Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Title:  The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts
Author:  Hugh Lofting
Publication Information:  Frederick A Stokes Company. 1920. 180 pages.

ISBN:  1983600865 / 978-1983600869 (for the paperback 2018 edition from CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)

Book Source:  I read this book because I am familiar with the general story and the many screen adaptation but had never before read the book.

Opening Sentence:  "Once upon a time, many years ago - when our grandfathers were little children - there was a doctor; and his name was Dolittle - John Dolittle, MD."

Favorite Quote:  "Money ... is a terrible nuisance. But it's nice not to have to worry."

Ever since I was a child, I have heard the stories of Dr. Dolittle. I have seen the movie adaptations. In fact, a new one (which I have not seen) is out now. I have read the children's picture books, but this is my first encounter with the original. I decided to research the original and discover both the original story and its history. I am shocked.

Let's get what we know out of the way. Dr. Dolittle is the story of a doctor who can talk to animals. The various iterations of the story are about his different adventures with his talking animal friends. The new versions are cute and colorful and clearly designed to entertain and charm.

Now for the history. Hugh Lofting wrote 15 books around the character of Dr. Dolittle, published between 1920 and 1952. Some of the publications came after the discovery of previously unpublished stories after his death. The second in the series, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, won the Newberry Award. Hugh Lofting was an engineer by profession. He also served in the British Army. The history goes that the origin of Dr. Dolittle is in his illustrated letters from the trenches of World War I to his children at home. Rather than share the horrors of war, he told his children stories.

Now for the original story itself. Dr. Dolittle is a physician of human beings. However, his love of animals and his inability to say no drives human patients away and renders him nearly destitute. It is then that he discovers that animals talk and that he can talk to them. The animals convince him to apply his knowledge as a veterinarian. A call for help sets them on a voyage to Africa. "There is a terrible sickness among the monkeys out there. They are all catching it - and they are dying in hundreds. They have heard of you, and beg you to come to Africa to stop the sickness." Adventures and misadventures abound with the story ending in his return to his home in the village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh in the West Country of England with treasures enough to sustain him financially.

Now for the details of those adventures and misadventures.  The most shocking aspect of the story is the extreme and blatant racism. This original includes an entire side story about an African prince who will do anything for the doctor if the doctor can only make him white. Why? He wishes to be white so that the princess will not wake and run screaming at the sight of him. Dr. Dolittle goes on to provide him with a "cure" to secure his own safe passage!

My understanding is that later editions (I am not sure how much later) have completely written out that subplot. Apparently, other portions of the text and the illustrations have also be altered to remove the racial elements of this story. It is these changes that render this story into its current view as an innocent children's story of adventure and caring for fellow creatures. For me, I don't think I can unsee the image of Prince Bumpo, his quest to the be acceptable to his Sleeping Beauty princess, and of Dr. Dolittle's cruel use of of Prince Bumpo.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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