The Greatest


Some years ago, I fell into a spirited argument about the greatest English-language novelist and novel. I declared for Charles Dickens and David Copperfield. Battling Dickens in the ring was Ms. George (Middlemarch) Eliot. Her corner man was Jim Finn, one of my esteemed predecessors at Commonweal. Meanwhile, promoters for Jane Austen, Henry James, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and sundry others circled around, hoping to get their contender into the next bout. On and on we went in a Pickwickian spirit.

Whether or not Dickens deserves the title of greatest English-language novelist, his work constitutes our language’s greatest autobiography. Within each of his fifteen multifarious novels is an account of some part of his actual life, the one he lived and the one he was constantly turning over in his mind, writing letters about, and discussing with friends.

I was reminded of this by the trove of books occasioned by the now concluding bicentenary of Dickens’s birth (February 7, 1812). Among their topics: his novels, sketches, essays, journalism, plays, public oratory; his unrequited love followed by an unsatisfying marriage and distracted parenting of ten children; his liaison with Ellen Ternan, which caused a minor scandal; his civic agitation for prison, school, electoral, and every other kind of reform; his drawn out fights with publishers...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.