The Talented Mr. Huxley

At six feet four and a half inches, Aldous Huxley was perhaps the tallest figure in English letters, his height so striking that contemporaries sometimes viewed him as a freak of nature. British novelist Christopher Isherwood found Huxley “too tall. I felt an enormous zoological separation from him.” Virginia Woolf described him as “infinitely long” and referred to him as “that gigantic grasshopper.” 

Everything about Huxley seemed large. “During his first years his head was proportionately enormous, so that he could not walk until he was two because he was apt to topple over,” writes biographer Sybille Bedford. Shortly before his death, Huxley confided to a friend that his childhood nickname had been “Ogie,” a substitute for “Ogre.”

But this seems like the kind of exaggeration children so often use to rib each other. In pictures, Huxley looks imposing, but far from ugly. Anita Loos, the American screenwriter, playwright, and author, was impressed by Huxley’s “physical beauty . . . the head of an angel drawn by William Blake.”

His voice, preserved in recordings easily sampled online, was also part of his charm. Huxley spoke like Laurence Olivier—with exacting British diction and an unerring verbal accuracy that few people, then or now, possess in casual conversation. He talked in silver sentences, treating conversation as a form of theater, or even literature.

The largeness of the man and the precision of his language continue to live more than a half a century after his death. Every year, another generation of young students gets that sense of him from Brave New World, the 1932 novel that’s become assigned reading for millions of middle schoolers.

Taking its title from an ironic line from The Tempest by Shakespeare, Brave New World envisions a fictional society in which infants are grown in laboratories, and people become so conditioned to consumer comforts that they no longer question their leaders. Amid this malaise lingers a dissident regarded as a savage because he still embraces Shakespeare, his passion for poetry suggesting an indulgence of feeling that, in this brave new world of tomorrow, seems dangerously taboo. Readers still argue about the degree to which Huxley’s grimly conceived future has become the human present, and the emergence of test-tube babies, television, and online culture invite obvious parallels to Brave New World.

Huxley transcribes the emotionally arid landscape of Brave New World into visual terms, translating the dormancy of the human soul into a city devoid of bright colors. In his description of a laboratory where new citizens are conceived, he writes:
The enormous room on the ground floor faced towards the north . . . for all the tropical heat of the room itself, a harsh thin light glared through the windows, hungrily seeking some draped lay figure, some pallid shape of academic goose-flesh, but finding only the glass and nickel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory. . . . The overalls of the workers were white, their hands gloved with a pale corpse-colored rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost.
Huxley also wrote poetry, plays, travelogs, essays, philosophy, short stories, and many novels. Sadly, the overshadowing fame of Brave New World has tended to obscure the range of his talent.

Huxley came from one of England’s great intellectual families: He was born in Surrey, England, the son of Leonard Huxley, editor of the influential Cornhill magazine, and Julia Arnold, niece of the legendary poet and essayist Matthew Arnold. Huxley was the grandson of T. H. Huxley, a scientist and friend of Charles Darwin. Huxley’s brother Julian was a noted biologist and writer, and his half-brother Andrew was a Nobel laureate in physiology.

Huxley appeared destined to work in science, too, initially planning to become a physician. But, in 1911, when he was 16, he suffered an eye infection that left him nearly blind for almost two years. His sight was so compromised that he learned to read in Braille. He eventually recovered some vision, initially using strong eyeglasses to cope. With his sight damaged, a career in medicine or science seemed impractical, so Huxley turned to writing.

“He rose above the disability but he never minimized the importance of the experience in his life,” notes biographer Nicholas Murray. Huxley was fascinated by how adjustments in the senses greatly altered how we perceive reality, a theme that would deeply inform some of his later books.

His struggle with vision was the subject of a 1943 book, The Art of Seeing, in which Huxley championed the controversial theories of Dr. W. H. Bates, who asserted that eyes could be improved with training exercises instead of prescription lenses. Huxley claimed that the Bates Method worked for him, though it still remains far outside the medical mainstream.

Just how much Huxley was able to see is uncertain, although his eyes were obviously compromised, forcing him to compensate in creative ways. Julian Huxley thought that his brother developed a Herculean memory so he could better retain what he labored so hard to read. “With his one good eye, he managed to skim through learned journals, popular articles and books of every kind,” Julian recalled. “He was apparently able to take them in at a glance, and what is more, to remember their essential content. His intellectual memory was phenomenal, doubtless trained by a tenacious will to surmount the original horror of threatened blindness.”

Early in his writing career, Huxley worked as a journalist and teacher, including a stint at Eton instructing a young Eric Blair, who would eventually become known to the world as George Orwell.  

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