Can you speak rhinoceros? Of courserous!
July 2, 2013
Hugh Lofting published his children’s book The Story of Doctor Dolittle in 1920. It originated in letters he wrote to his children from the battlefields of World War I. Much better to write about an imaginary English country doctor who talks to animals in their own language than face the horrors of surrounding trench warfare. I imagine it was a sanity-saving escape for Lofting and a gift of storytelling for his kids.
The Story of Doctor Dolittle became a beloved children’s classic, but it skidded into disrepute in the United States during the 1970’s due to its racist references. It consequently went out of print, but it returned to print in a 1988 centenary edition recognizing the year Lofting was born. The centenary was revised, removing the racist references and also questionable illustrations. From a 1988 New York Times article, the summer of the centenary publication, here’s some insight on the revisions:
“The present editors obviously hope to obliterate every emotionally tinted word. Thus, though much of “Story” takes place in Africa, we hear no reference to skin coloration. When Doctor Dolittle’s party first lands, they are no longer met by ‘a black man’ coming out of the woods. He is simply ‘a man.’ Likewise, where once the monkeys, grateful to Dr. Dolittle, shouted, ‘Let us give him the finest present a White Man ever had!’ they now say, somewhat flatly, ‘Let us give him the finest present ever given.'”
Hugh Lofting’s son, Christopher, wrote an afterword to the 1988 edition, explaining the alterations did not affect the story, and that his father would have approved. But what about having the original stand on its own, perhaps with a preface deconstructing the inappropriate content and explaining the lessons of past wrongs? What about letting it stay out of print, if some of its underlying assumptions are no longer acceptable? A children’s literature professor compares the 1920 and 1988 editions of The Story of Doctor Dolittle in Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices? It’s an interesting article that, also using three editions of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, explores the dynamics of narrative revisions meant to erase prejudicial racial and colonial messages.
I didn’t ever read The Story of Doctor Dolittle. My enchantment with it came from seeing the 1967 musical, starring Rex Harrison, as a kid. Home from the movie theater, I rearranged my stuffed animals into exalted, comfortable positions on the bed and shelves in my room and began talking with them, inspired by the good doctor. Because of that memory, I believe the book has a place beside the other books I’ve been collecting to recreate the bookshelf in that same childhood room, where those mute soft bears, dogs and pigs starred at me with their button eyes while I chattered away.
And so, here it is. The 1920 original, joining my other first editions — Harriet the Spy,The Phantom Tollbooth, Mary Poppins, Johnny Tremain, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Up a Road Slowly and others — but this one’s waiting to be read.
Note regarding the blog post title: It comes from the song “Talk to the Animals” sung by Rex Harrison in the 1967 musical.