Died September 26, 1947 in Santa Monica, California
Hugh Lofting at times seems almost an amalgam of the life stories of a number of other famous writers. Like P.G. Wodehouse, P.L. Travers and Gerald Durrell, he was distinctively the son of a Victorian Imperial era. Like Lewis Carroll, the work for which he is best known has its origins in tales he wrote in letters to two children. Like Walter Brooks (Freddy the Pig and Mr. Ed) and E.B. White (Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan), his stories centered on anthropomorphized animals. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, the demand for more stories about his beloved protagonist began to weigh upon him, leading him ultimately to try and kill him off or abandon him; and like Doyle, later having to resurrect him. Like Roald Dahl (Boy and Going Solo), his early life took him to the far corners of the British Empire, then to war before establishing his career as a writer.
Hugh Lofting was born January 14, 1886 in Maidenhead, Berkshire to an Irish father and English mother. He was one of six children and had the abbreviated home life so typical of the British middle class of that era. He showed an early love of nature, animals and storytelling. He at one point raised the ire of his mother by establishing a miniature menagerie of mice and other natural exotica in his mother's linen closet. At the age of eight he was sent off to a Jesuit boarding school, effectively ending close contact with his family.
On completion of boarding school, he secured a scholarship for study in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1904, completing his engineering studies at London Polytechnic in 1907. There followed a peripatetic few years as he travelled the empire exploring different careers. Starting as an architect, he soon took himself to Canada as a prospector and surveyor in 1908 and 1909. He then spent a couple of years in West Africa as civil engineer for the Lagos Railway. In early 1912 he found himself working as an engineer for the United Railways in Havana, Cuba.
At this point he moved to New York, met, fell in love with, and following a whirlwind romance, quickly married Flora Small in late 1912. Lofting had abandoned engineering as a profession and started to support himself by writing articles and short stories for magazines. Elizabeth and Colin, his first two children were born in the next couple of years.
Lofting's nascent writing career was set aside with the advent of the World War I. Still a British citizen, though resident in the USA and married to an American, Lofting joined the British Ministry of Information in the first couple of years of the war. In 1916 he volunteered and served as a Lieutenant in the Irish Guarders in northern France for two years until wounded in 1917. The war ended before he was fully recuperated.
It was the tragic and soiled battlefields of northern France that saw the birth of that long cherished character of children's literature, Dr. John Dolittle. As Lofting related in his autobiographical entry in The Junior Book of Authors:
It was during the Great War, and my children at home wanted letters from me - and they wanted them with illustrations rather than without. There seemed very little of interest to write to youngsters from the front; the news was either too horrible or too dull. And it was all censored. One thing, however, that kept forcing itself more and more on my attention was the very considerable part the animals were playing in the World War and that as time went on they, too, seemed to become Fatalists.
Oftentimes you would see a cat stalking along the ruins throughout a heavy bombardment, in a town that had been shelled more than once before in that same cat's recollection. She was taking her chances with the rest of us. And the horses, too, learned to accept resignedly and unperturbed the falling of high explosives in their immediate neighborhood. But their fate was different from the men's. However seriously a soldier was wounded, his life was not despaired of; all the resources of a surgery highly developed by the war were brought to his aid. A seriously wounded horse was put out by a timely bullet.
This did not seem quite fair. If we made the animals take the same chances as we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded? But obviously to develop a horse-surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Stations would necessitate a knowledge of horse language.
That was the beginning of the idea: an eccentric country physician with a bent for natural history and a great love of pets, who finally decides to give up his human practice for the more difficult, more sincere, and for him, more attractive therapy of the animal kingdom. He is challenged by the difficulty of the work - for obviously it requires a much cleverer brain to become a good animal doctor (who must first acquire all animal languages and physiologies) than it does to take care of the mere human hypochondriac.
This was a new plot for my narrative letter for the children. It delighted them and at my wife's suggestion, I decided to put the letters in book form for other boys and girls.
When Lofting and family returned to New York from Britain in 1919, he met a friend aboard ship who was taken with the bound letters and offered to make an introduction to the publisher, F.A. Stokes. There the narratives were equally well received and publication of the first Dr. Dolittle story, written and illustrated by Lofting, followed in 1920, The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts.
The public, critical and commercial reception was very positive. There followed in 1922, the second in what was to eventually turn into a series of twelve Dr. Dolittle books, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle. Winner of the recently established Newberry Medal for children's literature (first awarded the year before), The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, was equally well received as its predecessor.
Dr. John Dolittle is a doctor living in that most English of towns, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Dolittle has a fondness for animals and his house is well populated by a large variety of pets, lorded over, in a fashion, by his African Grey parrot, Polynesia. In fact the intrusion of the many animals into his practice sees the diminution of numbers of his human patients. Through Polynesia, Dolittle discovers that animals have their own languages which he begins to learn. It is through this opening of communication that allows Dolittle to solve his increasingly dicey financial prospects. Instead of treating humans, he finds that, by being able to talk with them about their symptoms, he can treat animals far more effectively and thereby earn a different income. One of his first patients is a draught horse who appears to be losing his eyesight and is at risk of being put down. By being able to talk with him, Dolittle discovers that he is not going blind and that he just needs glasses.
And so the adventures begin. Dolittle and his immediate circle of animal friends such as Polyniesia, Gub-Gub the pig, and Dab-Dab the duck are regulars through the series but there are many great walk on characters as well such as the exotic Pushmi-Pullyu (a two-headed creature, one at either end). Tommy Stubbins, Dolittle's young assistant makes his appearance in the The Voyages, and is in most books of the series. Lofting takes Dolittle to many different places around the world, full of characterful animals and strange adventures. His imagination within the natural world rivals the antic creativity of L. Frank Baum in his created world of Oz.
Throughout Lofting's stories, there is an underlying theme of respect for the other, kindness, seeking to connect through communication. This is interesting because one of Lofting's strictures as an author was that his first duty should be to entertain and to entertain both the child and adult. He fulminated against the habit of publishers to classify his books as juvenilia.
Again from his The Junior Book of Authors entry, Lofting might be writing for the world of children's literature today in 2009 with our plethora of didacticism instead of in 1934:
I would like to make it quite clear that I make no claims to be an authority on writing or illustrating for children. The fact that I have been successful merely means that I can write and illustrate in my own way. Whereas, I have always maintained that there is no end to the variety of ways there should be. This would indicate that no one is a real authority, which I think is probably true.
There has always been a tendency to classify children almost as a distinct species. For many years it was a constant source of shock for me to find my writings amongst "Latest Juveniles" or "Leading Juveniles" or some such category.
It does not bother me any more now, but I still do feel that there should be a category of "Seniles" to offset the epithet.
There are two points which I wish to bring out as of primary importance in writing for children.
First, the writing must be entertaining and nothing may be allowed to interfere with or sacrifice that entertainment. There is never any excuse for "putting over" a preachment under the guise of entertainment. The main trouble with children's books is that many writers and many publishers feel that because they are catering to young minds that pretty much anything will do. They don't admit that, of course, but it's true just the same.
Another trouble with the average writing for children is that authors always seem to think they must "write down" to them. I have found that the intelligent children (and I am afraid that the intelligent children are the only kind I am interested in) resent nothing so much as being written down to. Which, of course, is very natural. We adults resent also, if we think a superior intellect is patronizing us. What the intelligent child likes is being "written up" to. He wants promotion; he wants to get into the adult world; he wants progress; and I have always maintained and always will maintain that there is no idea too subtle, no picture too difficult to be conveyed to a child's mind, if the author will but find the proper language to put it in.
Another thing I have always maintained is that there should be just as many kinds of stories and books for children as there are for grown-ups. I have often quoted my daughter's interest when at the age of five, she learned her mother had just returned from an employment bureau, where she had gone to hire a cook. Elizabeth wanted to know all about it. She was looking forward, no doubt, to the time when she would hire a cook (the poor child did not realize, of course, that by the time she would be grown up, there would not be any more cooks, but that's neither here nor there). Well, I have never seen a story for children about an employment agency, but after all, why not? It is really pathetic that the majority of writers for children feel that the only material children are interested in is pussy-cats and puppy-dogs. When really there is nothing in the whole wide world that they are not interested in.
This is proved by the fact that, when ever a book is a real success for children, it is also a success and an enjoyment for grown-ups. If writers would only get away from this classifying of children as a separate species, we would get very much better books for the younger generation. For who shall say where the dividing line lies, that separates the child from the adult? Practically all children want to be grown up and practically all grown-ups want to be children, and God help us, the adults, when we have no vestige of childhood in our hearts.
Lofting is a bundle of unresolved contradictions. He served his country(ies) in the Great War and emerged from that conflict with a profound desire for peace and revulsion at the destructiveness of war. He believed profoundly in the capacity to connect peoples through communication. He became a pacifist. In an article in the Nation, he expressed hope that the destruction of barriers between people would create peace and "getting the child to realize that the day of the old-fashioned military hero is gone." He attributed wars to "the sagas - with the folk-tales, the tribal legends that were purposely designed to keep alive race hatreds combined with a paramount respect for military prowess."
For all that though, Lofting was very proud of his military service. When war again confronted the civilized world in 1939, despite being in his fifties, having a family, and being a pacifist, Lofting tried to reenlist with the Irish Guards but was, to his disappointment, turned down.
Similarly, it is indisputable that Lofting was a progressive man deeply respectful of the "other". His characters and heroes are almost always the down-trodden and disrespected members at the margin of society. He can easily be characterized as one of the early environmentalists and animal rights advocates. He clearly believed in the capacity of all people to find a means of living together.
Yet, for all that, there are elements in his wonderful stories that are not only discordant but somewhat shocking. There is the African chief that wishes to be white. There is the characterization by Polynesia of Africans as lazy. The terms coon and nigger feature in a couple of sequences of dialogue. His illustrations of Africans are representative caricatures of the time. I am deeply resistant to the over-sensitized political correctness ninnies that want to condemn and ban books from the past based on their own ignorance (such as with the book Little Black Sambo) or on their incapacity to allow the past to be different and have different mores and norms than our "enlightened" present.
That said, were I an African American parent, I would probably have some marginal hesitation about the representations in the Dolittle books. They might be normal for their time and entirely consistent with late Victoriana attitudes. Indeed, there is even more to it than that. They might not reflect a white person's view of Africans but a genuine desire on the part of Africans at that time. I lived in West Africa as a young child for a year or so and recall the tale of our gardener. One day, while I tagged along behind him in the garden, watching what he did, nominally helping out, he pointed out to me a particular, large, furry caterpillar. He warned me to be careful of this particular insect (though in Nigeria it seemed as if you needed to be careful of practically everything that moved). He explained that this caterpillar, if it bit you, turned you from white to black. He said that he used to be white and had been bitten by this insect and was now, obviously, black. This was in Nigeria in the 1960's. I don't offer the story to make a particular point other than that it is easy to forget just how disparate the tales can be among all peoples at different times.
The Dolittle stories are a magical exercise in imagination, bridging the interests and humor of both adults and children. It would be a shame to omit them because we impute values of today to terms and actions from an age ago that were not intended in that fashion. With our children, we handled this by reading the Dolittle books to them when they were young. We made the decision about which terms to skip or render differently. It gave us the opportunity as well to later discuss changing ways of expressing one-self and of changing attitudes in general.
Lofting's books have always been praised for their creativity, freshness, style and ability to engage both adults and children. As with all series there is an unevenness in later books but no real agreement among critics about which of the later books were especially good or poor, each has its advocate. In the seventies and eighties, the Dolittle books fell from favor because of the assaults of the language police and only a fraction of the series (The Story of Dr. Dolittle and The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle), remains in print.
There are choices to be made among the different editions currently available. Lofting's original versions of the first two books with his original illustrations are in print but have been edited to omit the terms that so offend our ears. There are other editions which go yet further and re-illustrate the books as well (and sometimes more extensively re-edit them.) I am an advocate of the earliest books.
Lofting had a long run of success with the Dolittle books. His own later life and writing career were marked by challenges and tragedies. He struggled with alcoholism (attributed to his war-time experiences) through the rest of his life and which ultimately contributed to his demise. His first wife struggled with mental illness, eventually being confined to a series of asylums before her death in 1927.
Lofting remarried in 1928 to Katherine Harrower-Peters but tragically she succumbed to pneumonia later that same year.
It was in that same year Lofting published what he intended to be the last Dolittle story, Dr. Dolittle in the Moon. He had grown tired of the sustained popularity of his most noteworthy character. He had already written a story that did not involve Dolittle in 1923, The Story of Mrs. Tubbs, and eventually wrote four other books for children and a couple for adults, but none of them ever gained anything near the traction of the Dolittle books.
In 1933, bowing to sustained pressure from his readers and publishers, Lofting wrote Dr. Dolittles Return. Lofting remarried again in 1935 to Josephine Fricker and with whom he had a third child, a second son, Christopher.
Hugh Lofting passed away in Santa Monica, September, 26, 1947.
After his passing, Disney ensured a new life for Lofting's books with the release in 1967 of their movie version of Dr. Dolittle. Unlike some movie renditions of books, this one is actually pretty decent. As is always the case, it can't do justice to the book and should not be viewed as a substitute, but it does carry a whiff of the magic that infuses Lofting's writings.
There is a further adaption in 1997 with Eddie Murphie. As entertaining as Murphie often is, I think this version of Dr. Dolittle falls short. In the books there is an ever-present call to a better world through the language of communication. In the second movie version, perhaps in an attempt at contemporary "relevance", there is more of a call to a cheap laugh through the language of the bathroom.
Hugh Lofting lived an interesting life and gave the world a wonderful character who ought to be part of the childhood reading of all children. Enjoy!
The Story of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting Highly Recommended
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting Highly Recommended
Porridge Poetry by Hugh Lofting Suggested
Hugh Lofting Bibliography
The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1920
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1922
Doctor Dolittle's Post Office written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1923
The Story of Mrs. Tubbs written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1923
Doctor Dolittle's Circus written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1924
Porridge Poetry: Cooked, Ornamented, and Served by Hugh Lofting written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1924
Doctor Dolittle's Zoo written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1925
Doctor Dolittle's Caravan written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1926
Doctor Dolittle's Garden written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1927
Doctor Dolittle in the Moon written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1928
Noisy Nora: An Almost True Story written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1929
The Twilight of Magic written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1930
Gub-Gub's Book: An Encyclopedia of Food written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1932
Doctor Dolittle's Return written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1933
Tommy, Tilly, and Mrs. Tubbs written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1936
Victory for the Slain (poetry) written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1942
Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1948
Doctor Dolittle and the Green Canary written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1950
Doctor Dolittle's Puddleby Adventures written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting 1952
Doctor Dolittle: A Treasury written Hugh Lofting and illustrated by Olga Fricker 1967