Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) is best known for his classic prescient satirical novel Brave New World, in which leaders maintain their power by thought manipulation. "The Machiavelli of the mid-twentieth century," the author said, "will be an advertising man; his Prince a textbook of the art and science of fooling all the people all the time." That novel was part of a unique literary career that began with poetry, included such acclaimed novels as Antic Hay, Eyeless in Gaza, and Island and explored various scientific and literary subjects, mysticism and mind-altering drugs among other topics, in elegant essays. In addition to authoring more than 50 books, he also wrote for the stage and screen.
Biographer Nicholas Murray traces Huxley's life and the development of this thought and work in Aldous Huxley: A Biography. Huxley's personal motto was aun aprendo or "I am always learning," appropriate for the grandson of Victorian scientist Thomas Huxley, a prominent supporter of Charles Darwin. Among his many interests were the environmental movement, nuclear weapons, militarism and ruinous nationalism. When he was 16 years old, Aldous suffered a serious eye infection that rendered him unable to do any reading for almost two years and left him with partial sight for the rest of his life. Murray notes that for Huxley, "It was a catastrophe which he always believed was the single most important determining event in his early life." One of the first wave of those to study the then new discipline of English literature at Oxford, Huxley was drawn to a literary career. He did not consider himself a born novelist. "By profession I am an essayist who sometimes writes novels and biographies, an unsystematic cogitator whose books represent a series of attempts to discover and develop artistic methods for expressing the general in the particular." In the 1930s, he began to be much more concerned with politics, society and the problems of the world.
Murray deftly conveys both Huxley's outer and inner lives. Early in his career, his friendships included literary figures Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. Later on, his friends were often scientists, physicians and academic specialists in various disciplines. The astronomer Edwin Hubble and his wife Grace were close friends of the Huxleys.
Personally, Huxley was not much interested in practical matters and enjoyed solitude. He was very close to his first wife, Maria, and dependent on her for many things she read books to him and served as his driver. In his later years, he became increasingly drawn to mysticism, but it was not insulated from the real world. He understood mysticism as data, real elements in life, not abstractions.
Murray's carefully researched biography, including interviews with Huxley's second wife Laura and son Matthew, gives us a vivid portrait of a complex figure. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a regular contributor to BookPage.