Image by Kimberly Farmer

Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

2: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting #Newbery100

2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Newbery Medal. In honor of this momentous event, I launched a project to read through each award-winner, starting with some background on the award and with commentary on the first medal winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Today I take up the 1923 recipient: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting




Winner: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (Stokes)

Honor Books:

None Recorded


Members of the 1923 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Elva S. Smith, Della McGregor, Avis Meigs, Grace L. Aldrich.

In 1957, the founding editors of The Horn Book (Bertha Mahony Miller and Elinor Whitney Field) published a collection of materials related to the Newbery Medal from 1922-1955. Of Hugh Lofting receiving the award in 1923, the editors explain that the awards committee "wished to recognize the originality and skill which had gone into the making of The Story of Doctor Dolittle."


The problem? The Story of Doctor Dolittle was published in 1920. And the award was granted to its sequel, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle.


Today's Newbery selection committees would be aghast as the current Terms and Criteria specifically instruct members to consider only an author's eligible title in that year and to ignore any previously published work. Of course, it has likely happened over the years, but no committee would announce its intentions in this way. The 1923 committee also named no Honor titles, which could mean they were grappling with the same questions Miller outlined in her introduction to the Horn Book collection:

Should the award be given to an inferior book just because the author had written one previously which might indeed have merited it? If there is no outstanding book to deserve the special honor in a particular year, would it not be better to omit bestowing the award or give it to a book of a previous year which had grown in critical esteem?

As committees are sworn to secrecy (and Elva, Della, Avis, and Grace have long since taken their secrets to the grave), we will likely never know. What stands, however, is the Newbery Medal on the cover of Lofting's The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and the legacy of this beloved character. In explaining how instantly and universally Dr. Dolittle charmed his readers, Helen Dean Fish writes that he is "a good man for children to know because he stands for kindliness, patience and reliability, mixed with delightful humor, energy and gaiety, a combination rarely met and hard to beat." And later,

Doctor Dolittle is an anchor to windward in a world increasingly difficult for children. He invites his reader into an imaginative world that is secure and delightful. ... [He] gives a sense of dependability in a noisy and uncertain world.

Lofting originated the character of Dr. Dolittle during the war, wanting to write letters to his children from the front, something appropriate and something that would get past the censors. After observing the lack of treatment for injured service animals, Lofting began to imagine a skilled medical professional who chooses to focus on animals instead of people, and the result was the instant classic The Story of Doctor Dolittle. Many other titles followed, including of course, the sequel where young Tommy Stubbins meets Dr. Dolittle, apprentices himself to the great naturalist, and together they travel to Spidermonkey Island in search of Long Arrow, son of Golden Arrow.


The book is remarkable, even today. Its pacing is perfect, the dialogue is lively, and Lofting marries the action with the descriptive in a truly skillful way, making the reader feel surrounded by the weeping willows and the fishpond in the Dr's garden while also turning the pages to find out what happens next. The book is also horribly racist. In fact, my edition, published in 2012, offers this explanation on its copyright page:

In the pages that follow, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle appears in its entirety. Spelling and punctuation have been changed to conform to present-day conventions. Occasional passages that may be construed as racist or offensive have been modified. Such changes have been kept to a minimum.

Because the edition I read was still thoroughly offensive, I pulled up the original to find these minimal changes and though I will not catalog each modification here, I thought a few worth a closer look.

First, there is the return of Chee-Chee, the monkey. Chee-Chee journeys from Africa and arrives in Dr. Dolittle's garden wearing a long dress and a straw hat. He explains that he was homesick, so when he saw people ("black and white") boarding a ship to England and noticed a girl that reminded him of his cousin, he snuck through an open window and took the clothes of "a fashionable black lady" and was able to board the ship unnoticed. At every turn, this story (which was probably viewed as humorous at the time) is deeply racist and offensive, yet the 2012 edition chose to keep it in. Similarly, the trial of Luke the Hermit, featuring the testimony of Luke's dog Bob, reveals Luke to be innocent after Bob exposes the villainy of Luke's Mexican partner, Manuel Mendoza. Mendoza, described as "a small dark man with wicked little watery eyes," is the actual murderer, and when Bob explains what happened, Luke goes free. These elements were included because to remove them would mean removing key parts of the story. It would have required an abridgement rather than a note about minimal changes.


Also still present is Bumpo Kahbooboo, crown prince of Jollinginki. Readers were introduced to him in the first Doctor Dolittle tale, and here he is again, barefoot but wearing a "fashionable frock coat with an enormous bright red cravat," marrying his Oxford education with his African sensibilities. When they find yet another stowaway on their ship, this time the hearty Ben Brewer who has significantly depleted their food stores, Bumpo first suggests they "strike him on the head with some heavy object and push him through a porthole into the sea" to which Polynesia replies, "No. We're not in Jollinginki now, you know." This offensive exchange is included in my edition; omitted is the following exchange at the close of the chapter:

“Would it not be good political economy,” Bumpo whispered back, “if we salted the able seaman and ate him instead? I should judge that he would weigh more than a hundred and twenty pounds.”
“How often must I tell you that we are not in Jolliginki,” snapped Polynesia. “Those things are not done on white men’s ships—"

Undoubtedly, Lofting intended these elements to be funny, and likely his readers found them so. But they are merely a few of the aspects of this story that make it untenable for today's readers. Lofting has made it clear: the white doctor is the intellect and the hero, the savior of Long Arrow, crowned king of the Popsipetel people and father figure to young Tommy. The people of color around him are comical or ignorant, evil or deceptive, beast-like or mere innocents in need of "real" leadership. No amount of clever dialogue or vivid description can overcome such hurtful language. And no amount of editing can fix the heart of the harm.


How, then, do we handle such titles? It has merit, and the many movie versions of the story prove its continued interest to children. But, can we, in good conscience, continue to celebrate a title so rife with colonialist ideals and racist depictions? Does the Gold Medal on its cover provide cover for its sins? Are those of us who revere the Newbery complicit in this narrative? What responsibility do we have for contemporary "reviews" such as these?




The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to send me a message. I promise a reply. 

 

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!

More Reviews and Interviews