A childhood love of animals shaped the writing career of Hugh Lofting (1886-1947). His work was chiefly built around the creation of a fictional character, Doctor John Dolittle, who sought to help animals by learning their language. Lofting used this character to illustrate to his young readers that communication with others, even those who appear to be the most foreign, can go a long way toward creating a more harmonious world.
Doctor John Dolittle was the protagonist in Hugh Lofting's long-running juvenile series. He promoted the idea that different entities (people and animals alike) could live compatibly and that this philosophy was most effectively passed on by reaching young children before biased attitudes were ingrained in them. If he could reach children with his message, he might point at least a portion of the population in the direction of world peace; this appeared to be his ultimate dream.
Hugh John Lofting was born at Maidenhead in Berkshire, England, on January 14, 1886. His parents were both Roman Catholic; but his mother, Elizabeth Agnes, was Irish, and his father, John Brien Lofting, was English. He had four brothers and one sister. By the age of eight Lofting had been sent to Mount Saint Mary, a Catholic boarding school, where he remained for the next ten years. Little is known either about his school days or about his childhood prior to that.
Although Lofting may have preferred to strike out on his own to pursue a writing career, he and his brothers were expected to seek professions that were more secure and dependable. Therefore, he decided to study civil engineering with a focus on architecture. In 1904, Lofting journeyed to the United States, where he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By 1906, he had returned to England to complete coursework at London Polytechnic. During his college years he whetted his creative thirst by writing plays and short stories. After earning a degree in 1907, Lofting sought employment in the areas for which he had been trained.
Those early years saw Lofting changing jobs frequently. First he practiced architecture, then he prospected for gold and worked as a surveyor in Canada. During the next couple of years he traveled to West Africa and Cuba, where he served as a railway engineer. By 1912, he was back in the States, having firmly decided that engineering was not for him. He moved to New York and married Flora Small that year. He also began sending manuscripts of articles and short stories to magazines. Flora bore him, in quick succession, his first two children, Elizabeth and Colin. Despite taking up residence in the U.S., Lofting never became a naturalized American citizen. He remained a British subject throughout his entire life.
Due to the outbreak of the First World War, Lofting's writing career was temporarily put on hold. However, the events of the war were to have a considerable impact on him. Initially, he worked for the British Ministry of Information at its New York base. Two years later, in 1916, he joined the British army, becoming a member of the Irish Guards. Lofting saw combat in France and Flanders. It was his response to what he observed there that changed his life.
Lofting's children looked forward to letters from their father. They wanted to know what things were like in the trenches. Lofting thought about what he could send them. Either his days were tediously spent and of no interest to a child or the events were so horrific they might inspire nightmares. He noticed in particular the cold, indifferent manner in which the war-employed animals were treated. Unlike wounded soldiers who were medically treated, any wounded animals were automatically killed and discarded as no longer useful. Out of Lofting's disgust over this apparent disrespect for the animals, Doctor Dolittle was born. Lofting created a doctor who decided to stop treating humans and to turn his attention to the medical treatment of animals. He determined that this was best achieved by learning their language. He sent the stories back home to entertain the children.
In 1917, Lofting was wounded in France. Two years later he was discharged and sent home to his family in the United States. They moved to Connecticut, and Lofting devoted his attention to his writing. His wife and children encouraged him to turn his stories into a book. His idea was well-received by the publisher, Frederick A. Stokes and a manuscript was completed in 1920. The public became enthralled with The Story of Doctor Dolittle. The exotic settings and fast-paced plotting, which included chases, captures, escapes, rescues, and a return-trip home, made for quick reading. The original idea of the doctor who talked to animals in order to help them generated much notice.
In 1923, Lofting's second book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, was published and received critical acclaim. It won a Newbery Medal that year. Reviewers found the story to be fuller and the writing to be more sophisticated, although still appealing for its intended audience. Doctor Dolittle grew as a protagonist who could perform fantastic feats. Lofting revealed some of the history of Dolittle's life, as well. He continued to focus on characters who might otherwise have been overlooked or dismissed. He turned a literary magnifying glass on the misfits and humanized them-even the animals. An important element was also added. The addition of the young character, Tommy Stubbins, provided the young readers with someone to whom they could relate more closely.
Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of his first two books, Lofting put out four more. He also chose this time to contribute articles to the Nation magazine. Lofting tried to dispel the folk tales and legends of war heroes which "keep alive race hatreds," as related in Something about the Author.
In 1927, Lofting's wife, Flora, died. The following year he married Katherine Harrower (also known as Katherine Harrower-Peters). Just a few months after their wedding she contracted influenza and died. Lofting's physical well-being began to decline, perhaps in response to his personal losses. He wrote some children's books outside the realm of his Dolittle series. After five years he produced Doctor Dolittle's Return. Although he had been ready to retire the doctor, his readers were clamoring for another installment in the series and Lofting decided to oblige them. This was considered by many to be his last quality work.
In 1935, he married his third and last wife, Josephine Fricker. They moved to Topanga, California. The following year their son, Christopher, was born. Lofting continued to write, but not with the fervor of his early days. The outbreak of the Second World War seemed to inject him with a growing pessimism about the state of the world, which was reflected in his writing. The first of three posthumous novels, Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake, depicted the biblical story of the flood from the animals' point of view. It included death and destruction, but ultimately friendship prevailed. Hugh Lofting died in Santa Monica, California on September 26, 1947, after a two-year illness.
His 12 Doctor Dolittle books went out of favor and out of print during the 1970s. They were blacklisted for almost two decades because some passages were construed as racist. It would seem probable that Lofting was unaware that his passages were both racist and condescending. In 1988, revised editions of the books were released. Some purists argue that the books should have remained intact. Lofting's son, Christopher, on the other hand, supported the revisions, even proclaiming that his father would have altered the objectionable passages himself.
Some of the books from the Dolittle series reflected an uneven quality of writing. The apparent intent of Lofting was that they should be taken as a whole, though. This was not a planned series. It evolved to reflect the growth of its creator as well as that of its main character. Consistent to the series, however, was the theme running through each book-that, by reaching out to one another through the offer of communication and friendship, anything was possible. Lofting fervently hoped that, with the right attitude and the right tools, living together in harmony was not such an outlandish idea.
Blishen, Edward, Hugh Lofting, Bodley Head, 1968.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 160, Gale Research, 1996.
Something about the Author, Volume 100, Gale Research, 1999.