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When I mentioned Catherine S. Manegold’s new book, In Glory’s Shadow: Shannon Faulkner, The Citadel and a Changing America, to a politically connected South Carolinian recently, my listener—who is by no means a reactionary conservative—responded dismissively. When she pronounced the name of Shannon Faulkner—the young woman who fought a years-long legal battle to gain acceptance to the state’s famously all-male military college before dropping out from exhaustion a few days after she enrolled—it crossed her lips with contempt. “Shannon Faulkner has no credibility around here,” she explained.

A few days later, I was talking to a decidedly liberal South Carolinian, someone who exhibits little fondness for the Citadel’s often-brutal system of breaking down and building up young men. Yet even he had little good to say about Faulkner. Her goal may have been admirable and her obstacles steep, he explained, but she should have been better prepared for the physical and psychological hurdles she was to encounter. In essence, he concluded, Faulkner screwed up her chance, big time.

Several years after the confrontation between Faulkner and the Citadel, life in South Carolina is essentially back to normal. The New York civil liberties lawyers have gone home, a chastened Faulkner now heads to work each day as a public-school teacher, and the Citadel enrolls both female and male recruits as freshman “knobs.” Yet Faulkner’s spirit continues to hang over the school like Spanish moss, coloring—and polarizing—the debate about the Citadel for all sides. Despite the best of intentions, Manegold’s book—in many ways a valuable history of a significant Southern institution—gets stuck in the same rut, viewing the school too much through the prism of Faulkner’s battle to become the school’s first female cadet.

To be sure, In Glory’s Shadow—Manegold’s first book—establishes her as a fluid and skilled writer. Her searing tales of slavery and slave rebellions segue seamlessly into discussions of the Citadel’s early history. Indeed, to Manegold, these two peculiar institutions are profoundly intertwined. Charleston, though always a cosmopolitan port city, also exhibited a strong isolationist strain, which reached an apex even before Secession with the building of the Citadel, whose self-contained campus was literally “a world unto itself, tightly closed and strictly regulated, complete and all-consuming.”

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By Manegold’s account, the Citadel was modeled architecturally after a nightmarish Charleston workhouse where disobedient slaves were punished. In the mid-1800s, the Citadel recruited poor young whites and molded them into a military vanguard charged with protecting what one might euphemistically call traditional Southern values. After the ruinations of the Civil War, the Citadel roared back as if the South’s defeat had never occurred, offering a place where young white Southerners could revive the game of master and slave, this time pitting older cadets against younger in a series of cruel—but purportedly character-building—exercises.

I am forced to use the phrase “by Manegold’s account” in the previous paragraph because the author provides no footnotes and offers only a slender “acknowledgements” section in place of a bibliography. Moreover, much of the book is written in her own voice without direct quotations from her interviewees; although this technique undeniably smoothes her narrative, it also carries with it a nagging worry that her subjects’ views may have been streamlined a little too much. Manegold has clearly done an impressive amount of research, both in interviews with living people and through extensive trawling of historical documents, but it is difficult for the reader to take her assertions at much more than face value.

This uncertainty is one of the book’s most serious frustrations—but hardly its only one. For instance, although Manegold proves herself a skilled portraitist, sketching evocative, anecdote-laden chapters about individuals with some connection or another to the Citadel, too many of these passages digress from the main narrative of the story. Few of her featured characters play first-tier roles in the story, yet such key figures as Bud Watts, the school’s president during the Faulkner imbroglio, receive little if any attention.

The chapters that profile Faulkner and the attorneys for both sides are well-crafted and revealing. The contrast between Faulkner’s New York legal team and the Citadel’s Southern brotherhood is an obvious one, but Manegold’s account captures it well: “Charleston and New York were perfectly matched as dueling partners in a modern conflict over culture,” Manegold writes. “Each possessed a certain arrogance and the willingness to fight. The rest of us could only watch and marvel.”

Manegold—who comes off, like any good journalist, as equal parts empathy and skepticism—plausibly paints Faulkner as a resilient, if complicated and flawed, protagonist. One striking—and admirable—characteristic that emerges from Manegold’s account is Faulkner’s ease at disarming petty attacks with homespun humor. Manegold notes that when Faulkner learned of a T-shirt that read, “1,952 Bulldogs and 1 Bitch,” she took to wearing the shirt in public and autographing it for admirers. One time, she pointed to the T-shirt’s gussied-up “Shannon” dog that stood in front of a squadron of uniformed male bulldogs. “See who’s out front?” Faulkner said cheerfully. “I’m leading the parade.” Another time, facing accusations of homosexuality, Faulkner quipped smartly, “If I was a lesbian, why would I want to go to a school with only men?”

As Manegold illustrates, this tendency came from somewhere. The author spins a multigenerational tale of Faulkner’s forebears—hardscrabble folks who, even though living in South Carolina, seemed to be a million miles away from quaint and stuffy Charleston. This history helps explain why Faulkner kept fighting adversity long after most others would have given up. Significantly, Manegold argues—persuasively—that Faulkner’s brand of feminism was eccentric—certainly not the narcissism that her critics, and some in the media, attributed to her. “I’m not a feminist,” the would-be cadet explained. “I’m an individualist.” It is a perspective that the media circus largely tuned out.

Manegold’s focus on Faulkner is understandable; the author covered the legal battle for the New York Times and was granted a remarkable degree of access to the campus by Citadel administrators during Faulkner’s short-lived stint as a cadet. But the downside of focusing on Faulkner’s battle is that other important issues become subordinate. Perhaps the most important is the history of student-on-student brutality.

To her credit, Manegold has assembled an admirably detailed account of the cadets’ zealously guarded rituals. She takes care to distinguish between garden-variety drill-sergeant treatment—which is common not only at the Citadel but at other military institutions—and the sub rosa, after-hours hazing that occurs without adult supervision in certain sectors of cadet life.

“In some years, boys pumped hundreds of push-ups while older boys held swords between their legs,” Manegold writes. “Or they were made to hang for hours from aching fingertips, clutching at I-beams and ceiling pipes, their shakos tilting off their sweating foreheads, their clothes drenched, their bodies shaking, a sword held sharp beneath their dangling scrotums while older boys shouted insults and impugned their masculinity.”

Anywhere else, such activities would have demanded criminal prosecution, but at the Citadel, they seemed to inspire only shrugs. Quite amazingly in an age obsessed with legal liability, every authority—administrators, school accreditors, local police, state officials, the U.S. military—seemed to turn a blind eye to such practices. On several occasions during the last 30 years, faculty or administrative committees at the Citadel issued reports critical of the cadet hazing system, but assertive action to end the abuses never took hold. Indeed, decorated veterans—including onetime Citadel president Adm. James Stockdale, who had endured actual torture in a Vietnamese prison—were regularly rebuffed once they expressed discomfort with the system’s seamier aspects. So much for loyalty to the chain of command.

During the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Manegold reports, warning signs were consistently ignored. Academic achievement declined. Nazi paraphernalia flourished, even in semi-public venues like yearbook photos. Infirmary nurses noticed cadet injuries but did not make waves. Students began to drop out in alarming numbers. Supporters interpreted the dropout rate as proof that the system was rigorous, arguing that the school was tough enough to prepare cadets for the real world. But the material in Manegold’s book makes it abundantly clear that by the ’90s, the Citadel had little in common with the modern military, its ostensible beneficiary. While military leaders trained their recruits to wage high-tech war, the Citadel browbeat its “best” cadets into mastering what participants call the 1,000-yard-stare—a state of abject, zombielike submission.

It’s possible that these tales may have been exaggerated by Manegold’s sources, who are at best anonymous and at worst disgruntled. But there are enough of them, offering enough gory detail, for reasonable people to conclude that something was disturbingly amiss. Even so, while Manegold provides a valuable service by bringing this side of the Citadel to light, she falls into the same trap that Faulkner’s lawyers (and, in response, the Citadel’s lawyers) fell into—namely, making Faulkner’s dramatic crusade the main event. In reality, the problem with the Citadel was less that it discriminated against women or treated them with uncommon harshness than that it treated everyone badly, for seemingly little good purpose. The Citadel may or may not have needed women in its ranks, but it certainly needed to make sure the inmates—the older cadets—were no longer running the asylum.

Yet despite ample detail about the Citadel’s deep-seated problems, Manegold never quite exorcises the ghost of Faulkner from her narrative. Indeed, her volume ends too soon, with an unsatisfying denouement that provides little information about the post-Faulkner generation of female cadets who managed to survive the Citadel’s rigors with infinitely more success, and far less rancor, than Faulkner did. The reader is left to wonder how they managed to do what Faulkner didn’t—and how the school is adapting in their wake. (Even the critics I’ve spoken to say that the school is handling the presence of female recruits far better than anyone expected, much as it successfully integrated black cadets years earlier, once it had actually decided to open up its ranks.)

It would be an unfortunate irony if the resolution of the Faulkner mess ended the critical scrutiny of the Citadel. But, although Manegold exposes the institution’s shortcomings in a thoughtful and evenhanded manner, her decision to hitch her book to Faulkner’s star may lead to precisely that result. With “Shannon Faulkner” in the subtitle, many South Carolinians, like the politically connected woman I talked to, will be that much more likely to dismiss Manegold’s volume without paying much attention to the legitimate issues it raises. CP