I don’t think I had ever read Dr. Doolittle before and even knowing that it is considered a peak example of racist and colonialist tropes I was surprised at just how incredibly racist it was. As I was reading I was wondering what the purpose of the story at the time was – whether Lofting was engaged in some kind of well-meaning but ultimately harmful project of “humanizing” or “sympathizing” Black people to push back on their mistreatment, or if the project was really just rooted in thinking about animals and his thinking was so rooted in racism that it led him directly to a parallel with race. I guess I’m wondering if Lofting was himself engaged in a white savior/colonialist enterprise or if he was just bringing racism into a project of humanizing animals.
The idea of the animal languages was really interesting to me – both in thinking about some of the animal studies perspectives we’ve read and in the colonialist reading of that. I wonder what Phelps or Fraustino would say about the kernel of this idea – that animals have their own way of communicating and the reason we get things wrong or treat them with cruelty is our inability to understand them as complete beings and work to translate those ways of communication to our own. In some ways this seems like the core of what they are also saying and has really important lessons about how we could move forward with a more just society, but in Dr. Doolittle it goes so drastically wrong. What is it that makes Dr Doolittle fail the promise of understanding animals true communication? Is it just the limitations of imagination of the time, or the unexamined racism that Lofting was seeped in? Or is there something missing in the idea that was later added in?
It was really interesting to read this along with the Schwebel / Van Tuyl article and think about what is the place for books like this. I was particularly intrigued by their point around how the projects aimed at remixing/reclaiming some of these also inherently continue to cement the original work in the cannon. I think there is still use in retellings, particularly those that challenge the stereotypes or outdated power dynamics or those that add in missing perspectives, because it helps to contextualize the stories that make up the narrative of our culture and helps us understand where they’ve gone wrong and some of the harm they’ve caused.