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Literature Glossary

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The period known as the Enlightenment runs from somewhere around 1660, with the Restoration, or the crowning of the exiled Charles II, until the beginning of the 19th century and the reign of Victoria.

This chunk of time, which takes up some of the 17th century and all of the 18th century, is sometimes referred to as the Age of Reason because of its emphasis on a rational, secular worldview. Bringing light to the so-called dark corners of the mind, Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume wrote on subjects ranging from political philosophy to the nature of humankind. Many scholars argue that, given all this revolutionary thinking, the Enlightenment is the beginning of modern society.

The period saw lots of revolutionary activity, such as the French Revolution and the American Revolution. Interested in how Enlightenment thinking played a role in the American Revolution? Check out our learning guide on just that.

So what was happening in literature in during this era? Well, neoclassicism was all the rage in the early part of the period. Neoclassicism is a style of art that appropriates classical models from the ancients. Alexander Pope was the grandmaster of all that. This period also marked the rise of the novel, with novelists like Daniel Defoe churning out the fiction like nobody's business. His famous work Robinson Crusoe is an early example of the genre. There was also a fair amount of Enlightenment thinking going on in American letters, too, with folks like Benjamin Franklin espousing Enlightenment ideas in his The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Later literary periods were definitely influenced by the Enlightenment. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Romanticism, for example, was a reaction to the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. And the Romantic poets like William Wordsworth, of course, wrote to pooh-pooh the Enlightenment's emphasis on reason.