Do you know Doctor Dolittle? Not the droll, vaguely Swinging version personified by Rex Harrison in 1967, or the wisecracking version played by Eddie Murphy in 1998, or Robert Downey Jr.’s silver fox from 2020. I mean the original Dolittle, as immortalized on the page.
I have fond but fuzzy memories of checking Hugh Lofting’s books out of the Madeline Island library, drawn particularly by the author’s own appealing illustrations. I welcomed the opportunity, then, to reacquaint myself with the good doctor by way of the first volume in a comprehensive new audiobook series released to coincide with Stephen Gaghan’s forthcoming film — and the centennial of Lofting’s first book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle.
Doctor Dolittle, in Lofting’s tales, is an utterly unflappable, unfailingly pleasant country physician with the extraordinary ability to talk to animals. One reason the books have proved so appealing to generations of children is that Dolittle, taught animal tongues via his multilingual parrot Polynesia, immediately learns what kids have always suspected: each and every member of the animal kingdom possesses full sentience, simply waiting to be addressed properly by an adult with enough patience.
What’s more, the reader eventually notices, Dolittle’s animals develop the ability to communicate with one another, so the entire household can have group discussions. Tommy, the neighborhood boy who hops on board for The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (yet is mysteriously absent again for Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office), also learns the technique.
The result is that Dolittle, through his unique communication abilities and the goodwill of Earth’s entire animal kingdom, acquires superhuman powers. Whatever challenge presents itself, Dolittle is able to solve it with the help of his animal friends.
Is your floating island drifting too far south? Dolittle knows some whales who can give it a shove back into tropical waters. No passage across the ocean? Dolittle can talk the Great Glass Sea Snail into ferrying you in his shell. Birds prove particularly useful in tasks ranging from ship-pulling to island-building (they drop a lot of pebbles in one spot) to running an entire international mail service.
The stories are set “when our grandfathers were little children”; hence, the Victorian era. Writing for a world that seemed to be growing ever smaller, Lofting reimagined a world of infinite possibility, where there might still be an undiscovered two-headed ungulate species (the iconic pushmi-pullyu) or, encircled by a nearly impassable mangrove swamp, a giant tortoise who knew Noah personally.
It was also an age of imperialism. While Dolittle is ostensibly, even lavishly respectful of the peoples he meets on his travels — the one naturalist he cites as more knowledgeable than himself is Long Arrow of South America — numerous episodes turn on non-Westerners living without technology or even stability, prone to heedless warfare and requiring the white Doctor to solve all their problems. In return for the shoving stunt and other services in Voyages, the united residents of Monkey Island crown him king and refuse to relinquish their wise ruler.
Dolittle’s accompanied on his Voyages by Bumpo, an African prince who gave Dolittle a ship in the Doctor’s debut and ended up attending university in England. I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that Bumpo demanded a favor of Dolittle in return: he asked Dolittle to make him white, so Sleeping Beauty wouldn’t be repulsed by his blackness. That surprised me, because it isn’t in the audiobook. In fact, it hasn’t been in any Dolittle printing since 1988, when the books were “punctiliously altered to offend none but the most diehard of their former critics,” according to the New York Times.
The changes were indeed substantial; it’s jarring to compare some passages of the original text with the revised versions. The revisions of course have their critics (calling the process “bowdlerization,” one blogger argues that Bumpo’s insecurities are “a commentary on the cultural appropriation and racism that accompanies colonialism”), but few responsible parents or teachers would contemplate handing these books to children in their original forms. In fact, the revision process started long before 1988, with many epithets disappearing from the text by the time Harrison talked to the animals.
Even the extensively revised versions, though, might be best saved for scholarship. While the changes delete the most egregious references to race, there’s no escaping the white-savior setup. As the Times notes, that was Lofting’s world. “The author imbibed his fair share of the Anglo-Saxon certitude rife in a nation of empire builders.” Ironically, Lofting was suffering the fruits of that certitude as he was writing: the first Dolittle stories were letters home to his young sons from the trenches of the Great War.
The books are episodic even within their pages, and collecting three together makes for a sometimes taxing 15-hour listen. That’s not the fault of narrator James Langton, whose casually chatty tone is pitch-perfect. Avoiding showboating (something that can’t be said for the animal voice actors in any of the movies), he creates distinct personalities for characters like the businesslike Dab-Dab the duck, the self-pitying Gub-Gub the pig, and of course the cocky Cockney sparrow Cheapside.
The fact that readers, viewers, and listeners are still drawn to Doctor Dolittle a hundred years after his debut is testament to the quality of Lofting’s imagination in some respects, although in other ways it fell woefully short. We don’t need the Doctor anymore, but his fans will always find ways to keep him around.