The Literary Discipline

by John Erskine. New York: Duffield & Co. 1923. 12mo. xvi+ 231 pp. $1.50.
A SOUND, thoughtful analysis of literary problems, much debated but in large part debated with unthinking prejudice, must surely be of marked value as a contribution to the literary criticism of its own day.The Literary Discipline is such a book — and it is more than that; for, basing his argument on the principles that underlie and explain the great literature of all generations, Mr. Erskine has written an exceptionally keen study of literary truths. Unhindered by fads of the moment, untroubled by the simian chatter of those who cannot — or will not — see contemporary literature in its true focus, he treats the profession of letters as a high calling in which the present, like the past, must face the judgment of all time.
A sculptor is denied color; a painter works in two dimensions only; an artist in words, one might think, must have all the possibilities of speech, the universal form of expression. But The Literary Discipline is rightly named for, freed from the emotional and the personal, Mr. Erskine states with keen discrimination and most fair-minded appraisal the demands which his art makes upon a writer, and the limitations of his medium: the necessity for producing in others the emotion he himself feels, and the stern, indeed the absolute, laws which determine his success or failure in so doing. These laws make up ‘the decorum of his art,’ and are more important, and more exacting, than information, than self-expression — more important and more exacting even than morality, as morality is understood, or misunderstood, by the moralists. By these laws are shown the true positions of naturalness, of originality, of personality, of sincerity — a revelation indeed.
Of course, a book that punctures accurately the complacency of a section of the writing and reading public will incur a certain unpopularity, expressed, very likely, in grudging reviews. Truth is a weapon that makes distinctly uncomfortable those who oppose it; and The Literary Discipline is armed with truth.
It is a book for the general reader who is interested in the literary activities of his own time; for the writer who should know the lasting elements in his art; and especially for the advanced student of composition who is contemplating literature as a profession. The Literary Discipline and that admirable compilation of extracts from Stevenson which is published under the title Learning to Write ought to be in the hands of every college senior of literary bent, and in every public library in the land.
These reviews will be reprinted separately in pamphlet form. Copies may be had by any librarian, without charge, on application to the Atlantic Monthly, 8 Arlington St., Boston. For ten or more copies there is a charge of one cent per copy.