- Returning to Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers”
William Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers” (1942) is not the kind of story a literary critic is supposed to like. It has been called embarrassing, soupy, shameless, and crass (Fiedler 385); fluffy, inferior, stereotyped, and meretricious (Karl 661–662); and slick, offensive, gushing, and cute (Volpe 259) by people who matter. André Bleikasten has said it is “worse than the worst of [Faulkner’s] novels” (21). Although this contempt has not always been utter (Edmond L. Volpe grudgingly allows that the story “does have redeeming qualities” ), and while other dismissals have been less cutting (“Two Soldiers” just is not “Faulkner’s best work,” according to Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr. [“Democratic Crisis” 82]), defenses of the story in recent critical history are only tepid (Diane Brown Jones’s “it is not a failed story”  is about as far as anyone has been willing to go).1 Jones speculates that general disdain for “Two Soldiers” may explain why there has been no “critical discussion devoted explicitly to its text,” a lack that engenders “interpretive remarks that paint broad strokes and offer little substantive explication” (69). Jones leaves unanswered the question of whether this void marks the story’s fault or ours, although by raising the question she does underscore the latter possibility. [End Page 38]
As for Faulkner, he seems to have especially liked the story, a remarkable fact if, as James Ferguson has argued, Faulkner had “a generally good critical sense of his own work” (156) as he worked with Random House editor Robert K. Haas on the volume that would become Collected Stories of William Faulkner in 1950. In a 1948 letter to Haas in which Faulkner assessed the stories proposed for inclusion, he did not hesitate to call a story like “Shall not Perish” (1943) “[t]opical” and “not too good,” but regarding “Two Soldiers” Faulkner typed only “YES” (Selected Letters 274). A handful of other stories also received this one-word endorsement, but only here does Faulkner lend the emphasis of all capital letters, leading some to infer a special enthusiasm.2 Not too long after the story’s composition (and thus prior to the period when he habitually forgot or lied about things he had written), Faulkner was asked why he liked the story. He responded this way:
I like it because it portrays a type which I admire—not only a little boy, and I think little boys are all right, but a true American: an independent creature with courage and bottom and heart—a creature which is not vanishing, even though every articulate medium we have—radio, moving pictures, magazines—is busy day and night telling us that it has vanished, has become a sentimental and bragging liar.(Selected Letters 184)
Seizing on the discrepancy between Faulkner’s and critics’ estimates of the story, Jones has called on us “to return to ‘Two Soldiers,’ interpretive tools in hand, to see if more thorough scrutiny reveals something as yet seen only by its creator” (71). That is my present purpose.
Before scrutinizing the story’s text, however, we should dispense with two extratextual factors that have always shaped its reception. The first is that Faulkner wrote “Two Soldiers” to make money. As Frederick R. Karl has noted, it appeared in a period that marked “perhaps [Faulkner’s] worst financial crisis” (662), one that eventuated in his desperate Warner Brothers contract. This pecuniary motive was hardly an unusual one for Faulkner, who, in addition to spending freely on himself, often complained to his editors of the “load” he was obligated to carry as “oldest son to widowed mothers and inept brothers and nephews and wives and other female connections and their children” (Selected Letters 152).3 And, given the generally serious reputation of other Faulkner works likewise purportedly written for money, perhaps “Two Soldiers” might likewise have been forgiven were it not for the second factor, which is that it succeeded so spectacularly. The story was snatched up immediately by [End Page 39] the Saturday Evening Post for its standard (and market-leading) $1,000. Subsequently, it was sold for $25 to Columbia Broadcasting System for...