T.H.Huxley wrote 220 science essays and over 100 “fugitive pieces,” popular essays devoted to promoting science as the instrument for revealing truths biological and geological, educational and political, ethnical and ethical. His audience ranged from working men to Royal Institution amateurs to professional peers in the Royal Society, of which he was president between 1883 and 1885. Huxley’s scientific essays exhibit his meticulous prose style, achieved by both a keen understanding of the physiological or physiographic process being analyzed and the employment of specialized terms.
In the preface to Discourses Biological and Geological (1894), Huxley extols prose for “lay sermons” that replaces “scholastic pedantry” with clear expression. He alludes to John Wesley’s cunning in popularizing the sacred: “he did not see why the Devil should be left in possession of the best tunes.” These tunes are sometimes played in his scientific memoirs, for example in his savage review of a new edition of a bad book, the appearance of which “has much the effect that the inconvenient pertinacity of Banquo had upon Macbeth. ‘Time was, that when the brains were out, the man would die.’ So time was, that when a book had been shown to be a mass of pretentious nonsense, it, too, quietly sunk into its proper limbo” (“Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Tenth Edition,” 1854).
The fundamental feature of Huxley’s prose style is his philosophical perspective: “unity in diversity,” aligning stork and the snake it swallows; beetle and bee; monkey and man; the hut and the pantheon; and agnosticism (“agnostic” is his invention), reason, science, and decent behavior. In “On Science and Art in Relation to Education” (1882), he aligned the pleasure derived from Bach’s fugues with the pleasure of unifying diverse data in morphology. In his laboratory, he would select a common animal as an item stimulating generalization, moving from the specific to the general: from the entrance hall crayfish to the mansion Invertebrata. He would also shift deliberately from the known to the unknown, from a piece of chalk held in his hand to strata held by the earth below. “On a Piece of Chalk,” delivered to Norwich working men in 1868, exemplifies his technique as popular lecturer, beginning with the concrete here and now and cruising strange seas of thought to transport his audience to the ancient sea bottom. The conclusion envisages burning chalk that shines like the sun, its luminous rays metamorphosing into a “fervent” and often-reprinted essay.
Huxley’s “On the Physical Basis of Life” (1869) tracks down vital activities to the collaboration of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. This reduction of people to protoplasm was sufficiently subversive to send the Fortnightly Review, the journal in which it appeared, into seven editions, a record last accomplished by Jonathan Swift. It also excited a dozen jeremiads. The essay provides fine strata for investigation of Huxley’s prose style: specificity of reference to biological, chemical, and geological data; imaginative and informative analogy and metaphor; an aesthetic precision of diction; allusions, e.g. to Schoolmen, Dante, Balzac, Jacob’s ladder; a tone often tinged with humor if not tainted with sarcasm; and references to himself, a voice that over the decades presented him to his auditors and readers as a friendly guide.
Opening with a revelation of protoplasm as the cohering substance of all life, Huxley directs us to picture to ourselves “the great Finner whale, hugest of beasts that live, or have lived, disporting his eighty or ninety feet of bone, muscle and blubber, with easy roll, among waves in which the stoutest ship that ever left dockyard would flounder hopelessly, and contrast him with the invisible animalcules—mere gelatinous specks, multitudes of which could, in fact, dance upon the point of a needle with the same ease as the angels of the Schoolmen could, in imagination.” If he, Huxley, were to sup upon lobster, the crustacean would metamorphose into humanity; and were Huxley to drown, the crustacean would “return the compliment” and convert the lecturer into lobster. A noteworthy product of the human molecular machine is the physiological event called thought. Automatism dooms people to nightmares: the eclipse of tradition “threatens to drown their souls; the tightening grasp of law impedes their freedom; they are alarmed lest man’s moral nature be debased by the increase of his wisdom.”
Another feature of Huxley’s prose style is the architectonic. His essays are usually so well organized, with such comforting guiding transitions, that they have been taken as models for undergraduate (as well as scholarly) writing—for example, in his “A Liberal Education” (1868), with its famous personification of Nature as a grand master playing a lethal chess game with us pawns. He did not always find his compatriots skillful at architectonics; he felt the Origin of Species was “An intellectual pemmican—a mass of facts crushed and pounded into shape, rather than held together by the ordinary medium of an obvious logical bond.” German scientists are “magnificently laborious and accurate.
But most of them have no notion of style, and seem to compose their books with a pitchfork.”
Huxley was famous, or infamous, as a polemicist. Scores of his essays display his pugilistic talent, for example, Lectures on Evolution (pub. 1882), delivered in New York City in 1876, which earned him extensive reports in the New York Times and the ignoble label “Huxley Eikonoklastes” elsewhere. His most impressive polemical bouts (1885–95) were his description of Genesis as an inaccurate account of global and vital dynamics, and his attack on Messianic exorcism (the Gadarene swine episode) as an accurate account of demonology at work.
For good literary creation, Huxley focused on the importance of being earnestly stirred by the subject, of being clear and avoiding “that pestilent cosmetic, rhetoric” (which sometimes adorns his prose), and of meticulous revising. The work of good writers is characterized by “clear and vivid conceptions” embodied in “language exactly adapted to convey them to other minds”; they possess “that purely artistic sense of rhythm and proportion which [enable] them to add grace to force, and, while loyal to truth, make exactness subservient to beauty” (“Good Writing: A Gift or an Art?,” 1890). Other essayists influenced by him as naturalistic writer and agnostic mentor were Thomas Hardy, H.G.Wells, H.L.Mencken, Clarence Darrow, and his grandsons Julian and Aldous Huxley.
Thomas Henry Huxley. Born 4 May 1825 in Ealing, west London. Studied at Ealing School, 1833–35; Charing Cross Hospital, London, 1842–45; University of London, medical degree, 1845. Assistant surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake, which surveyed the passage between the Great Barrier Reef and the Australian coast, 1846–50. Lecturer in natural history, Royal School of Mines (later the Royal College of Science), from 1854.
Married Henrietta Heathorn, 1855: seven children (two others died), including Leonard Huxley, father of Julian and Aldous Huxley. Naturalist to the geological survey of the English coast, from 1855. Science columnist, Westminster Review and Saturday Review.
President, Ethnological Society, 1868–70, Geological Society, 1869–70, and the Royal Society, 1883–85. Held many other positions, including: Croonian Lecturer, Royal Society; Fullerian Lecturer, Royal Institution; Hunterian Professor, Royal College of Surgeons; Governor of Eton College, of University College, London, and of Owen College, Manchester; and Rector, University of Aberdeen. Retired from all official appointments, 1885. Privy Councillor, 1892. Awards: Copley Medal; Darwin Medal; honorary degrees from nine universities. Died (of influenza and bronchitis) in Eastbourne, 29 June 1895.
Essays and Related Prose
On Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature (lectures), 1862
Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, 1863
On the Origin of Species; or, The Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature (lectures), 1863
Lectures on the Elements of Comparative Anatomy, 1864
Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews, 1870
Essays Selected from Lay Sermons, 1871
Critiques and Addresses, 1873
American Addresses, with a Lecture in the Study of Biology, 1877
Science and Culture, and Other Essays, 1881
Lectures on Evolution, 1882
Animal Automatism, and Other Essays, 1884
Technical Education, and Other Essays, 1885
Essays upon Some Controverted Questions, 1892
Evolution and Ethics, 1893; edited by James Paradis and George C. Williams, 1989
Collected Essays, 9 vols., 1893–94; reprinted 1968
1. Method and Results, 1893
2. Darwiniana, 1893
3. Science and Education, 1893
4. Science and Hebrew Tradition, 1893
5. Science and Christian Tradition, 1893
6. Hume, with Helps to the Study of Berkeley, 1894
7. Man’s Place in Nature, and Other Anthropological Essays, 1894
8. Discourses Biological and Geological, 1894
9. Evolution and Ethics, and Other Essays, 1894
The Scientific Memoirs, edited by Michael Foster and E.Ray Lankester, 5 vols., 1898– 1903
Autobiography and Selected Essays, edited by Ada L.F.Snell, 1903, Sarah E.Simons, 1910, E.H.Kemper McComb, 1910, and Brander Matthews, 1919
Essays on Science and Education, edited by Ada L.F.Snell, 1909
Selected Essays and Addresses, edited by Philo Melvyn Buck, Jr., 1910
Selections from the Essays, edited by Alburey Castell, 1948
The Essence of T.H.Huxley: Selections from His Writings, edited by Cyril Bibby, 1967
T.H.Huxley on Education, edited by Cyril Bibby, 1971
Other writings: a book about the Rattlesnake voyage (1859), and textbooks and manuals on biology, zoology, anatomy, and other natural sciences.
Dawson, Warren R., The Huxley Papers: A Descriptive Catalogue of the
Correspondence, Manuscripts, and Miscellaneous Papers of the Rt. Hon. T.H.Huxley, London: Macmillan, for the Imperial College of Science and Technology, 1946
Pingree, Jeanne, T.H.Huxley: A List of His Scientific Notebooks, Drawings and Other Papers, Preserved in the College Library, London: Imperial College of Science and Technology, 1968
Bibby, Cyril, “Huxley: Prince of Controversialists,” Twentieth Century 161 (1957):268– 77
Blinderman, Charles, “Semantic Aspects of T.H.Huxley’s Literary Style,” Journal of Communication 12 (1962.): 171–78
Blinderman, Charles, “T.H.Huxley’s Theory of Aesthetics: Unity in Diversity,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 21 (1962): 49–55
Blinderman, Charles, “Huxley, Pater, and Protoplasm,” Journal of the History of Ideas 3 (1982):477–86
Block, Ed., Jr., “T.H.Huxley’s Rhetoric and the Popularization of Victorian Scientific Ideas, 1854–1874,” Victorian Studies 29 (Spring 1986):363–86
Desmond, Adrian, Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple, London: Michael Joseph, and New York: Viking, 1994
Gardner, Joseph H., “A Huxley Essay as ‘Poem’,” Victorian Studies 14 (1970):177–91
Houghton Walter E., “The Rhetoric of T.H.Huxley,” University of Toronto Quarterly 18 (1949):159–75
Hutton, Richard, “Professor Huxley’s Hidden Chess Player,” Spectator 41 (11 January 1868):41–42.
Huxley, Aldous, “T.H.Huxley as a Literary Man,” in his The Olive Tree and Other Essays, London: Chatto and Windus, 1936; New York: Harper and Row, 1937
Jensen, J.Vernon, Thomas Henry Huxley: Communicating for Science, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991
Lightman, Bernard, The Origins of Agnosticism: Victorian Unbelief and the Limits of Knowledge, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987
McCartney, Jesse F., “The Pedagogical Style of T.H.Huxley in ‘On the Physiological Basis of Life’,” Southern Quarterly 14 (1976): 97–107
Paradis, James G., T.H.Huxley: Man’s Place in Nature, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978
Routh, James, “Huxley as a Literary Man,” The Century Magazine 63 (1902):392–98
Watt, Donald, “Soul-Facts: Humour and Figure in T.H.Huxley,” Prose Studies 1 (1978):30–40
Zappen, James P., “Scientific Rhetoric in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: Herbert Spencer, Thomas H.Huxley and John Dewey,” in Textual Dynamics of the Professions: Historical and Contemporary Studies of Writing in Professional Communities, edited by Charles Bazerman and James Paradis, Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1991
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