Wandering into ‘Brave New World’
David Leon Higdon
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013
Paperback. viii + 255 pp. ISBN 978-9042037168. €55
Reviewed by Nathan Waddell
University of Nottingham
A major accomplishment of David Leon Higdon’s Wandering into ‘Brave New World’ is that it shows how enlightening historicist and contextualist scholarship, when deftly and carefully constructed, really can be. Indeed, Higdon’s book is a significant contribution not only to the field of Huxleyan criticism but also to historicist studies more widely. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) is a text, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), that has long been claimed as a ‘timeless’ work of classic insight into the human costs of totalitarianism and technological utopianism. In this regard, Brave New World is representative of the dystopian genre, which is all too often interpreted without sufficiently sustained attention to its imbrications in history, local cultures, and authorial backgrounds. Yet Huxley’s writing is nothing if not responsive to its material and historical contexts, and Brave New World is a literary dystopia overdetermined by the richness of Huxley’s long and provocative life. Studies of Brave New World – in Higdon’s words, ‘the most read, most taught, and most discussed dystopia of the twentieth century’  – that ignore these factors give the text short shrift because they neglect the remarkableness of its fictionality, which swings in distinctive ways between fantasy and elaborated fact. In contrast to theoretical or ahistorical approaches to Huxley’s novel, Higdon’s Wandering into ‘Brave New World’ dwells on several circumstances that allow us to read Huxley’s dystopia from newly detailed contextual perspectives, the most fundamental being the nine-month trip around the world he embarked on with his wife, Maria, in September 1925.
Higdon’s opening chapter chronicles the trip ‘around the world in 264 days’ that the Huxleys undertook between 1925 and 1926 and establishes the conceptual register of the investigations that follow. We learn here that this is to be a monograph in which the gathering of historical evidence as a point of departure for textual interpretation outweighs interpretation that stays rooted ‘within the text’, and that speculation – well grounded, well thought through, always appropriate – on the basis of such evidence is one of Higdon’s favoured strategies. Higdon’s core contention is that Brave New World ‘is a novel rooted firmly in the 1920s and early 1930s, a fact often obscured by [its] futuristic trappings’ . That claim justifies his extended recounting of Huxley’s travels through the world – his wanderings – as a way to fathom the text’s richly and ambivalently textured narrative resources. The opening chapter discusses the reasons for Huxley’s journey, his travel writings, his thoughts about travel and the use of guidebooks, and his uncertain responses to life and culture in India, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, Java, Borneo, the southern Philippine islands, Singapore, China, Japan, and the American southwest, among other places. These travels, Higdon informs us, decisively shaped the writing and content of Brave New World, whose representations of biological engineering, addictive hallucinogens, caste systems, technological innovation, psychosexual meddling, Hollywood-esque carefreeness, and Hopi and Zuni ritual can be traced to Huxley’s encounters with the inter-war world in all its diversity. Higdon discusses the real-world sources for these aspects of the text in four central chapters whose attention to the contemporary places and peoples from which Huxley crafted his story is exceptional, and obviously the fruit of many years of rumination. The closing chapter of Wandering into ‘Brave New World’ addresses the thorny problem of libel in relation to Huxley’s gift for naming characters in thematically evocative ways, a gift Higdon considers part of Huxley’s wider practice of linking fiction ‘with clusters of ideas about human behavior’ . Higdon’s Huxley, that is to say, is a writer who filled his books with ideas inspired by living in, as much as reading about, his contemporary world.
The point of Higdon’s study is not to debate why characters in Brave New World do what they do or say what they say within the framework of the text’s generic trappings, but rather historically and materially to account for how they act and speak. The emphasis falls on teasing out real-world determinants for objects, practices, and behaviours in the text, in other words, rather than on contesting its placement in the history of utopian and dystopian fiction (though this aspect of the text’s reception history does feature). Such an approach lets Higdon adduce forms of historical evidence – e.g. real-world modes of dress, reading habits, and topography – that in the wake of the contextualist ‘turn’ have featured more and more in literary-critical readings of narrative form. And herein lies one of my few problems with the book: its lack of reflection on its own critical assumptions. For instance, Higdon notes that in writing Brave New World Huxley ‘certainly made excellent use of what he observed’  during his time in California. Wandering into ‘Brave New World’ as a whole relies on a similar account of Huxley’s responsiveness to the cultures he and Maria witnessed during their global travels. However, the question of why making use of observed things matters at all – to writers of inter-war literary dystopias as much as to twenty-first-century readers of literary-critical research – is not explored in any depth here. (Perhaps the answer to the question is too obvious to need stating?) Yet I cannot help thinking that Wandering into ‘Brave New World’ would have been a stronger study, and the field of contextualist interpretation developed somewhat, if this meta-critical problem had been explored.
The same point goes for Higdon’s recourse to speculative reasoning. There is nothing problematic about speculation when it is offered in response to sensitively assembled bodies of circumstantial evidence. For interpreters of literary works, sometimes speculation is all we have when other modes of analysis fail. Wandering into ‘Brave New World’ is never less than thorough, and Higdon’s moments of speculation always appear in the midst of extensive attention to historical testimony. For instance, his claim that we do not currently have the evidence to ascertain definitively whether or not Huxley was familiar with Edward Sheriff Curtis’s twenty-volume The North American Indian (1907-1930) does not stop Higdon from using Curtis’s writings to make persuasive statements about the Hopi ‘presence’ in Huxley’s dystopia [see 183-184]. But speculation nevertheless raises the question of what sorts of claims are being made when critics state, as Higdon does on several occasions [see 52 and 69, for example], that ‘there can be no doubt’ about a given matter if some or all of the evidence adduced to form an interpretation of it is circumstantial. In certain respects these questions are beyond the scope of Higdon’s book. Wandering into ‘Brave New World’ is a study of source materials and lines of influence, and on those terms it is convincing, methodical, and urbane. Yet the question of how justified are Higdon’s speculative lines of reasoning does bear on the nature of his project as a whole. Thus the issue might have been discussed more at the beginning and at the end of the book, because any such discussion would have made clearer why Higdon’s study matters beyond a relatively tacit assumption that historicism and contextualism are valuable in and of themselves.
These quibbles aside – and they really are quibbles – I am certain that readers will find much to admire in Higdon’s painstaking reconstructions of Huxley’s journeying across the globe, of the links between Huxley’s travel writings and Brave New World, and of hitherto-unknown or under-investigated sources for the World State and its citizens. Wandering into ‘Brave New World’ shows that Huxley’s novel still contains interpretative puzzles waiting to be solved, and that many longstanding assumptions about the novel’s genesis should be taken to task. Indeed, among the many surprises that the study offers, Higdon’s re-evaluation of Huxley’s personal and creative relationship with D.H. Lawrence stands out – particularly Higdon’s argument that Lawrence’s influence upon the Southwest American elements of Brave New World ‘has been widely assumed rather than well documented’ , and that in this sense the novel’s depiction of the Savage Reservation can be topographically situated more precisely than has usually been thought, brings fresh insight to a well-worn conjecture. Such precision is where we find the strengths of Wandering into ‘Brave New World’ and its author at his most meticulous (and, for historically-inclined readers, most enjoyably exacting). Higdon’s book is a major and exhaustive study of an extremely well-known text that is always in danger of being rendered falsely familiar by that scourge of all classic narratives: the reputation that precedes it.
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