Monday, April 4, 2016

The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (1920)

I knew that Doctor Dolittle had been re-written since I first read it as a little child reader in the 1970s, to remove the racist language and the ugly story of Prince Bumpo.  I know I've read a newer version, but I can't remember how it was changed, and I don't have the newer version.  The internet tells me the newer version may have Bumpo wanting to be a lion, that sort of rings true.  Anyway, the version I read as a voraciously reading fourth or so grader was that old time racist one, and those plot elements stuck in my head.  It didn't turn me into a racist; but I understand if I were a little African American voracious reader, those passages would be extremely hurtful.

I downloaded the book free, as it's in the public domain; the Canadian version even had the pictures by Lofting himself I love so much. 

I wrote about Judy Blume's Blubber sometime ago, a book that disturbed me greatly.  What did not disturb me, or that even recalled, was that the girls in Blubber call a teacher a "bitch" - as a kid, that didn't even register, but as an adult, it certainly did.  The Story of Doctor Dolittle, the unpurged 1920s version, goes one worse than Blubber:  it has the n-word in it.  Yes, the Queen of Lions tells her husband that he needs to go "work like a n*****" for the good doctor.  What the what?  I don't remember reading that AT ALL as a child.  I remember the story about Prince Bumpo wanting to become a white man; but not the n-word.  In another passage, Polynesia the parrot calls Bumpo another racial slur. Again, that never registered.  

I still love Doctor Dolittle, I just don't love those particular parts.  I'm glad they've been removed.  They aren't necessary to the plot, they detract from what is otherwise a great story.  

The first part of Story of Doctor Dolittle is the weaker part; up to and including his curing the monkeys. The last half or so, when the Dcotor is sailing home, those are actually the parts I like the best.  The other characters start to get developed more; the Doctor is always the Doctor, the whole way through. Polynesia is fully developed too.  But it's the latter part of the book where Jip, Dab-Dab, Gub-Gub, Too-Too and the white mouse all become fully developed and more enjoyable.  These are characters I grew up loving, and reading about them again brings them to life.  They are also really humorous characters too, something Lofting develops more fully in later books.  But hints of that delightful humor begin to show; for example, Jip referring to Gub-Gub the pig as "a stupid piece of warm bacon."

The Story of Doctor DolittleThe Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the origin story for Doctor Dolittle and company - how he learns the language of animals, the sickness of the monkeys in Africa, and then his exciting voyage home. The origin and Africa chapters are magical, but it is definitely the voyage home that the real Doctor Dolittle and his animal companions make their appearance. Caveat emptor: the free online versions are the horrible old racist versions; in my latest read of this classic, I downloaded one from the Canadian Project Gutenberg, which included every bit of the racist language and an awful racist detour (which some versions have changed while other have completely left out). If you have an interest in children's literature from an intellectual point of view, then by all means download and read the original. But if you're reading this aloud to your children, consider paying for it.


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