(urth) Short Story 69: Our Neighbor by David Copperfield
marcaramini at gmail.com
Thu Jul 24 07:09:57 PDT 2014
"Our Neighbor by David Copperfield" was originally published in *Future
Tense* in 1978, though according to the wolfe-wiki it was supposed to be
included in a Philip Jose Farmer proposed anthology involving fictional
writer stories which never materialized.
The Dickens character David Copperfield gives a few words about his
situation in life as a newspaper reporter for the debates of Parliament and
a writer, living with his wife Dora, dog Jip, and a single servant. He sees
a rather shabby looking young man named Tom Tipsing who is watching the
house across from the Copperfield residence. Tom observes several people
enter, and reveals that he is trying to ascertain exactly what is going on
next door, as an acquaintance of his, Mrs. Nedles, has a daughter who quit
her addiction for two weeks after visiting the house and wants to know how
this occurred, but was not admitted herself to talk to the owner, Dr.
McApple. (While the addiction might be to alcohol, it might just as easily
be to laudanum or anything else which can be drunk). During his next
visit to the neighborhood, Dr. McApple actually accosts him in the street
and reveals that his scheduled visit by a beggar has been interrupted, and
that he needs another destitute pauper and would pay Tom for procuring one.
Tom comes across a man selling birds and convinces him to come speak to the
Doctor for money and a meal, more than he could make selling several birds.
The man has a wooden leg. Tom is dismissed by Dr. McApple but hides behind
the coats and listens to their conversation, during which it is revealed
that Dr. McApple is interested in phrenology (physiognomy of the skull) and
mesmerism. Dr. McApple is seeking “the resolution of apparent conflicts,
the cases in which we find that a man’s behavior does not correspond in all
respects to what his skull tells us it should be.”
McApple places the birdman John under a trance in front of his wealthy
visitors and cuts or injures him so that he bleeds, then instructs him to
stop the bleeding. The doctor wants to get the entire story of John,
claiming, “poor people’s lives can be compressed into a simple narrative.”
John relates his memories with poverty of his mother, and going to work in
the rope-walk at six or seven. He learned how to lime birds there, and the
work soon drove him to run home to his mother, whom he never found. He
enlists on the *Swiftsure* but later tried to desert in Spain and was
flogged. He lost his leg when a gun fell on it, smashed. His marketable
life skill has proven to be his ability to catch and lime birds to hold
them until they are sold.
Dr. McApple asks him to be young again and recount the pain of looking for
his Mother as a child. During his weeping and supplications for his mother,
the crowd remarks how amazing it is. As the guests leave, Tom pretends that
he belongs and gives them their coats, and they treat him more or less as a
servant. Dr. McApple remarks that there is rain upon Tom’s cheeks when he
sees them, though they are tears.
Dr. McApple revealed that he made a suggestion to the girl Jenny Nedles
during her trance to abandon her addiction, though it only helped for two
weeks. The doctor says his real business is pity, and he is trying to
determine why the wealthy, no matter how well developed the area of their
skull that seems related to pity, “the quality itself appears not to exist.”
Luckily, “Our Neighbor by David Copperfield” is an extremely
straightforward story for this time period in Wolfe’s writing career
(unless, as is possible, I missed something). It is a moralistic story in
the mode of Dickens about class distinctions that (almost) seriously
explores several things like mesmerism and phrenology that were at one
times on the cusp of science but have now gone the way of the dodo into
fantasy. The question the story asks is why does affluence and money in
the modern world lead to an absence of pity? It takes a fairly negative
attitude towards the wealthy and the affects that wealth has on their
humanity. The test subjects of Dr. McApple are actually the rich in their
response to the impoverished and their tragic stories, though he also
plants helpful suggestions in his destitute case studies when he feels it
The wealthy visitors treat the clerk Tom as a butler when he acts as one,
and in a way appearances become everything to them.
Most of the fun of the story is a style exercise in emulating 19th century
prose for Wolfe, something which I will leave to more discerning eyes for
style, though the first sentence should serve as a fairly good example of
the self-effacing, almost apophatic, tone the work seeks to recreate:
“Some earlier sketches of mine having been received with some slight
approbation by the public, my good friend the Editor has asked me, for the
benefit of the previously named influential group, to prefix this one with
some explanation of the means by which the affecting circumstances here
related reached my attention – a thing I would not otherwise undertake to
do, the relation being of so commonplace a nature that only my esteemed
friend’s request could embolden me to inflict it on my readers.”
The situation of this story during Copperfield’s first marriage sets it
before Dora’s miscarriage and death and well before his second marriage to
Agnes Wickfield, so the sketches David is talking about certainly can’t
include the totality of the novel *David Copperfield*, but will include the
earlier writing that he undertook, and probably occurs near Chapters 48 and
49 of the original Dickens’ novel. The pity that is McApple’s obsession can
be found echoed throughout the original novel, even in scenes such as the
death of the dog Jip and the illness of Dora in Chapter 53.
The title of Our Neighbor certainly invokes not only the strange behavior
of McApple as the neighbor of Copperfield but also raises the old biblical
question – who is our neighbor? All of humankind - certainly we should
empathize with them and treat them as such.
The work is fairly rife with Dickens references, which seem to be more like
Easter Eggs than any real metonymic pattern.
David Copperfield: from the Dickens novel of the same name, he is working
as a reporter for a newspaper and also writes in his spare time, fictions
“no more false, and much more innocent, than those I must often report as
fact.” His fickleness does not allow him to be entirely content with Dora
in the original, though he plays only a very small part in this story.
Dora: perennially childlike, she will die and David marry again. Some of
her irresponsibility is captured in this story “Thus, as soon as my darling
Dora was gone, leaving (as her custom is) what remained of the tea things
behind her …”
Brass: one of the visitors to McApple’s, who include “a poor woman with a
child, a City merchant, and a gentleman of the legal profession” – the last
of whom is probably Sampson Brass from *The Old Curiosity Shop*; in the
novel, he is a sycophant who helps frame a servant for robbery.
Tom Tipsing: a clerk at Lincoln’s Inn, where many of Dicken’s famous novels
have scenes. He has aspirations to pass the bar and making money. As far
as I can tell he and the Nedle family are Wolfe’s creations.
McApple: Mr. Breedlove supposedly calls him the successor to the historical
Franz Joseph Gall, whose phrenology is now considered much less than
science but did lead to a naturalistic paradigm for considering humanity. He
is also interested in the works of Franz Mesmer and animal magnetism or
mesmerism. The apple has its obvious Judeo-Christian symbolic connotations
– McApple seeks knowledge that will explain the attitudes of the rich.
Parsons – the jolly voice that is quieted by the others, he is probably
Gabriel Parsons from “Sketches by Boz”.
At one point a long legal battle is mentioned in the text: “Why, some of
these cases drag on for fifty years. A hundred years!” and this almost
certainly references the case of Jarndyce Vs. Jarndyce recounted in *Bleak
It is conceivable that the last name Breedlove alludes to the characters in
Toni Morrison’s *The Bluest Eye* (1970), which involves poverty and cruelty
to children, but certainly not necessarily.
The birdman John served aboard the *Swiftsure*, probably the vessel that
was commissioned in 1787, involved in the French Revolutionary and
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: Are all of the unnamed visitors to Dr. McApple’s
house based on Dickens characters? Any meaning to the names Nedle or
CONNECTION WITH OTHER WORKS:
Wolfe’s love of Dickens is well documented, and this is his easiest foray
into that territory. Of course he will use Dickens characters again in
“The Doctor of Death Island” and “The Vampire Kiss”. I feel that Wolfe has
occasionally sought to emulate writing styles, whether something that
sounds like Runyan in “Beautyland” or Dickens here. The trend of giving
characters a vulgar or class differentiated method of speaking became far
more widespread in Wolfe during and after *The Book of the Long Sun*,
though clearly dialog and the manner different characters communicate has
always interested him.
The wooden leg of John seems to resemble the crushed leg of Johann in
“Silhouette”, also smashed during his service on the ship, and Wolfe’s own
grandfather had a wooden leg.
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