This weekend is the late Hugh Lofting's birthday. Lofting, who was born in Maidenhead England in 1886, holds a special place in the annals of children's literature. He is author of the wildly popular Doctor Doolittle book series. He had been attending a Jesuit boarding school. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then completed his engineering degree in London and set off to see the world. As a civil engineer, his work took him to far-flung and fascinating locals like Africa and the West Indies.
Perhaps seeking the greatest adventure of all, Lofting moved to New York City in 1912 and decided to become an author. World War I found him back in Europe, where he was stationed in Flanders and France. He was an opponent of the war, and it was here, witnessing the cruelty and violence of nation against nation that Lofting first conceived of the Doctor Doolittle character. Not suprisingly perhaps, the Doctor was all about "under-standing". Lofting wrote the stories for his children and sent them home in letters - along with illustrations of his own design.
After the war, Lofting returned to America and, in 1920, published the first installment in the series, The Story of Dr. Doolittle. It was, however, 1922's The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle that won him his fame. He received the second Newberry Medal for it - and the series took off. Although the Doolittle books are charming and inventive, the original texts are unfortunately flawed by what most today would say are racist overtones. Like many 19th century adventure novels for children, the main character in The Voyages achieves his greatest fame by sailing off to distant lands where he "enlightens" the natives whom he encounters. When Rex Harrison portrayed Doolittle in the 1967 film, the story had been altered considerably, and the focus shifted from conquest to the idiosyncrasies of the Doctor's character. In the 1990s, Eddie Murphy left the book even further behind and portrayed Doolittle as a modern day veterinarian.
In all these variations of the story, the one theme that has remained unchanged is the concept of an adult who is able to understand the language of animals - an idea some explain - as being appealing to children because children themselves often wish that the adults in their lives could understand them better. Today, it's hard to find the original book, The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. But perhaps that is for the best. Free of the weight of those dated themes in its most recent versions, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh is an even more magical and wondrous locale for a child to imagine.
Copyright 2007© Kevin Shortsleeve
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