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Anecdotes of Enlightenment

Human Nature from Locke to Wordsworth
James Robert Wood

BUY Cloth · 260 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813942209 · $49.50 · Jul 2019
BUY Ebook · 260 pp. · ISBN 9780813942216 · $49.50 · Jul 2019

Anecdotes of Enlightenment is the first literary history of the anecdote in English. In this wide-ranging account, James Robert Wood explores the animating effects anecdotes had on intellectual and literary cultures over the long eighteenth century. Drawing on extensive archival research and emphasizing the anecdote as a way of thinking, he shows that an intimate relationship developed between the anecdote and the Enlightenment concept of human nature. Anecdotes drew attention to odd phenomena on the peripheries of human life and human history. Enlightenment writers developed new and often contentious ideas of human nature through their efforts to explain these anomalies. They challenged each other’s ideas by reinterpreting each other’s anecdotes and by telling new anecdotes in turn.

Anecdotes of Enlightenment features careful readings of the philosophy of John Locke and David Hume; the periodical essays of Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Eliza Haywood; the travel narratives of Joseph Banks, James Cook, and James Boswell; the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth; and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Written in an engaging style and spotlighting the eccentric aspects of Enlightenment thought, this fascinating book will appeal to historians, philosophers, and literary critics interested in the intellectual culture of the long eighteenth century.


An ambitious exploration of the generic status, purpose, and consumption of the anecdote in the Enlightenment, covering five major fields of inquiry: philosophy, scientific experiment, journals of voyagers, periodical literature, and the poetry of the Lyrical Ballads. Although the anecdote is a topic that has preoccupied scholars since the onset of New Historicism, James Wood has refreshed the discussion in a manner that will appeal to younger academics intrigued by the fluidities of Epicurean materialism. Wood’s argument is as extensive as it is polished.

Jonathan Lamb, Vanderbilt University, author of Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery

Absolutely wonderful. Anecdotes of Enlightenment is a very valuable contribution to eighteenth-century British literary studies.

Jenny Davidson, Columbia University, author of Reading Jane Austen

As with many good books, Anecdotes of Enlightenment has at its heart a rather simple observation of a widespread phenomenon (the relationship between anecdotes and the investigation of human nature), which, however, it elaborates and illustrates with great virtuosity. [A]n engaging, lively, fluently written study, which possesses much of the button-holing energy of the anecdote itself.

SEL Studies in English Literature

About the Author(s): 

James Robert Wood is Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature at the University of East Anglia.

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