Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
As a child, I loved the Doctor Dolittle books. I was enchanted by the idea of being able to talk to animals.
Years later, I discovered why and where the stories were written by Hugh Lofting, which is a stranger and more moving tale than any in his books.
Hugh Lofting (1886-1947) was born into an Anglo-Irish family. In 1905, he came to America to earn a degree in Engineering from M.I.T. – at least partly because he wanted to travel. He took jobs in West Africa, Cuba and Canada, but decided that he really didn’t want to be an engineer.
He moved to New York City and had some success selling short stories and sketches about his travels. In 1912, he married Flora Small. Their daughter Elizabeth Mary was born in 1913 and son Colin MacMahon in 1915.
After WWI broke out in Europe, Lofting went to work for Britain’s Ministry of Information in NYC in 1915. He joined the Irish Guards in 1916 and was sent to Flanders, and later to France, while his family moved to England for the duration.
Hugh Lofting couldn’t write letters to his children about the horrors of trench warfare, so instead he wrote stories for them. Some of the inspiration for the stories came from the horses and mules being used on the battlefield, overworked and mutely suffering. Unlike the human soldiers, if the animals were wounded, they were shot to death.
So Lofting imagined a “people” doctor who decided to help animals instead: Dr. John Dolittle, who learned from a parrot how to speak the languages of animals. Lofting’s letters, full of the Doctor’s adventures and the author’s delightful drawings, were cherished by his wife and children, but the writing of those stories must also have been an escape and refuge for Lofting in the midst of privation, chaos and senseless death.
In 1918, he was invalided out of the Irish Guards because of shrapnel wounds. Some of the shrapnel couldn’t be removed from his thigh, and would undermine his heath for the rest of his life.
In 1919, the Lofting family was returning to America when he chanced to meet British poet and novelist Cecil Roberts, who was aboard the same ship.
“Crossing the Atlantic,” Roberts later wrote, “I had a neighbor in my deck chair. Every evening about six he said he had to disappear to read a bedtime story to Doctor Dolittle. I enquired who Doctor Dolittle might be and he said it was his little son. The next day a snub-nosed boy appeared on deck with his mother and thus I made the acquaintance of the original Doctor Dolittle. Later Hugh Lofting at my request showed me some of his manuscript and he wondered if it would make a book. I was at once struck by the quality of the stories and, enthusiastic about their publication, recommended him to my publisher, Mr. Stokes. I never saw Hugh Lofting again, but when his first Dolittle book came out, he sent me a copy with a charming inscription.”
The Story of Doctor Dolittle, published in 1920, was an immediate success, followed by The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, which won a Newberry Award. In all, there were to be 10 full Dolittle books, and 2 collections of short stories. Lofting’s success as an author was assured, and the family settled in Connecticut.
His war experiences had made Lofting an ardent pacifist. His books are full of friendship and cooperation among all living creatures.
His first wife died in 1927, and he re-married in 1928, only to lose his second wife, Katherine Harrower Peters, to influenza just months after the wedding.
Lofting married again in 1935, to Canadian Josephine Fricker. Their son, Christopher Clement, was born in 1936. The Loftings moved from Connecticut to Topanga, California.
In 1941, he wrote a “passionate, despairing poem on the recurrence and futility of war in human history.” It was intended for adult readers.
“Victory for the Slain” was not published in America. His poem didn’t suit the mood of the country after Pearl Harbor. Instead, it was published in Britain in 1942.
Hugh Lofting’s health had been declining, and in 1946, he became very ill. In 1947, he died in Topanga, at the age of 61. He is buried in Killingsworth, Connecticut. Though he had lived most of his life in America, he remained a British subject to the end.
Opening stanza of
VICTORY FOR THE SLAIN
SWINGING in step,
In sweat, they pass me,
These khakied squads of infantry,
As, more old and slow, from Town
I climb Northminster Hill.
Queer, how the beat of military drill
Can wrench my nerves and brain so tight
With that infernal, ‘Left! . . . . .
‘Left, right! . . . . ‘Left, right!’
Perhaps my very thinking’s out of step.
It’s a very long poem, but this sums it up pretty well:
Wars to end wars? —War again!
Must Mankind forever kill and kill,
Thwarting every decent dictate
Of the human will?
War again! —
When well we know
War’s final victors always were the slain.
HISTORICAL NOTE: The Dr. Dolittle books were later labeled racist, due to the use of language and illustrations widely regarded as condescending or derogatory in their portrayal of “native” peoples. They went out-of-print in the 1970s.
In 1986, to mark the centenary of Lofting’s birth, new editions were published which had offending passages rewritten or removed. Some illustrations were replaced with unpublished Lofting originals. Others pictures were altered. Christopher Lofting, as executor of his father’s estate, authorized the alternations, saying: “…After much soul-searching the consensus was that changes should be made. The deciding factor was the strong belief that the author himself would have immediately approved of making the alterations. Hugh Lofting would have been appalled at the suggestion that any part of his work could give offense and would have been the first to have made the changes himself. In any case, the alterations are minor enough not to interfere with the style and spirit of the original.”
- The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, Dover Children’s Classics
- The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, Dover Children’s Classics
- “Victory for the Slain” by Hugh Lofting – http://victoryfortheslain.tripod.com/