10 Dystopian Facts about Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley was born 122 years ago today. Best known for his 1932 novel Brave New World, the author and essayist later wrote about his experimentation with psychedelic drugs. But there’s a lot more to Huxley’s life than dystopian novels and LSD. Here are 10 things you might not know about the author.
1. HE WAS ALMOST COMPLETELY BLIND AS A TEENAGER…
Born in 1894 in England, Huxley had a challenging early life. During his teenage years, his mother died of cancer, his brother committed suicide, and he began having problems with his vision. Following an infection, his corneas became inflamed (a condition called keratitis), and thus he couldn’t see well. In an interview with The Paris Review, Huxley explained that he was almost completely blind for a few years in his late teens: “I started writing when I was 17, during a period when I was almost totally blind and could hardly do anything else. I typed out a novel by the touch system; I couldn’t even read it,” he said.
2. …AND STRUGGLED WITH EYESIGHT FOR MOST OF HIS LIFE.
Historians debate the extent and duration of Huxley’s vision problems. After being close to blindness, his vision recovered enough that he could read and study by using a magnifying glass. In 1942, Huxley wrote The Art Of Seeing, a book in which he described how he regained his sight. He used the Bates Method, a series of suggestions—get natural sunlight, do eye exercises, and don’t wear glasses—for improving eyesight. Although most members of the medical community view the efficacy of the Bates Method with skepticism, Huxley claimed that it greatly improved his vision.
3. HIS GRANDFATHER WAS A VOCAL PROPONENT OF EVOLUTION.
Huxley’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a biologist who advocated for the theory of evolution. Nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog,” he wrote, spoke, and participated in debates about the merits of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking theory. He also coined the word "agnostic" in 1869, describing it as the opposite of the "gnostic" of the Church, who said that they conclusively knew about how we came to exist.
4. HE TAUGHT FRENCH TO GEORGE ORWELL.
In 1917, Huxley briefly worked as a French teacher at Eton, the esteemed boarding school in England. One of his students was Eric Blair, who later wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm under the pen name George Orwell. Decades later, Orwell wrote in a 1946 magazine review that Huxley partially plagiarized Brave New World by using themes that appear in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1923 dystopian novel We. (Huxley's classic was released in 1932.)
Despite Orwell’s accusation, Huxley sent a letter to Orwell in October 1949, praising his work in 1984 but also getting in a slight dig at his former pupil. Huxley wrote that his own bleak view of the future was a more accurate prediction than Orwell’s: “I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”
5. HE WROTE FOR VANITY FAIR AND VOGUE.
In the early 1920s, Huxley contributed articles to a few magazines, including Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House and Garden. The future author of Brave New World wrote on a broad range of topics and later reflected on this time as a positive learning experience: As he recalled: "I used to turn out articles on everything from decorative plaster to Persian rugs … I did dramatic criticism for the Westminster Gazette. Why—would you believe it?—I even did music criticism. I heartily recommend this sort of journalism as an apprenticeship. It forces you to write on everything under the sun, it develops your facility, it teaches you to master your material quickly, and it makes you look at things."
6. AND HE WORKED AS A SCREENWRITER IN HOLLYWOOD.
In 1937, Huxley moved to Hollywood, California. In the 1940s and early 1950s, he worked as a screenwriter, collaborating on films such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Madame Curie. In 1945, Disney paid Huxley $7500 to write a treatment based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland that also incorporated Carroll's biography. That December, Huxley had a meeting with Walt Disney and his staff about the project. Disney eventually decided not to proceed with Huxley’s script partly because it was, according to Disney, too literary.
7. HIS COMMITMENT TO PACIFISM PRECLUDED HIM FROM BECOMING AN AMERICAN CITIZEN.
Huxley frequently wrote about Hindu and Buddhist spiritual ideas, pacifism, and mysticism. He renounced all war, and his pacifist views ultimately prevented him from becoming a U.S. citizen. After living in California for 14 years, Huxley and his wife applied for citizenship. However, he refused to say that he would, if necessary, defend the U.S. in wartime. Because his refusal to fight was based on philosophical rather than religious reasons, he realized the government would most likely deny his application, so he withdrew it before they had a chance to turn him down.
8. THE DOORS NAMED THEIR BAND AFTER HIS BOOK ABOUT MESCALINE.
Jim Morrison’s band The Doors is named after Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception, though Huxley himself took the phrase “the doors of perception” from English poet William Blake. Although Huxley depicted the pernicious effects of the fictional drug soma in Brave New World, he volunteered for mescaline experiments and praised mescaline and LSD as physically harmless, potentially therapeutic, and spiritually enlightening in The Doors of Perception.
9. HE SPOKE OF THE POTENTIAL DANGERS OF OVERPOPULATION.
In a May 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, Huxley shared his beliefs about the dangers of overpopulation. Describing how overpopulation means that people will have less food to eat and fewer goods to use per capita, Huxley warned that a precarious economy leads to a more powerful central government and social unrest. “I think that one sees here a pattern which seems to be pushing very strongly towards a totalitarian regime,” Huxley said.
10. HIS DEATH WASN’T HIGHLY PUBLICIZED DUE TO JFK’S ASSASSINATION.
On November 22, 1963, Huxley died of cancer of the larynx, having been diagnosed three years previously. His death received little notice because he died on the same day that then-President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas. British author C.S. Lewis also died that day, and his death similarly got little immediate attention.