Aldous Huxley was born in Surrey, England, on July 26, 1894, to an illustrious family deeply rooted in England’s literary and scientific tradition. Huxley’s father, Leonard Huxley, was the son of Thomas Henry Huxley, a well-known biologist who gained the nickname “Darwin’s bulldog” for championing Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideas. His mother, Julia Arnold, was related to the important nineteenth-century poet and essayist Matthew Arnold.
Raised in this family of scientists, writers, and teachers (his father was a writer and teacher, and his mother a schoolmistress), Huxley received an excellent education, first at home, then at Eton. Huxley was an avid student, and during his lifetime he was renowned as a generalist, an intellectual who had mastered the use of the English language but was also informed about cutting-edge developments in science and other fields. Although much of his scientific understanding was superficial—he was easily convinced of findings that remained somewhat on the fringe of mainstream science—his education at the intersection of science and literature allowed him to integrate current scientific findings into his novels and essays in a way that few other writers of his time were able to do.
Aside from his education, another major influence on Huxley’s life and writing was an eye disease contracted in his teenage years that left him almost blind. As a teenager Huxley had dreamed about becoming a doctor, but the degeneration of his eyesight prevented him from pursuing his chosen career. It also severely restricted the activities he could pursue. Because of his near blindness, he depended heavily on his first wife, Maria, to take care of him. Blindness and vision are motifs that permeate much of Huxley’s writing.
After graduating from Oxford in 1916, Huxley began to make a name for himself writing satirical pieces about the British upper class. He continued to write prolifically, working as an essayist and journalist, and publishing four volumes of poetry before beginning to work on novels. Without giving up his other writing, beginning in 1921, Huxley produced a series of novels at an astonishing rate: Crome Yellow was published in 1921, followed by Antic Hay in 1923, Those Barren Leaves in 1925, and Point Counter Point in 1928. During these years, Huxley left his early satires behind and became more interested in writing about subjects with deeper philosophical and ethical significance. Much of his work deals with the conflict between the interests of the individual and society, often focusing on the problem of self-realization within the context of social responsibility. These themes reached their zenith in Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932. His most enduring work imagined a fictional future in which free will and individuality have been sacrificed in deference to complete social stability.
After publishing Brave New World, Huxley continued to live in England, making frequent journeys to Italy. In 1937, Huxley moved to California. An ardent pacifist, he had become alarmed at the growing military buildup in Europe, and determined to remove himself from the possibility of war. Already famous as a writer of novels and essays, he tried to make a living as a screenwriter. He had little success. Huxley never seemed to grasp the requirements of the form, and his erudite literary style did not translate well to the screen.
In the late forties, Huxley started to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and mescaline. He also maintained an interest in occult phenomena, such as hypnotism, séances, and other activities occupying the border between science and mysticism. Huxley’s experiments with drugs led him to write several books that had profound influences on the sixties counterculture. The book he wrote about his experiences with mescaline, The Doors of Perception, influenced a young man named Jim Morrison and his friends, and they named the band they formed The Doors. (The phrase, “the doors of perception” comes from a William Blake poem called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.) In his last major work, Island, published in 1962, Huxley describes a doomed utopia called Pala that serves as a contrast to his earlier vision of dystopia. A central aspect of Pala’s ideal culture is the use of a hallucinogenic drug called “moksha,” which provides an interesting context in which to view soma, the drug in Brave New World that serves as one tool of the totalitarian state. Huxley died on November 22, 1963, in Los Angeles.