MAXWELL:  Of, and against, tradition

8/27/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


To understand the ambivalent relationship between Shannon Faulkner and the Citadel, we must understand their mutual heritage. They both are of the South, and they both are shaped by it in much the same ways. In the end, they both perhaps are ruled by it.

The Citadel, the state-supported military academy in Charleston, S.C., is not only a product of the South but a symbol of it, a fortress and a refuge. Its history is intertwined with the seeds and aftermath of the Civil War. Now, it is fighting yet another war to keep out the rest of the world. It desperately is trying to preserve a culture the institution and the city of Charleston consider to be irrefutably unique.

The South is militaristic. In fact, the South, where guns and shooting sports are celebrated, always has had a stronger military ethos than any other region. The South Carolina Legislature created the school, solely for white men, in 1842 to keep the peace and to keep increasingly militant slaves in line. Many historians write that Citadel students fired the shots a few miles from the campus that started the Civil War. Thirty-nine cadets died for the Confederacy.

Some historians argue that the South’s martial spirit did not develop until the Civil War, but vast numbers of Southerners fought in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War of 1846. By 1910, 93 percent of the Army generals had Southern connections. During World War II, all four generals of the first group to fight on the Western Front were Southerners. And although the South comprised only 27 percent of the U.S. population during the Korean War, 46 percent of America’s elite forces were Southerners.

For obvious reasons, then, patriotism and jingoism are prime sentiments in South Carolina _ where military bases abound, where a disproportionately high number of ex-service people retire. This state’s aversion toward “others” is reflected in the Citadel’s enrollment, where there are only 48 foreigners, 28 Hispanics and 28 Asian-Americans out of a total of 1,921 students. The school has one full-time Hispanic member of the faculty and staff and three Asian-Americans.

Of course, the Citadel, like the rest of the South and South Carolina in particular, has a black problem. The first black student was admitted in 1966. And his life was hell. Other blacks who followed experienced as much or more pain. Pat Conroy, a Citadel graduate, captured the brutal hazing of black cadets in his 1967 novel The Lords of Discipline. Today, 124 black cadets study there, and only two blacks are full-time members of the faculty and staff.

Shannon Faulkner is a woman, a victim of Southern traditions. Unlike blacks, however, she is a willing victim. She is a daughter of the South, born and reared among the young men who are the cadets at the Citadel. She knowingly took a battering ram to all that she loves. If she could not see the pitfalls awaiting her, she should have at least read the part of The Lords of Discipline where Conroy writes that to walk in the old section of Charleston at night “is to step into the bloodstream of a history extravagantly lived by a people born to a fierce and unshakable advocacy of their past.”

If Faulkner had read on, Conroy would have told her more about Charleston and the Citadel: “It is a city distorted by its own self-worship. I do not believe there is another city like it on earth, nor do I believe there is another college like the Institute. Nor can I imagine the Institute in any other city. The school has adopted many of the odd, quirky mannerisms of Charleston itself, an osmotic, subterranean effect, and each has shaped the other, magnified the other’s flaws, reinforced the other’s strengths.”

Above all, Faulkner knew full well that she was injecting feminism into an environment that would reject it. She was trashing the South’s myth of white womanhood. Historian Anne Goodwyn Jones of the University of Florida writes: “Southern men have toasted and celebrated Southern womanhood since the South began to think of itself as a region, probably before the American Revolution. The lady, with her grace and hospitality, seemed the flower of a uniquely Southern civilization, the embodiment of all it prized most deeply.”

In the South, men still believe that men go to war to protect women _ not the other way around. This tradition will die hard, and those who intend to follow Shannon Faulkner should be aware of that fact. Men here still join the military to find or prove their manhood, their honor. They attend the Citadel to become the “Whole Man,” a man re-created in a world that does not have women.

Col. Bill Gordon, a history professor at the Citadel and a Vietnam veteran, said recently that Southern men _ his cadets, too _ are “more comfortable with a myth than a flesh-and-blood woman.”

Perhaps Gordon is right. And perhaps Faulkner has changed the Citadel forever. Perhaps a woman may yet wear the Citadel ring, becoming part of the “brotherhood” and the school’s vaunted “network.” Perhaps now is the time for such a change. But Faulkner was not the one to force change at this Southern institution because, paradoxically, she is too much of a Southerner herself.

Publicly, she may condemn Citadel’s cadets, but she admires them. She understands them. And in her own way, she is one of them. Just as the cadets boast of being able to withstand pain and of being gentlemen, Faulkner brags that she, too, is tough, that she is a lady.

“I don’t believe in everything that the South used to believe in _ the Old South,” she said on an ABC Network news program. “But I still believe in Southern hospitality, a Southern gentleman and a Southern belle. A true Southern woman will not cry in public because that is not what she is taught. It’s an emotion that you feel only when you’re by yourself.”

Yes, Faulkner wanted to become a part of the Citadel, but she also was reluctant to destroy a part of Southern tradition that, no matter how distasteful, has been integral to her life.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.