Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Finished The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting yesterday. I had not thought of reading this book until I decided to read the winners of The Newbery Medal in chronological order and discovered that the second book in the series had won the second medal in 1923. It made sense to start at the beginning, so there I was.

The edition I borrowed from the public library was a recent, expurgated version with the derogatory terms removed and the chapter featuring Prince Bumpo altered. Also missing were Lofting's own illustrations for the book. These in particular interested me. I was able to obtain a 1920 edition from the University library, read the Prince Bumpo chapter in it's original form and look through the author's charming drawings. Being able to make the comparison was exciting.

The book itself was better than I expected. Somehow my only exposure to Dr. Dolittle before this was through the 1967 Twentieth Century Fox musical starring Rex Harrison. I remember being plunked down in front of the television to watch it on Thanksgiving and finding it long and dull (might be worth a second viewing today).

The characters of the animals are amusing, as is the Doctor himself. Just having returned from the Darwin exhibit at The Field Museum in Chicago I couldn't help comparing the two naturalists who set off on long voyages across the sea. A bit of Googling brought up a book from Yale University Press Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion: Animals and the Uniqueness of Human Language by Stephen R. Anderson. A critique by Professor Marc Hauser, Harvard University states, "If Dr. Dolittle had met Charles Darwin, they would have shared two things in common: an extraordinary love of animals and a deep belief in the continuity of human and animal communication. In this book, the distinguished linguist Stephen Anderson challenges Dolittle and Darwin’s belief in the continuity claim, arguing that our capacity for language generates a uniquely designed system of communication, unparalleled in the history of life on earth. Written in a playful and highly accessible style, Anderson navigates some of the difficult territory of linguistics to provide an illuminating discussion of the evolution of language.


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