In support of the proposition that literature ". . . does have a way of flourishing when other things are going down," Times book critic Richard Eder ("Hard Times, Good Books," Book Review, Oct. 25) cites the assertion that "Hard Times" is "Dickens' best book." He concedes that most people may not agree, or at least not unless "Hard Times" is placed alongside "Great Expectations" as one of Dickens' "two best books."
That assessment had its first currency in the 1948 survey of the English novel "The Great Tradition," by critic F. R. Leavis. Leavis himself, in fact, came to change his view and, in his later book, "Dickens the Novelist," embraced a more comprehensive appreciation of Dickens' work.
The earlier judgment obstinately persisted, however, and, in the 1960s, was regarded in British secondary schools as received wisdom. In my own case, it was not until studying literature at university (ironically at the same Cambridge College where Leavis had taught, but after he had retired) that I was helped to see the narrowness of Leavis' original view.
"Hard Times" and "Great Expectations" are of course wonderful books. But it is in the full-length later novels ("Little Dorrit," "Bleak House," "Dombey and Son," "Our Mutual Friend") that the sweep of Dickens' genius finds its full realization. The same comic delight in the surface of life is still there, as is the same burning sense of outrage at cruelty and injustice. Added to those elements in the longer books, though, are a dark intensity, and a supreme mastery of plot in the service of the central vision of the novels.