This Day In Literary History
On January 14th, 1886, the famous Anglo-Irish writer Hugh Lofting was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England. As a boy, he developed a love of animals and kept "a combination zoo and natural history museum" in his mother's linen closet.
He received his education in Jesuit-run private schools. He later went to the United States, where he studied civil engineering at MIT - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After graduating from MIT, Lofting returned to England and became a civil engineer, traveling throughout the British Empire as his job required him to do. When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the Irish Guards, a Foot Guards regiment in the British Army.
In his service as a soldier, he was horrified by not only the human carnage he witnessed, but also by the sufferings of horses and other animals used at the front. During the war, Lofting wrote letters to his children frequently.
Wishing to spare them the horrors of war, (and to escape from them himself) he would tell his children stories about John Dolittle, a country doctor who learned how to talk to animals. Lofting illustrated the stories in his letters.
When he returned home from the war, Lofting reworked his stories into a book he illustrated himself, the first in a hugely popular series that made him world famous. The Story of Doctor Dolittle was published in 1920.
In it, we meet Dr. John Dolittle, a young country doctor who lives with his sister in the small English village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Over the years, his love of animals grows; he acquires a menagerie of exotic pets. Unfortunately, his animals scare off his human patients.
After he learns how to speak to animals from his parrot Polynesia, Dolittle gives up his human medical practice and becomes a veterinarian, only to see his new practice start failing after he adopts a crocodile.
In the animal kingdom, he becomes world famous. Just as he's about to go bankrupt, the British government conscripts Doctor Dolittle and orders him to go to Africa and contain an epidemic that's ravaging the monkey population.
So, Dolittle borrows a ship and supplies and sets sail for Africa with a crew of his animal friends. The group is shipwrecked upon their arrival. As they journey toward the monkey kingdom, they're arrested by the king of Jolligingki.
The king, after being victimized and exploited by Europeans, wants no white men in his country. Dolittle and the animals escape through a ruse and reach the monkey kingdom, which is in dire straits due to the raging epidemic.
Dolittle vaccinates the well monkeys and nurses the sick ones back to health, containing the disease. In appreciation, the monkeys give him a pushmi-pullyu - a rare and valuable two-headed animal that's a cross between a gazelle and a unicorn.
Unfortunately, Dolittle and his friends are arrested again in Jolligingki upon their return. This time, they escape with the help of the king's son, Prince Bumpo, after Dolittle bleaches Bumpo's face white so he can be like the European fairy tale princes and hopefully marry his white Sleeping Beauty.
Bumpo gives Dolittle and his animal crew a new ship. After having a couple run-ins with pirates, Dolittle wins a pirate ship filled with treasures. When he finally returns home to England, he exhibits the pushmi-pullyu in a traveling circus and makes enough money to retire.
Hugh Lofting would write a total of twelve Doctor Dolittle books, the last three of which would be published posthumously. They would be adapted numerous times for the radio, screen, and television.
Many years after their first publication, the Doctor Dolittle books would court controversy due to certain language, scenes, and illustrations now considered racially offensive and politically incorrect.
Beginning in the 1960s, certain words and scenes would be changed or removed in some reprint editions of the books in both the UK and the U.S. By 1981, the original, unexpurgated versions would go out of print in both countries.
In 1986, to mark the 100th anniversary of Lofting's birth, the Doctor Dolittle books were republished in a special edition - a severely bowdlerized version with passages of text rewritten or removed and some illustrations altered or replaced.
Ironically, Lofting himself was no racist; black African characters were portrayed sympathetically. In the first Doctor Dolittle book, the king of Jolligingki bemoans his country's exploitation by the white man:
Many years ago a white man came to these shores; and I was very kind to him. But after he had dug holes in the ground to get the gold, and killed all the elephants to get their ivory tusks, he went away secretly in his ship - without so much as saying `Thank you.'
In addition to his Doctor Dolittle books, Hugh Lofting wrote other children's books, including a book of children's poems called Porridge Poetry (1924). His only book geared toward adult readers was Victory For the Slain (1942), an antiwar epic poem. He died in 1947 at the age of 61.
Quote Of The Day
"For years it was a constant source of shock to me to find my writings amongst 'Juveniles.' It does not bother me any more now, but I still feel there should be a category of 'Seniles' to offset the epithet." - Hugh Lofting
Today's video features a complete reading of Hugh Lofting's first book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle - the original version, now in the public domain. Enjoy!