Great Books of the World 26

“The love of all living creatures
is the most noble attribute of man.”

Charles Darwin

1886  –  1947

Doctor Dolittle, one of the best-loved characters in children’s literature, was born in the mud and blood of the Flanders trenches in World War I. His creator, Hugh Lofting, was appalled by the casual cruelties inflicted on the horses that worked and died so bravely in the front lines. Despairing of man’s inhumanity, Lofting imagined a world in which he could talk to the animals and ask them about their joys and sorrows.

In his weekly letters home to his two small children, he invented a doctor who lived in the peaceful English village of Puddleby-on-the-Mash. He called him Dolittle – the nickname he’d given his son Colin. Doctor Dolittle lost his patients because he kept so many pets. So, instead, he cared for the animals, who taught him their language.

Second Lieutenant Lofting read parts of these stories by candlelight to his fellow soldiers in the trenches. One told Colin years later that they had saved his sanity. Around the edges of the letters, Lofting sketched his unassuming hero – a portly, rather unkempt figure in a frock coat and top hat.

This endearing figure – thoughtful, scholarly, and impractical – could have been created by a rural vicar. But Lofting, a dark, brooding man of Irish stock, had a more colourful life. He was born in Maidenhead in 1886, the youngest of six children. His father, a clerk of works, made it clear to the young boy that writing was not a man’s career.

So Lofting left home, qualifying as a civil engineer in Boston and London and spending the next five years prospecting in Canada and building railways in West Africa and Havana. He returned to the US where he married an American debutante, Flora Small, and settled in New York City to turn his hand to writing stories. It was a gamble. Their first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1913. The short stories he wrote were published in magazines but barely paid the bills.

Then came World War I. After working for the British Ministry of Information in New York, Lofting was commissioned into the Irish Guards. In 1918, wounded and sent home, he found that Flora had kept his letters. Back in New York, he decided to turn them into a book. If there was one thing Lofting had in common with Dr Dolittle, it was his deep love of animals. As a boy in Maidenhead, he had maintained a small zoo and a natural history museum in the back of a linen cupboard until his mother found it after following a trail of white mice.

Lofting’s youngest, Christopher, recalled taking home baby birds that had fallen out of their nests.  With anybody else, they would have died within hours. But his father would put the bird under a lamp, feed it with a pipette or a matchstick, and six weeks later he would open a window and the bird would fly out.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle

In the Dolittle books, Lofting imbued that love of the animals in millions of his young readers by the brilliantly simple stratagem of creating the one man who was allowed to learn their language. The first, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, was published on both sides of the Atlantic to huge and immediate success.

In this and the subsequent Dolittle adventures, he created a delightful menagerie of animal characters: Polynesia, the short-tempered parrot, the double-headed Pushmi-Pullyu, Dab-Dab, the duck, and Gub-Gub, the pig, and the caterpillar as long as a village street, with gout in a dozen of its feet, Jip, the dog, and the owl, Too-Too. In many books, the narrator is young Tommy Stubbins, the Doctor’s apprentice and wide-eyed admirer.

Lofting won prestigious literary awards during his lifetime, but Dr Dolittle became a millstone around his neck. He had drunk quite heavily since being invalidated out of the army in 1918. This turned towards alcoholism as his wife Flora succumbed to mental illness. She died in 1927, and the following year he married New Yorker, Katherine Peters. Two weeks after their wedding, she died from pneumonia contracted on their honeymoon.

Doctor Dolittle on the Moon

A few months later he published a Doctor Dolittle novel that stranded him on the Moon – his effort to dispose of his hero. Alcoholism and grief pitched him into manic depression. But public pressure was such that in 1933 he was forced to bring Dolittle back. In the last four books, the gentle Doctor becomes Lofting’s mouthpiece to express his discontent with the modern world, its materialism, and heedlessness.

In 1935 he married for the third time, to a young nurse half his age. They moved to California, where he found happiness. But the outbreak of World War II redoubled his pessimism. Turned down by the Irish Guards when he attempted to re-enlist, he started drinking again and eventually died of liver failure in 1947, aged 61.

Lofting bequeathed to the world one of the imperishable characters of children’s fiction – the subject of two Hollywood films, one starring Rex Harrison and the other, Eddie Murphy, and a stage musical. Doctor Dolittle’s books are as enthralling as ever.

“Books teach you to conquer the world with your love!”
Dr Manoj Bhambu

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is the second book in Hugh Lofting’s beloved series about a very kind doctor who can talk to animals and the one that most happily conveys the richness of the author’s invention. If the doctor’s linguistic wizardry weren’t entertaining enough, he also has a habit of falling into fanciful adventures in the company of his pets, whom I have mentioned previously.

The narrator, the young boy Tommy Stubbins gives the account of what is going on in Dolittle’s household and on the epic journey from their home base in the village of Puddle-by-on-Marsh to the floating atoll called Spidermonkey Island, where they hope to examine the rare Jabizri beetle. In the course of their travels, Dolittle and company brave a shipwreck, encounter the Great Glass Sea Snail, and solve the mystery of the disappearance of the great naturalist known as Long Arrow.

Throughout, Lofting’s wit and warmth, and the beautifully realised characters, human and animal, provide a happy counterpoint to the compelling story of their perilous escapades, making The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle a perfect vehicle in which to explore the pleasure and promise of wonderful storytelling.

An extract from The Story of Doctor Dolittle:

“Once upon a time, many years ago – when our grandfathers were little children – there was a doctor and his name was Dolittle – John Dolittle, M.D. It means that he was a proper doctor and knew a whole lot. He lived in a little town called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. All the folks, young and old, knew him well by sight. And whenever he walked down the street in his high hat everyone would say, ‘There goes the Doctor! He’s a clever man.’

And the dogs and the children would all run up and follow behind him; and even the crows that lived in the church tower would caw and nod their heads. The house he lived in, on the edge of the town, was quite small, but his garden was very large and had a wide lawn and stone seats and weeping willows hanging over. His sister, Sarah Dolittle, was the housekeeper for him, but the Doctor looked after the garden himself.

He was very fond of animals and kept many kinds of pets. Besides the goldfish in the pond at the bottom of his garden, he had rabbits in the pantry, white mice in his piano, a squirrel in the linen closet, and a hedgehog in the cellar. He had a cow with a calf too, and an old lame horse – twenty-five years of age – and chickens and pigeons and two lambs and many other animals. But his favourite pets were Dab-Dab, the duck; Jip, the dog; Gub-Gub, the baby pig; Polynesia, the parrot; and the owl, Too-Too.

His sister used to grumble about all these animals and said they made the house untidy. And one day when an old lady with rheumatism came to see the Doctor, she sat on the hedgehog, who was sleeping on the sofa, and never came to see him more, but drove every Saturday all the way to Oxenthorpe, another town ten miles off, to see a different doctor.

‘Surely, Dab-Dab,’ said he, ‘we have some cockroaches!’

Then his sister, Sarah Dolittle, came to him and said,

‘John, how can you expect sick people to come and see you when you keep all these animals in the house? It’s a fine doctor would have his parlour full of hedgehogs and mice! That is the fourth personage these animals have driven away. Squire Jenkins and the Parson say they wouldn’t come near your house again – no matter how ill they are. We are getting poorer every day. If you go on like this, none of the best people will have you for a doctor.’

‘But I like the animals better than the ‘best people,’ said the Doctor.

‘You are ridiculous,’ said his sister and walked out of the room.

“After you have exhausted what there is
in business, politics, conviviality, and so on –
have found that none of these finally satisfy,
or permanently wear – what remains?
Nature remains.”

Walt Whitman

The Call of the Wild
1876  –  1916

Journalist and author John Griffith Chaney, better known as Jack London, was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California. Jack, as he called himself from a young age, was the son of Flora Wellman, an unwed mother, and William Chaney, an attorney, journalist, and pioneering leader in the new field of American astrology.

His father was never part of his life, and his mother later married John London, a Civil War veteran, who moved his family around the Bay Area before settling in Oakland.

Oyster pirates

Jack London grew up in a working-class environment. He carved out his own hardscrabble life as a teenager. He rode trains, pirated oysters, shovelled coal, worked on a sealing ship on the Pacific and found employment in a cannery. In his free time, he would go to a library and read.

London found fame and some fortune at the age of 27 with his novel The Call of the Wild. The success did little to soften London’s hard-driving lifestyle, A prolific writer, he published more than 50 books over the years. The one well-known is the tale of a wild dog that became domesticated, White Fang.

He also worked on other projects such as covering the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, introducing in Hearst newspapers American readers to Hawaii, and the sport of surfing, and frequently lecturing on the problems associated with capitalism.

In his later years, London married Bess Maddern, with whom he had two daughters, Joan and Bess. The marriage was doomed from the start as they married to have two children and not for love. After a few years, they divorced, and London married Charmian Kittredge, with whom he would be for the rest of his life. They lived happily on his ranch in California.

For much of the last decade of his life, London faced a number of health issues, due to his life-long problem with alcohol. This included kidney disease, which was the cause of his death on November 22, 1916.

The Call of the Wild

Like Buck, the big dog that is this book’s protagonist, the reader of The Call of the Wild is swiftly and irrevocably swept from the “sunkissed world” of its opening pages into a realm of elemental and unsparing experience. A favourite of his owner, Buck has known a placid, and even pampered life in California’s Santa Clara Valley  – until the day he is dog-napped and finds himself “jerked from the heart of civilisation and flung into the heart of things primordial.”

Sold first to a man supplying sled dogs to those caught up in the Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s, and then to a pair of Canadian government couriers, Buck soon learns that, in order to survive in the hard Northland, he must submit to “the law of the club and fang.” Instincts long-dormant begin to reawaken in him, and London thrillingly depicts the process of Buck’s “decivilisation” as he acclimates himself to his alluring, impulsive new life.

Even as he develops a bond of loyalty and love with his master, John Thornton, Buck is remade by the wild into a fierce and merciless creature, eventually abandoning the world of men altogether. Answering nature’s irresistible call, he joins his wolfish brethren and is last seen running with them through the wilderness, sounding “a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.”

That, in brief, is the story of The Call of the Wild, a book that  – despite the way, its subject and style contrasted with the gentility of contemporary popular fiction – was an immediate sensation, earning Jack London’s place in the public eye as the most celebrated author of his day. A hundred years later, readers are still falling under its spell.

There have been several film and television adaptations of The Call of the Wild, most notable starring Clark Gable in 1935.

As I once wrote, wolves howling is only their heartfelt call to the motherland, the Universe, from where we all have come.

An extract from The Call of the Wild:

“One night he sprang from sleep with a start, eager-eyed, nostrils quivering and scenting, his mane bristling in recurrent waves. From the forest came the call (or one note of it, – a long-drawn howl, like, yet unlike, any noise made by husky dog. And he knew it, in the old familiar way, as a sound heard before. He sprang through the sleeping camp and in swift silence dashed through the woods.

As he drew closer to the cry he went more slowly, with caution in every movement, till he came to an open place among the trees, and looking out saw, erect on haunches, with nose pointed to the sky, a long, lean, timber wolf.

He had made no noise, yet it ceased from its howling and tried to sense his presence. Buck stalked into the open, half crouching, body gathered compactly together, tail straight and stiff, feet falling with unwonted care. Every movement advertised commingled threatening and overture of friendliness. It was the menacing truce that marks the meeting of wild beast that prey!”

“At times, when our own light goes out,
it is wonderful when someone
by our side can rekindle it with a spark
of love.”

1835  –  1910

Samuel Clemens, who was born in Missouri, wrote under the pen name Mark Twain, which was a riverboat pilot’s cry meaning “two fathoms.” In river pilots’ language, it means a depth of two fathoms as measured on the sounding line used to ensure a boat’s safe passage through shallow waters.

After his father’s death in 1847, Clemens worked as a printer’s apprentice, a riverboat pilot, and a journalist for his brother’s newspaper and several other West Coast magazines. Twain’s first success as a writer came with a story called  “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The humorous sketch’s combination of anecdote, tall tale, and gentle satiric assessment of human nature would evolve through the decades as Twain added length and literary polish to his work. His natural skill as a raconteur, amiable and acerbic, provided him with a living in the lecture hall that complemented the success of his books.

Mark Twain standing in front of his childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri

In 1867, his first book, a collection of short stories, established his reputation for dry humour, and it was confirmed by The Innocents Abroad, composed of letters home from a tour of the Mediterranean that poked fun at European customs and American tourists. His novels Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper were published in 1881, followed by Huckleberry Finn.

The statues of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Hannibal

During the 1890s, Clemens lost all his money and launched into a world lecture tour to try and stay afloat, but the death of his wife and two of his three daughters left him bitter and depressed. He retained his sharp wit to the end, making him one of the most quoted human beings ever. In 1897, he sent a cable to a newspaper that had prematurely run his obituary, saying “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

His bond between storyteller and reader has seldom been matched, and is and will be forever magical to his readers.

Mark Twain statue in Library Park, Monrovia, California


Twain’s first extended fictional narrative, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, begins with its hero already in trouble, or at least on the verge of it, under the watchful eye of his suspicious aunt Polly as she searches for him under the bed and around the house, until at last, he appears, pronouncing his innocence but no doubt hiding something, as readers as well as aunt Polly can surely tell. The battle lines between youthful high spirits and the sober strictures of adult society are quickly drawn, and we know immediately whose side we are on.

The book is based on the author’s recollections of his own youth in Hannibal, Missouri, although these are embellished, naturally, with an imaginative flair. Tom’s escapades are at first benign – playing hooky from school and the like – and recognisable albeit ingenious, as is the famous scene in which he tricks his buddies into whitewashing the fence for him by pretending the labour is a privilege rather than a chore.

But as the plot progresses, Tom’s exploits escalate to include the kinds of adventure a boy would invent for himself and his friends if he were braver than he really is, in a world more dangerous and interesting. Tom and various conspirators, including his rascally companion, Huckleberry Finn, come upon body snatchers in the graveyard, witness a murder, explore a haunted house, get lost for days in a cave, uncover buried treasure, escape to an island as self-appointed pirates, and have a remarkable experience of attending their own funeral after they are believed to have drowned in the Mississippi.

All in all, Twain’s novel is a delightful evocation of the spirit that drives precocious youngsters to set themselves against the unimaginative routines of the grown-up world, wrapped up in a plot that is filled with humour and suspense in equal measures. It is a joyful book that aptly meets the twin objective Twain describes in his preface: not only entertaining boys and girls, but also reminding adults of “what they once were themselves.”

I loved this book so much as a child that I could recite from memory entire passages.

Tom Sawyer’s story has been the source of a constant stream of film, television, and theatrical adaptations.

An extract from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:

“Every eye fastened itself with wondering interest upon Tom as he rose and took his place the stand. The boy looked wild enough, for he was badly scared. The oath was administered.

‘Tomas Sawyer, where were you on the seventeenth of June, about the hour of midnight?’

Tom glanced at Injun Joe’s iron face and his tongue failed him. The audience listened breathless, but the words refused to come. After a few moments, however, the boy got a little of his strength back, and managed to put enough of it into his voice to make part of the house hear:

‘In the graveyard!’

‘A little bit louder, please. Don’t be afraid. You were -‘

‘In the graveyard.’

A contemptuous smile flitted across Injun Joe’s face.

‘Were you anywhere near Horse Williams’ grave?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Speak up just a trifle louder. How near were you?’

‘Near as I am to you.’

‘I was hid.’


‘Behind the elms that’s on the edge of the grave.’

Injun Joe gave a barely perceptive start.

‘Anyone with you?’

‘Yes, sir. I went there with -‘

‘Wait – wait a moment. Never mind mentioning your companion’s name. We will produce him at the proper time. Did you carry anything there with you?’

Tom hesitated and looked confused.

‘Speak out, my boy – don’t be diffident. The truth is always respectable. What did you take there?’

‘Only a – a – dead cat.’

There was a ripple of mirth, which the court checked.

‘We will produce the skeleton of that cat. Now, my boy, tell us everything that occurred – tell it in your own way  – don’t skip anything, and don’t be afraid.’

52 thoughts on “Great Books of the World 26

  1. Thank you, Dwight, what a lovely thing to say !! Thank you! I was working on the next post, and you might have to read it under
    the bed, as it will be quite scary.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ohhh! Sounds exciting! :>)


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