Literary daybook, Jan. 14

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 14, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction
On Jan. 14, 1991, Adrian Mole stocks up on supplies in case the war reaches England.
--"Adrian Mole: The Lost Years" (1994)
by Sue Townsend

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1886 Hugh Lofting, writer of the Doctor Dolittle series of children's books, was born. While growing up in Berkshire, England, Lofting kept "a combination zoo and natural history museum" in his mother's linen closet, but Dab-Dab, Gub-Gub, Too-Too, Jip, Polynesia, et al., of Puddlesby-by-the-Marsh were born more from Lofting's desire to forget adulthood than recall his childhood. As an officer in WWI, Lofting was horrified by the suffering of the horses and other animals at the front; to escape this reality, and to entertain his children, he sent home illustrated letters about "an eccentric country physician with a bent for natural history and a great love of pets, who finally decides to give up his human practice for the more difficult, more sincere and, for him, more attractive therapy of the animal kingdom." The letters, accompanied by his own illustrations, eventually became "The Story of Doctor Dolittle" (1920), a book so popular that Lofting went on to write almost a dozen more.

In his introduction to the 1928 edition Hugh Walpole calls Doctor Dolittle "the first real children's classic since Alice," a book with poetry, fantasy, humor and, above all, "a number of creations in whose existence everybody must believe whether they be children of four or old men of ninety or prosperous bankers of forty-five." At the top of Walpole's creature list is the rare, two-headed but agreeable "pushmi-pullyu," encountered by the Doctor while in Africa trying to help the monkeys. The African episode has attracted attention for different reasons, having fallen victim to political correctness: In some more recent editions, young Prince Bumpo no longer wants the Doctor to make him white so that, he imagines, he might be more agreeable to his Sleeping Beauty; instead, the p.c. Bumpo wants medicine that will turn him into a lion. The racism charge and the text-tampering have brought many to Dolittle's defense. They point out that the Doctor didn't agree with Bumpo's foolishness, and they quote what Bumpo's father, the Chief of Jolliginki, knew about whites: "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.'" Defenders of the unexpurgated edition might also quote Lofting himself: "I make no claim to be an authority on writing or illustrating for children ... There has always been a tendency to classify children almost as a distinct species. For years it was a constant source of shock to me to find my writings amongst 'Juveniles.' It does not bother me any more now, but I still feel there should be a category of 'Seniles' to offset the epithet."

A different approach to the issue is offered by the more-than-parrot, Polynesia, who wiles away time on the African voyage by humming her favorite tunes:

I've seen the Black Sea and the Red Sea;
   I rounded the Isle of Wight;
I discovered the Yellow River,
   And the Orange too by night.
Now Greenland drops behind again,
   And I sail the ocean Blue.
I'm tired of all these colors, Jane,
   So I'm coming back to you.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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