Lofting can hit many registers, but he saves the lyrical for the animals themselves, who experience life as fully as we do, though you’d never know it if you can’t understand them. Here is Clippa, a fidgit — a small fish — who has been imprisoned in an aquarium along with her brother, and who mourns her vanished life with a depth of feeling unknown to the Little Mermaid and her friends: “To chase the shrimps on a summer evening, when the sky is red and the light’s all pink within the foam! To lie on the top, in the doldrums’ noonday calm, and warm your tummy in the tropic sun! To wander hand in hand once more through the giant seaweed forests of the Indian Ocean, seeking the delicious eggs of the pop-pop!” And then the poor thing collapses in sobs.
Lofting really was a genius of children’s literature. But he was also a product of the British Empire. When Doctor Dolittle goes to Africa to cure the monkeys, he stumbles into the Kingdom of Jolliginki. Prince Bumpo, the heir to the throne, is a mooncalf who mistakes fairy tales for real life, speaks in Elizabethan periphrasis and murmurs to himself: “If only I were a white prince!” In the pencil sketches with which Lofting illustrates his texts, Prince Bumpo looks like the missing link between man and ape. Lofting’s biographer, Gary D. Schmidt, defensively notes that Doctor Dolittle himself rarely utters a bigoted word. But the doctor is only a character; the narrator and the illustrator are none other than our author. While Lofting never fails to give his Africans a measure of nobility, he is also quite certain of their savagery.
The edition I read was probably published in 1950, three years after Lofting’s death. By the 1970s, he had gone into eclipse. Over the years, new editions appeared that attempted to address the racism, including one in 1988 from which all pictures of Prince Bumpo and his parents had been removed, along with all references to their skin color, not to mention their wish to change it. “If this verbal and visual caution occasionally seems almost craven,” a reviewer for The New York Times Book Review wrote, the blind spots for which it sought to compensate were real.
Lofting’s own story is almost as remarkable as the doctor’s. Though we might imagine a donnish Lewis Carroll or C. S. Lewis as the author of such twee fables, Lofting was a wanderer and an adventurer, a civil engineer who prospected for gold in Canada and built railroads in Nigeria and Cuba before settling in the United States and starting a family in 1912. When the war broke out he returned to England to enlist, and was sent to the trenches in France and Flanders. His children begged for letters, with drawings. Lofting would not relate the unspeakable truth. He had observed, as he wrote many years later, that the animals serving alongside the soldiers had, like them, become “fatalists,” trudging into the same hail of artillery fire. But when a horse was wounded, it wasn’t sent to the dispensary; it was dispatched with a bullet. This was cruel. Lofting imagined that we would spare animals if only we could see inside them, as we can our fellow humans. And so he wrote letters home about talking animals. These letters formed the basis of “The Story of Doctor Dolittle.”
Because he does understand animals, Doctor Dolittle comes to recognize their astonishing gifts of smell, sight, hearing. The animals are the books’ heroes every bit as much as the doctor himself; it is they who miraculously find lost and starving men or turn back a marauding tribe. The doctor loves them as they deserve to be loved, and protects them from abuse, just as his creator dreamed of doing — for all that he internalized the racist human hierarchy of his day. In “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle,” the doctor offers to step into a bullring and outperform a great matador, on the condition that the local authorities agree to end bullfighting forever should he win. Of course they accept the lunatic wager. The good doctor arranges everything with the bulls beforehand: They charge straight at him before dropping to the ground in front of him or letting him perform acrobatics on their horns. The great matador gnashes his teeth while the señoritas throw flowers and jewels at the doctor’s feet.