxley to Vedanta, a philosophy centered on Upanishad and the principle of ahimsa (do no harm). In 1938, Huxley befriended Jiddu Krishnamurti, a philosopher with a background in theosophy, and throughout the years, the two debated and corresponded on philosophical matters. In 1954, Huxley penned the introduction to Krishnamurti’s The First and Last Freedom. 

As a Vedantist, he joined the circle of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda and introduced fellow English expatriate writer Christopher Isherwood to the philosophy. Between 1941 and 1960, Huxley contributed 48 articles to Vedanta and the West, a periodical published by the society. Immediately after the end of World War II, Huxley published The Perennial Philosophy, which combined passages of Eastern and Western philosophy and mysticism. 

During the war years, Huxley became a high-earning screenwriter in Hollywood, working for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. He used much of his paycheck to transport Jewish people and dissidents from Hitler’s Germany to the U.S. 

Aldous Huxley and Family
Matthew Huxley's wedding. Left to right are the bride's parents, Bryan J. Hovde, president of the New School, and his wife; the bride, Ellen Hovde Huxley; Matthew Huxley; and the groom's parents, Mrs. Huxley and Aldous Huxley, the author. April 30, 1950. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Huxley and his wife Maria applied for United States Citizenship in 1953. However, given that he refused to bear arms and could not claim he did so for religious ideals, he withdrew his application, but remained in the United States. 

In 1954, he experimented with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline, which he related in his work The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), and continued using a controlled amount of these substances until his death. His wife died of cancer in February 1955. The following year, Huxley married the Italian-born violinist and psychotherapist Laura Archera, the author of the biography This Timeless Moment.

His later work focused on expanding and rectifying the grim universe he portrayed in Brave New World. His book-length essay Brave New World Revisited (1958) weighs in on whether the world moved closer or further away from the World State Utopia he conjured; Island (1962) his final novel, by contrast, had a more utopian view of science and technology, as on the island of Pala, mankind does not have to bend to them.

Death 

Huxley was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in 1960. When Huxley was on his deathbed, he was unable to speak due to the advanced state of his cancer, so he requested "LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular" to his wife Laura Archera in writing. She recounted this moment in her biography This Timeless Moment, and related that she gave him the first injection at 11:20 a.m. and a second dose an hour later. Huxley died at 5:20 p.m. on November 22, 1963.

Literary Style and Themes 

Growing up in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, Huxley was part of a generation that was fascinated and had great trust in the scientific progress. The era of the 2nd industrial revolution brought about a higher standard of living, medical breakthroughs, and a trust in the fact that progress could improve lives for good. 

In his novels, plays, poems, travelogues, and essays, Huxley was able to employ low key ironic humor and wit, as it’s apparent in his early novel Crome Yellow (1921) and in the essay “Books for the Journey,” where he observed how bibliophiles tended to overpack during their travels. Yet, his prose was not devoid of poetic flourishes; these emerged in his essay “Meditation on the Moon,” which was a reflection on what the moon stands for in a scientific and in a literary or artistic context, as an attempt to reconcile the intellectual traditions in his family, which included both poets and scientists.

Julian S. Huxley;Aldous Huxley
Scientist Dr. Julian Huxley (L) sitting in same armchair w. his brother, author Aldous Huxley, 1960. The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

Huxley’s fiction and nonfiction works were controversial. They were praised for their scientific rigor, detached irony, and their panoply of ideas. His early novels satirized the frivolous nature of the English upper class in the 1920s, while his later novels dealt with moral issues and ethical dilemmas in the face of progress, as well as the human quest for meaning and fulfillment. In fact, his novels evolved into more complexity. Brave New World (1932) perhaps his most famous work, explored the tension between individual freedom, social stability, and happiness in a seemingly utopian society; and Eyeless in Gaza (1936) saw an Englishman marked by his cynicism turn to Eastern philosophy to breach through his jadedness.

Entheogens are a recurring element in Huxley’s work. In Brave New World, the population of the World State achieves a mindless, hedonistic happiness through a beverage named soma. In 1953, Huxley himself experimented with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline, which, allegedly, enhanced his sense of color, and he related his experience in The Doors of Perception, which made him a figurehead in 60s counterculture.

Legacy 

Aldous Huxley was a polarizing figure who was both hailed as an emancipator of the modern mind and condemned as an irresponsible free-thinker and an erudite showoff. Rock group The Doors, whose front man Jim Morrison was an enthusiastic drug user, owes its name to Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception.

Huxley died on November 22, 1963, hours after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. Both deaths, unwittingly, heralded the rise of counterculture, where conformity and belief in the government were questioned.

Sources 

  • Bloom, Harold. Aldous Huxleys Brave New World. Blooms Literary Criticism, 2011.
  • Firchow, Peter. Aldous Huxley: Satirist and Novelist. University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
  • Firchow, Peter Edgerly, et al. Reluctant Modernists: Aldous Huxley and Some Contemporaries: a Collection of Essays. Lit, 2003.
  • “In Our Time, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.” BBC Radio 4, BBC, 9 Apr. 2009, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00jn8bc.