I’d never read Dolittle before, and I have to say I was utterly shocked, first by the level of racism and secondly by how just “not good” it was. It was only upon reflection that I realized the extent to which the humor depended upon racism. Not only is the racism repellant, but the book as a whole “falls flat” to a modern sensibility because racism was such a large part of the carnivalistic atmosphere that made it “good” in the first place. Yes, the animal languages concept is extremely strong. Still, I think it says a lot about the degree of ambient racism at the time this was published that this work was ever considered “good” enough to be a classic.
There’s an obvious parallel between Max’s journey and Dolittle’s—presumably that’s why Carrie paired these readings. But whereas Max’s journey appears to be more of a regression into a nonverbal subconscious in which he accumulates emotional strength, Dolittle’s gains are primarily material. Again, the Lofting relies on racism to supply “depth,” since it’s only in a racist reading that Dolittle returns from the kind of deeper/more primitive state that would make his return feel satisfying. Communication with the animals provides the other (nonracist) sense of depth since the animal other is always inarticulable. Dolittle’s status as a doctor is in tension with this “primitive” or emotional ability; this tension is doubtless another part of the book’s appeal.