Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Dr. Dolittle

From The Sopranos to Dr. Dolittle -- I guess my interests are a little broad.

The good Doctor was a fond companion of my youth, and some of my feeling for animals must stem from exposure to these books; in fact, I later experimented with having a lot of pets at once in what I call my "Dr. Dolittle phase" (I wouldn't call it successful). There are twelve Dolittle books in all, published between 1920 and 1952, and I have been re-reading the series in a leisurely fashion; I'm on the third volume, Dr. Dolittle's Post Office, which followed the Newbery Medal-winning The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle (but precedes it in time -- the internal chronology of the series is very different than its publication order).

The notion of a man who can talk to animals is such a promising meme that one is surprised that no one fully exploited it before Dolittle author Hugh Lofting (Kipling's Jungle Books are partial predecessors). The books are truly charming and deserve their classic status. They have run into a little trouble over the years because the Doctor frequently travels to Africa and the depiction of blacks is rather unenlightened; Lofting, a very kind man, was susceptible to the received ideas of his period, as critic John Rowe Townsend points out. (He does much better with the dignified portrayal of the native South American Long Arrow Son of Golden Arrow in Voyages.) Because the Dolittle books would be a great loss to children's literature if they evaporated into the swamp of forgotten books, publishers have taken pains to re-issue them with minor emendations, removing the offensive passages and pictures (also by Lofting). As a "historian" I prefer to read the originals, of course, and seek those out.

Lofting, at least in the early volumes, was an extremely episodic writer, constructing the books of brief narrative arcs and inset stories. Like some other good children's authors, he has occasional problems with internal logic. (A classic example is Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows -- what size are Grahame's animals? Toad is alternately toad-sized and human-sized as the needs of the story dictate.)

Much is made in the first several Dolittle books of the animal species all having different languages and the Doctor needing to learn each one (sometimes with considerable trouble, as with his quest to communicate with shellfish in Voyages, which requires the pooled efforts of a number of sea creatures). But as this logic becomes inconvenient, Lofting seems to forget it, so when the Doctor encounters a surviving prehistoric beast in Post Office, he can speak to it immediately. The diverse animals in the Doctor's household all seem to communicate with each other just fine, and it is unclear what the lingua franca is.

But I quibble. These are enjoyable books.

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