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Who are some notable early twentieth-century writers associated with Modernism?

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Many early twentieth-century writers were part of a literary movement known as modernism. Generally speaking, modernism was an attempt by writers to deal with rapid social and political change. This involved a retreat into subjectivity as well as the use of art to impose meaning on an increasingly fragmented society. Modernist writers include James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf.

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During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western society experienced rapid social, political, and economic change. Under these changes, many of the old cultural and intellectual certainties started to come undone. For instance, organized religion, which had once exerted such a powerful galvanizing role, notably declined during this period, as Western society became more secular.

The cultural movement known as modernism was a response to these societal developments. Though the phenomenon as a whole is quite complex, two salient features can nonetheless be identified. First and foremost is a radical subjectivity, a turning inwards by the artist instead of attempting to describe the objective world in any great detail. To modernists, the contemporary world was simply too fragmented and chaotic to be described in realistic terms. Reality itself was now problematic in a way that it had never been before.

To be sure, the objective world is still present in modernist works, but only through the prism of often highly subjective impressions and perceptions. This turn to the subject is illustrated most sharply by the literary technique known as stream of consciousness, whereby the reader is given a privileged insight into the constant flow of ideas and thoughts inside a character's mind. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, two of the most important modernist writers, were especially effective in using this technique.

The second main feature of modernism to examine is its contention that art could impose some kind of order and stability on a fragmented world. Modernists tended to believe in the power of art to shape the world around us, to transform reality as we understand it. More often than not, this involved the retrieval of cultural fragments of the past, which could perhaps provide the basis of a possible transformation of society. This is certainly how T. S. Eliot used the numerous historical, cultural, and literary references and illusions that are sprinkled liberally throughout his poetic masterpiece The Waste Land.

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