Sunday, February 2, 2020

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Story of Doctor Dolittle.

Hey, folks!  Another movie is out based on an old children’s story.  So, time for another Fantasy Literature Rewind.  This time it’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. 

What’s that?  I’m late to this one?  Well, considering how I don’t think anyone’s really going to see the new Dolittle movie, I’m not sure it really matters.

Anyway, The Story of Doctor Dolittle came out in the year 1920.  Lofting was born in England in 1886 and moved to the United States when he was twenty-six.  The genesis of Doctor Dolittle likely began during his military service with the British army in World War I.  Lofting was supposedly very troubled by the effect of war on animals.  Of particular note was the euthanizing of injured regimental horses.  In a letter, he complained that the horses that encountered the same danger as the human soldiers should receive the same level of care when wounded.  He noted in the letter: “But obviously to develop horse surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Station would necessitate a knowledge of horse language”.
And so, the Doctor Dolittle stories started as a series of story letters to Lofting’s wife and children during wartime.  They would eventually bloom into a fourteen volume children’s book series.  The second book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle would even win the 1923 Newberry Award.  The books would of course be adapted into various movies of vastly different types and even a cartoon series in 1970.

The story of the first book concerns both how Dr. John Dolittle learned to talk to animals and a trip to Africa to help sick monkeys.  The book starts out with Dolittle as a human doctor with a soft spot for animals, to the point that he even seems to prefer their company to that of human beings.  He soon finds out that he can learn animal languages from his parrot Polynesia, who knows both animal languages and English.  Then, over time, he develops into an animal doctor who can provide better care for animals than the average veterinarian because he can actually communicate with his patients (for example, rather than trying to doctor a horse with large pills, he makes it a pair of glasses because the horse told him it was losing its eyesight).  His home and practice change accordingly.  He takes on more and more pets and remodels his home to suit the needs of them and his patients.  His sister, who had been watching over him, get fed up with it all and leaves to get married.

The other part follows Dolittle’s journey to Africa to help the monkeys on that continent (not a specific troop of monkeys apparently.  Just all or most of them.  Some of the ones referenced are even actually apes).  By basically begging and borrowing, Dolittle and a number of his animals secure a ship and take to the sea.  They get to Africa where they run afoul of the king of the fictional country of Jolliginki, who’s not too fond of white outsiders after one showed up and took all the gold and ivory in the country years ago (honestly, this bit feels surprisingly honest about European forces and their colonialist tendency toward resource extraction.  It’s not really focused on, though).  He helps the monkeys.  He receives the rare pushmi-pulyu (sort of a two-headed antelope) as a gift.  He gets put in jail by the king and escapes.  And then he encounters pirates and helps a young boy find his lost uncle on the way home.
That’s pretty much the book in a nutshell.  I like elements of it.  There are some fun fantasy elements.  I like that the doctor is neither some sort of action hero or broad, comedic clown.  At heart, he’s just a kindly country doctor who likes animals a little bit more than he does people.  He’s not even the smartest guy in the room.  He’s particularly inept when it comes to managing money.  His various animals prove smarter than him about a number of subjects, which shows that it’s a good thing he can talk to them.  Doctor Dolittle’s two greatest traits are kindness and communication.

All that said, we should probably talk about what makes these books controversial today.  It’s the attitudes and undertones regarding race they still carry with them.

In the case of this specific book, it’s a sequence involving a character named Prince Bumpo.  Bumpo is the son of the king of Jolliginki.  As such, he is a young black African man.  He’s also presented as kind of a romantic dreamer who’s a bit hung up on fairy tales (not an unusual thing in my circles, at least).  Here’s the problem with Bumpo in this book: He asks Doctor Dolittle to turn him white [insert record scratch here].  The story he tells is that he went off as princes sometimes do and found the famous Sleeping Beauty.  He then woke her with a kiss, but when the Sleeping Beauty saw that the prince was black she rejected him and made for parts unknown.  So, Prince Bumpo wishes to be a white prince like the other Prince Charmings.  The good doctor helps by giving him some kind of liquid that bleaches his face and eyes at least temporarily in exchange for Prince Bumpo helping him and his animals escape from his father’s prison.

It’s a very awkward section of the book.  Maybe Lofting was just trying to write a section based around the idea of foolishly wanting to be something you’re not and just stumbled onto such an explosive idea.  But I can’t say for sure.  It certainly would be easy to stumble on it back in the 20s.  Much of the Western world still subscribed to some degree of Social Darwinist nonsense.  Even major universities used to publish “scientific” papers based around the idea that the Caucasian race was superior to all the others.  It was a dark time.  And near as I can tell, this attitude apparently persists in the rest of the series.

So, with the books having underlying attitudes that don’t really fly in modern times, people discovered a solution to all that.  They started bowdlerizing them.

Now, I’m pretty sure we know what bowdlerizing means.  It’s the removing and changing things in a written story that are seen as offensive or inappropriate.  “Bowdlerizing” or more formally “expurgating” a work is often seen as a taboo move among writers and readers.

In the case of Prince Bumpo, in later versions of this book, instead of wanting to be white he wants to become a lion.  And instead of putting his face in a liquid that bleaches his skin, he drinks a potion that makes him grow a big mane of hair.

Was this a good move?  Was it a bad move?  I don’t know.  It’s not necessarily what the original author intended.  For adult readers the original text shouldn’t be a huge deal because we understand the attitudes of the time period it was written in.  However, let’s not forget that this is a book originally meant for children.  Children today aren’t going to understand the way things have changed over the decades.

But when dealing with older stories that were formed during times with older attitudes, it’s a question that has to be contended with.  How do you deal with stuff like that?

I know the answer many people will give me is that you just leave the old books alone and read newer books.  But I think if humanity was so capable of leaving old stories behind and embracing newer ones, we would have done it a lot more effectively by now.  Also, those new stories might develop similar problems as time moves forward.
One of the newer versions of the book.
This problem doesn’t just affect Doctor Dolittle, either.  Something I touched on in another post is that the Mary Poppins books had an unfortunate amount of casual racism in them too.  And back in the ‘80s P.L. Travers even went to the extent of bowdlerizing one chapter.  From what I’ve read, she seemed to do it quite indignantly too.  It’s even occurred to me that maybe the reason Travers’s estate allowed for another movie to be made (something Travers distinctly didn’t want to happen) was because they realized that the only way to keep the character vital and in circulation was to license the character out and let people write new stories with her rather than relying on the increasingly racist books.  The same might be said of Doctor Dolittle, but his recent movie outing doesn’t seem to be panning out as well.

Whether changing the text is a viable option for dealing with older stories is something that probably has no easy answer.  However, right now, both versions of the story exist.  The newer version can probably be found in the children’s section of a local library or on Amazon.  As for the original version, that one entered the public domain not too long ago and can be found on Project Gutenberg or downloaded for $0 on Kindle.

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