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Russell Baker on David Copperfield [imagemap with 9 links]

Russell Baker on David Copperfield

Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.

More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as selected commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found in The Archive.

Episode 1 | Introduction
David Copperfield was born around midnight on a Friday and so was destined to see ghosts and spirits. This at any rate was the folk wisdom reported by Charles Dickens. As the creator of David's life, Dickens could have surrounded him with ghosts and spirits, but he did something far more wondrous.

In David Copperfield, which we are presenting in two installments, he filled David's world with some of the most memorable people in all literature. There is Mister Micawber, the eternal debtor, so sweet-natured that even bill collectors feel bad about putting him in debtor's prison.

There is Mister Murdstone, the stepfather of every child's worst nightmare. He is accompanied by his sister, Jane Murdstone, with a face and heart cold as a sealed tomb.

Uriah Heep -- so humble that he's terrifying -- is here, too, and Aunt Betsy Trotwood, who hates donkeys on her lawn almost as passionately as she hates men.

Out of this huge cast of characters Dickens wove a magical tale full of the terrors of childhood and the dreams and despairs of youth.

The story opens with David's birth. His father has died three months earlier, so David is already half an orphan.

His mother is an utterly innocent child-wife, but a much tougher woman is about to enter unborn David's life.

First installment, David Copperfield.

Episode 2 | Introduction
In the first half of David Copperfield, Dickens draws a dark and dreadful picture of David's childhood.

We've seen him orphaned by the early death of his mother, beaten by a brutal stepfather, and taken out of school to work in a grim London factory.

The only bright spot in his life comes when he's taken under wing by the perpetually bankrupt Mister Micawber.

Mr. Micawber has an unquenchable faith that something will eventually turn up to make him a prosperous man.

What turns up is the bill collector, and Mr. Micawber is hauled off to debtor's prison. Left without a friend, David decides to run away from his hateful factory job and throw himself on the mercy of his Aunt Betsey Trotwood.

This means walking all the way from London to Dover, with no guarantee that Aunt Betsey will take him in.

She doesn't much like the male sex. In fact, she's had nothing to do with David since she stormed out of his house the night he was born, furious because he was a boy instead of a girl.

Well, Aunt Betsey may be a hard case, but not hard enough to resist the pathetic spectacle of poor ragged and battered David collapsing with fatigue and hunger.

She takes him in, cleans him up, then sends him off to school at Canterbury, meaning to make him into a gentlemen.

There he boards with a businessman -- Mr. Wickfield -- and meets two people who will figure importantly in his life: One is Mr. Wickfield's daughter Agnes. The other, Mr. Wickfield's humble clerk, the sinister Uriah Heep.

David is now a grown man. Aunt Betsey is sending him to London to learn business under Mr. Spenlow, who has a beautiful young daughter.

David Copperfield, concluding installment.

Critics have a long-running argument about David Copperfield. Is it a literary masterpiece? Tolstoy thought so.

Or is it just a "a masquerade," as Edmund Wilson called it? A thinly fictionalized version of Dickens's own early life?

Dickens himself said he liked it best of all his books. But then, why did he come back to the same subject 10 years later when he wrote Great Expectations?

In Great Expectations, there is once again the mistreated orphan boy -- this time he's named Pip -- but now the boy grows into a young man who has been corrupted -- corrupted by ambitions that are shabby and trivial. David Copperfield is Pip without human frailty. David grows to manhood but always remains as innocent as the day he was born. Perhaps Dickens himself still had some growing up to do when he wrote David Copperfield.

He was only 37, but he was well into his 40s when he created Pip in Great Expectations.

Maybe Dickens in his 40s was trying to be more honest about his own youthful defects than he'd been in creating David.

Well, all this is rich fodder for a college term paper, but it makes us lose sight of the creative genius it took to populate David's world with all those completely fictional characters who have delighted generations of readers.

It's not David himself who fascinates the reader. Somerset Maugham thought him so bland that he was the least interesting person in the book.

It's Dickens's crowd of supporting characters that we never forget -- characters ranging from Mister Micawber and Uriah Heep to Steerforth, Mr. Dick, Peggotty, and of course, Barkis, who was willing.

I'm Russell Baker. Good night.

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