Posts Tagged ‘1920 Children’s Book’

The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting ~ 1920. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1962. Foreword by Hugh Walpole. Illustrated by Hugh Lofting. Hardcover. 223 pages.

Oh boy.

I don’t think I have the resources (time or energy wise) to do this topic – racism in “beloved” vintage children’s books – justice. But I don’t feel right in just passing it over undiscussed, either. So here I go. Bear with me.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle, based on a series of illustrated letters the author wrote from the Great War trenches to his young sons back home in England, was published in book form in 1920, to immediate popularity.

There’s an awful lot to like in here. Written in simple, frequently staccato sentences, the book introduces us to Doctor Dolittle, M.D., who is a prosperous and well-liked physician in the small town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. The good Doctor has a fondness for animals, and as he progressively fills his home with creatures, a tipping point is reached when the animal residents start causing problems with patients.  (An elderly lady sits upon a prickly hedgehog and so on.) Business falls off, until Docotor Dolittle’s only client remaining is the local Cat’s-meat-Man, who visits once a year at Christmas to get a remedy for indigestion.

What’s to be done? Doctor Dolittle is bemused. Then an epiphany occurs, when his pet parrot Polynesia, able to converse in English, initiates the Doctor into the mysteries of animal languages. He becomes a highly successful animal doctor, and all seems well, until the adoption of a crocodile sends all of his clients scurrying. Hard times again!

Then a message arrives from Africa. The monkeys there are all succumbing to some terrible disease. Will Doctor Dolittle come to the rescue? Of course he will! Borrowing a boat from a friendly sailor, off goes the Doctor, accompanied by several of his favourite pets, and also that troublesome crocodile, an ex organ-grinder’s monkey, and Polynesia the parrot, those last three intending to be repatriated to their native land.

As soon as they hit the shores of Africa, the reader’s real dilemma starts.

So far all has been quite good clean fun, but for a few casual era-expected racial slurs here and there easily glossed over by the keen-eyed adult reader-aloud – the usual, “We’ll have to work like n******!” pops up at least once.

The Doctor and his animal entourage crash their ship on the rocky shores of Africa, and head into the jungle, where they arrive at the mud palace of the King and Queen of Jolliginki. The King eyes the Doctor with displeasure.

“You may not travel through my lands,” said the King. “Many years ago a white man came to these shores; and I was very kind to him. But after he had dug holes in the ground to get the gold, and killed all the elephants to get their ivory tusks, he went away secretly in his ship— without so much as saying ‘Thank you.’ Never again shall a white man travel through the lands of Jolliginki.”

Then the King turned to some of the black men who were standing near and said, “Take away this medicine-man — with all his animals, and lock them up in my strongest prison.”

Fair enough, we’re thinking, though a bit hard on the beneficient Doctor. But he doesn’t need our concern, for he soon escapes, pursued by the soldiers of the King, and makes his way to the part of the jungle inhabited by the monkeys. There he easily cures the sick ones by means of wide scale vaccinating (Lofting doesn’t bother with pesky details such as how the Doctor comes by and/or manufactures this magical vaccine), and sets off to return to England.

The soldiers of Jolliginki soon capture him, and back into the dungeon he goes. This time he is rescued by a clever plot dreamt up by Polynesia (who is still hanging about, though she intends to stay in Africa when the Doctor departs) concerning the King’s son Prince Bumpo, who is enamoured of European fairy tales, and has been emotionally scarred by an episode so related.

Here, I’ll give you the works:

“Listen,” whispered the parrot, when John Dolittle’s face appeared: “Prince Bumpo is coming here to-night to see you. And you’ve got to find some way to turn him white. But be sure to make him promise you first that he will open the prison-door and find a ship for you to cross the sea in.”

“This is all very well,” said the Doctor. “But it isn’t so easy to turn a black man white. You speak as though he were a dress to be re-dyed. It’s not so simple. ‘Shall the leopard change his spots, or the Ethiopian his skin,’ you know?”

“I don’t know anything about that,” said Polynesia impatiently. “But you must turn this coon white. Think of a way—think hard. You’ve got plenty of medicines left in the bag. He’ll do anything for you if you change his color. It is your only chance to get out of prison.”

“Well, I suppose it might be possible,” said the Doctor. “Let me see—,” and he went over to his medicine-bag, murmuring something about “liberated chlorine on animal-pigment—perhaps zinc-ointment, as a temporary measure, spread thick—”

Well, that night Prince Bumpo came secretly to the Doctor in prison and said to him,

“White Man, I am an unhappy prince. Years ago I went in search of The Sleeping Beauty, whom I had read of in a book. And having traveled through the world many days, I at last found her and kissed the lady very gently to awaken her—as the book said I should. ’Tis true indeed that she awoke. But when she saw my face she cried out, ‘Oh, he’s black!’ And she ran away and wouldn’t marry me—but went to sleep again somewhere else. So I came back, full of sadness, to my father’s kingdom. Now I hear that you are a wonderful magician and have many powerful potions. So I come to you for help. If you will turn me white, so that I may go back to The Sleeping Beauty, I will give you half my kingdom and anything besides you ask.”

“Prince Bumpo,” said the Doctor, looking thoughtfully at the bottles in his medicine-bag, “supposing I made your hair a nice blonde color—would not that do instead to make you happy?”

“No,” said Bumpo. “Nothing else will satisfy me. I must be a white prince.”

“You know it is very hard to change the color of a prince,” said the Doctor—“one of the hardest things a magician can do. You only want your face white, do you not?”

“Yes, that is all,” said Bumpo. “Because I shall wear shining armor and gauntlets of steel, like the other white princes, and ride on a horse.”

“Must your face be white all over?” asked the Doctor.

“Yes, all over,” said Bumpo—“and I would like my eyes blue too, but I suppose that would be very hard to do.”

“Yes, it would,” said the Doctor quickly. “Well, I will do what I can for you. You will have to be very patient though—you know with some medicines you can never be very sure. I might have to try two or three times. You have a strong skin—yes? Well that’s all right. Now come over here by the light—Oh, but before I do anything, you must first go down to the beach and get a ship ready, with food in it, to take me across the sea. Do not speak a word of this to any one. And when I have done as you ask, you must let me and all my animals out of prison. Promise—by the crown of Jolliginki!”

So the Prince promised and went away to get a ship ready at the seashore.

When he came back and said that it was done, the Doctor asked Dab-Dab to bring a basin. Then he mixed a lot of medicines in the basin and told Bumpo to dip his face in it.

The Prince leaned down and put his face in—right up to the ears.

He held it there a long time—so long that the Doctor seemed to get dreadfully anxious and fidgety, standing first on one leg and then on the other, looking at all the bottles he had used for the mixture, and reading the labels on them again and again. A strong smell filled the prison, like the smell of brown paper burning.

At last the Prince lifted his face up out of the basin, breathing very hard. And all the animals cried out in surprise.

For the Prince’s face had turned as white as snow, and his eyes, which had been mud-colored, were a manly gray!

Need I really say more?

Now in the 1960s, after The Story of Doctor Dolittle and its numerous sequels had been selling steadily for some decades without much comment – though presumably not being embraced by families-of-any-sort-of-colour-other-than-white – people started to say “Hey! This is kinda-sorta-maybe-a-little-bit RACIST!”

Yeah, you think?

And so the troublesome bits were bowdlerized.

And Doctor Dolittle continued on as a steady seller in his now altered form.

And I don’t quite know what to say about all of this, being in general quite firmly against censorship and alterations to text of older books in response to subsequent adjustments to social standards of acceptance.

But I didn’t read this to my own children back-in-the-day when they were little because it made me utterly queasy, and I shelved that whole Dolittle series which someone had given to me as “charming children’s tales!”, packing it away in a box which still sits in storage because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the books.

Does one release something like that back into the world to be acquired by other unsuspecting parents? Destroy them? Which feels wrong too, on a wholly different level, because I think we can get an awful lot out of keeping intact reminders of how we used to think in days gone by, and by being shocked by it (or not, as the case may be) examine our own social consciences.

So there it is, and here I sit, looking at what I’ve written, and at the clock (because I need to be somewhere else very shortly) and wondering if I should just hit “post” and see if this inspires any sort of engagement, or if you, like me, are still wondering how best to deal with this particular issue.

Your thoughts are, as always, exceedingly welcome!

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