Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

With his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, written in New Orleans in 1925 under the encouragement of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner emerged from a diverse apprenticeship in poetry, graphic arts, and the writing of prose sketches and stories, to begin one of the world’s great novel-writing careers. The work of the young novelist, Soldiers’ Pay has been charged with containing overwritten passages, inadequate structural principles, and strained dialogue. Nevertheless, the novel is a major document of Faulkner’s developing genius, and in its own right a well-crafted, often brilliantly written work of literary art.

Moreover, in its themes, techniques, characters, and structural principles, Soldiers’ Pay prefigures many of the masterpieces to follow. As a central though “absent” structural principle, for example, Donald Mahon hints at the treatment of Caddie Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying (1930); as inarticulate victim, he suggests also Benjy Compson of The Sound and the Fury and Ike Snopes of The Hamlet (1940). Cecily Saunders and Margaret Powers are prototypes of Temple Drake of both Sanctuary (1931) and Requiem for a Nun (1951), while the Rector Joseph Mahon prefigures in many respects Gail Hightower of Light in August (1932). In its concern for war and aviation, Soldiers’ Pay contains narrative elements to be more fully developed in Sartoris (1929), Pylon (1935), and A Fable (1954).

With Soldiers’ Pay, Faulkner established himself as one of the most gifted and promising young writers in America. As the British novelist and critic Arnold Bennett wrote on June 26, 1930:Faulkner is the coming man. He has inexhaustible invention, powerful imagination, a wondrous gift of characterization, a finished skill in dialogue; and he writes, generally, like an angel. None of the arrived American stars can surpass him in style when he is at his best.