Two Jacks and a Huxley – Remembering November 22

By Neil Earle

What one commentator called the Kennedy Avalanche hit in full swing as we neared the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963.

Aldoux Huxley, C.S. Lewis, and John F. Kennedy

The violent death of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas was a first-rate tragedy and so impactful on the nation and the world that it all but overshadowed the passing of two other important figures that same day. November 22, 1963 also saw the deaths of the Christian writer C.S. Lewis and the futurist and novelist Aldous Huxley.

It was President Kennedy who said in one of his most eloquent speeches that “our most basic common link…is that we are all mortal.” How true this turned out to be some fifty years ago.

It also raises the curious pop culture issue of whether those three men – all highly intelligent and talented as mass communicators – were linked in some transcendental sense. It certainly does not seem that way. All three were uncommonly talented, however. A Christian author named Peter Kreeft took a look at this issue in a 1980s book “Between Heaven and Hell” where he speculated on how a conversation between the three men might have gone, assuming they did gather somewhere in some great beyond that day in 1963.

In the end Kreeft’s book disappoints because he has Huxley stay out of the debate far too long and makes space for Lewis, the Christian advocate, to get the president to accept his views. Kreeft’s Christian bias shines through. Too bad. What could have been a stronger book is undermined because Huxley gets short shrift.

Writers One and All

So it turned out that on November 2 my wife and I placed a display at the Duarte Library on those outstanding individuals. We tried to do justice to all three. It was interesting to present President Kennedy as a writer. This was easily done because he was a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Profiles in Courage” in 1957. But – most forget that he also wrote a book in 1940 as a Harvard senior thesis titled “Why England Slept.”

That really leaps out at you on the display. Young Jack Kennedy was in Europe in the late Thirties as World War two was hatching because his powerful father, Joseph P Kennedy, was United States Ambassador to Britain as Hitler was rising up. Patriarch Joe was convinced England could not stand up to the Nazis. His son toured Europe and did some good reporting and came out of it convinced that Americans must learn from England’s mistakes – the United States must start rearming immediately.

This was a gutsy move for the son of a domineering figure. It served early notice that Jack Kennedy was an original – a man determined to chart his own course. It took enormous help from his father to become the first catholic and youngest elected President, yes, but no one can deny – however you feel about the man’s politics – that Kennedy was at the least, a unique presence on the world scene. Young disease-prone John Fitzgerald Kennedy had accepted the last rites of the Catholic Church three times in his life and in 1955 he underwent two dangerous back surgeries for a condition that plagued him till the end. Historian Robert Dallek feels the President may have dodged the second fatal bullet in Dallas if he were not wearing a back brace in the limousine, a device that restricted his movement.

The fact is that Senator Jack Kennedy set to work drafting “Profiles in Courage” while displaying plenty of it as he painfully recovered from 1955.

“Surprised by Joy”

Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis was an even more effective and prolific writer than Kennedy. Teaching the Classics at both Oxford and Cambridge made that career choice much easier. Like Kennedy, “Jack” Lewis (his favorite name) was injured in a war. In Lewis’ case it was World War One (1914-1918). The brilliant young academic learned that writing poetry could help his recuperation. Lewis, embittered by the war and his early career in the English school system, had, by 1920, drifted into full-blown atheism. At Oxford however he was befriended by another writer – a devout Catholic named J.R.R. Tolkien who was in the 1920s beginning his creative explorations that would end up in the well known series titled “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.”

Tolkien rose to the challenge of Lewis’ atheism. Lewis was surprised to find that there were intelligent Christians in 1920s Oxford. He even conceded that they were more than a match for their agnostic colleagues. In 1929 he knelt in his private rooms and admitted “God was God.” Reluctantly. He later described himself in his wry Irish way as “the most dejected convert in England.”

This soon changed. Lewis began to find the joy he had been seeking through his new-found faith. This soon led to a full admission into the Church of England in 1931. He later named his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy.” He set out writing science fiction, Christian “apologetic” and a whole host of essays advocating the reasonability of the Christian religion. Oxford was shocked and even more so in 1941 when Lewis was asked to give a series of BBC addresses to bolster British morale in the dark days of the war.

Lewis took to radio like a natural and reached large audiences over four years with a series of talks he later packaged as “Mere Christianity.” Meanwhile he launched the Narnia Chronciles with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” An original, like Jack Kennedy, Jack Lewis shocked friends at Oxford in his “Narnia” phase by marrying a Jewish former Communist and divorced American named Joy Davidson Gresham in 1956.

Both “Jacks” were originals. But hold on. That term fits even more the author of “Brave New World,” the incisive writer Aldous Huxley (1894-1963).

The Maverick Intellectual

Aldous Huxley was born into the English intellectual elite. His grandfather was Thomas Huxley, "Darwin’s bulldog," chief advocate of evolution in his day. His great-uncle was the Victorian stalwart and critic Matthew Arnold. Huxley actually taught French at up-scale Eton to young George Orwell of 1984 fame and befriended the radicals D.H. Lawrence – two celebrities of letters in the early 20th Century. His first literary efforts were satires of the London intelligentsia but soon drifted into a form of pessimism about where uncontrolled technology was taking us. Hence “Brave new World” in 1932, anticipating a world of the 26th century where cloning, test-tube babies, television, regular drug use, adventure touring and lack of privacy were the rule.

The irony of “Brave new World” is that while death is unthought-of, war unthinkable and anxiety and depression muffled by officially dispensed drugs it is still "a pretty monstrous place," says one critic. “The result is uniformity and spiritual squalor” argues Sybille Bedford in Huxley’s biography. Lasting relationships are virtually non-existent and conformity is an obsession. Huxley worried about this in the 1930s and with Hitler rising in Europe he did the original thing as Kennedy and Lewis were also to do. The stereotypically English intellectual and pacifist moved to Hollywood, California. He worked on scripts for "Pride and Prejudice" and "Jane Eyre" and moved out to Llano del Rio on Highway 138 to live a genteel ranch-like, low bungalow California existence.

He died in Los Angeles after becoming an experimenter with drugs such as LSD and mescaline but Huxley was no Timothy Leary. For Huxley drugs were not a joyride but an exploration of escaping the limits of human consciousness. In the 1980s culture critic Neil Postman wrote his attack on mass media and trivialized news and entertainment titled "Amusing Ourselves to Death." In his preface Postman claimed that Huxley’s future world was more our reality than George Orwell's totalitarian “1984.” We run the risk of amusing ourselves into triviality, said Postman and Huxley deserves to be reread.

Thus Kennedy, Lewis, Huxley. Originals. Not afraid to push the envelope, to question the accepted wisdom. A Presidential hopeful who wrote biography. A tweed-jacketed Oxford don explaining Christian values on BBC radio. An English gold-plated aristocrat of the intellect ending up in the Southern California scrub.

The world lost three unusual individuals on November 23, 1963. Each of them had in common a dread fear of what the human race could do to itself. JFK's Inaugural spoke of “the dark towers of destruction unleashed by science.” Lewis wrote of a secret occult society of technocrats dedicated to universal mind control in a group called (satirically of course) NICE – National Institute for Coordinated Experiments. Huxley was so bleak about misused knowledge that he offended his old family friend, H.G. Wells who ground out hopeful potboilers touting the brilliance of the coming 20th Century.

In then end all three were students of the human condition. Each had the honesty to share their concerns about the future. In the age of Miley Cyrus and NSA spying we seem to need their sense of understanding, their sense of the Big Picture. Surely there are people around like them today? We can only hope.