This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Calder Willingham’s End as a Man.  Chances are, most readers today have never heard of the book, as I had not until quite recently.  Despite the accolades that it received from such leading literary lights of the 1940’s as James T. Farrell (who called it “a permanent contribution to American literature”), End as a Man now gathers dust on library bookshelves and remains largely unnoticed in studies of post-World War II American fiction.  Reasons for this neglect are not hard to find.  One is that Willingham (born Calder Baynard Willingham, Jr., in Atlanta, in 1922) was only 23 when he wrote it, and it is not without its purple passages.  A more telling reason, however, is that Willingham explores in the novel a theme that is virtually guaranteed to affront our epicene guardians of contemporary literary propriety: manhood.

End as a Man is set in a military college in the South and explores a year (or something less than a year) in the lives of a group of cadets in the early 1940’s.  This fictional institution, called “The Academy,” is clearly modeled on the Citadel, which Willingham attended in 1940-41, before transferring to the University of Virginia.  Several of these cadets are first-year “knobs” (as they are called at the Citadel), and much of the narrative is concerned with their efforts to cope with the school’s rigorous discipline and the frequent hazing imposed upon them by upperclassmen.  Freshman cadets are routinely braced, dressed down, forced to eat at attention, humiliated for betraying signs of weakness, and ridiculed for any peculiarity of appearance, speech, or manner.  So prominent are these episodes, especially in the first half of the novel, that many readers have assumed that Willingham’s chief concern was to demonstrate the cruelty of such a system of discipline.  Alex Macaulay, for example, in a short article in the New Georgia Encyclopedia, summarizes End as a Man as a “scathing and lurid assessment of the overblown machismo that Willingham encountered at the Citadel.”  This, however, is far from the truth.  To be sure, there are instances of “overblown machismo” on display, but, for the most part, Willingham presents hazing as a routine and highly ritualized fact of life at The Academy.  No tender psyches are destroyed by the process, and, with one notable exception, the upperclassmen understand that the hazing ritual is strictly defined; they know when to relent, and, when they forget, others remind them.

The most conspicuously “overblown machismo” in End as a Man belongs to one of the novel’s chief characters, upperclassman Jocko de Paris, a cadet who has barely escaped expulsion on more than one occasion, thanks to the intervention of his wealthy father, one of The Academy’s most generous benefactors.  Paris is vividly presented as an isolated sadist, one for whom the hazing ritual is not an impersonal matter of discipline but a brutal quest for personal satisfaction of desires that—so Willingham hints—arise out of a repressed homosexuality.  Thus, he frequently violates the limits that his fellow upperclassmen observe.  The primary victim of Paris’ sadism is Maurice Simmons, a freshman cadet almost universally despised for his Ohio accent, red-cabbage ears, and religious mania.  On one occasion, Paris salaciously accuses Simmons of having committed incestuous acts with his mother and sister, then beats his buttocks mercilessly with a broom until they are covered in blood.  Yet there is no suggestion in Willingham’s treatment of this or similar episodes that Paris’ abuse of the hazing system is to be understood as a condemnation of the system itself.

While End as a Man cannot be considered a novel of social protest in the vein of the naturalistic revival of the 1930’s, it does share some traits with those novels.  The tone is, throughout, one of almost clinical detachment, and, while the narrative does feature a central character, freshman cadet Robert Marquales, he is in no sense a “hero.”  In fact, Willingham goes out of his way to prevent the reader from forming any bond of sympathy with Marquales.  For well over a hundred pages, Marquales wanders passively from one encounter to the next, unable to find a place for himself, and irritably alienating his fellow knobs.  He is cruel to the hapless Simmons, is not particularly conscientious about his studies, and, worst of all, is so insecure that he foolishly allows himself to be drawn into an association with two disreputable upperclassmen.  One of these is Paris; the other is Perrin McKee, the vain, sickly, and homosexual son of an impoverished old Port George family who is at once the most contemptible and yet the most fully realized character in the novel.  McKee represents another, even more perverse image of manhood, one in revolt against the rank fecundity of the female body.

In a pompous speech delivered to his fellow cadets one evening in the barracks, McKee theorizes that the “true man” is he who has most completely integrated the “sub-experiential” aspect of his personality into conscious awareness and proceeds to tell of how, when he was an infant, his mother passed him along to a “negress” wet nurse.  “I sucked her black tits for eighteen months,” McKee recalls.  “[D]aily, I kneaded that glistening carbon flesh in my fat little hands [and] swallowed the thick yellow product of the Negress’ blood.”  But this “sub-experiential” memory was not recovered until years later when, still a boy, he witnessed a cousin of his being nursed at the breast of the same black woman.  He was “repelled” by the sucking of those “little pink jaws” on the “monstrous organ.”  The thought that he had once done the same “plunged [him] into an illness of weeks.”  To cure him of this affliction, McKee’s father forced him to watch “the little greedy cousin suck,” and it is to this experience that McKee proudly attributes the “beginning of [his] intellectuality.”  Willingham implies that McKee’s “intellectuality” (given, by turns, to grotesque abstraction and lurid flights of gothic fancy) is, in fact, a craven intellectual retreat from genuine manhood.

While McKee does not quite speak openly of his homosexuality, it is clear that he regards that aberration as proof of his own superiority.  Indeed, when Marquales comes by accident into possession of a letter that McKee has anonymously addressed to Jocko de Paris, we learn the full extent of McKee’s depravity.  In the course of that letter (which is clearly intended to blackmail Paris in return for sexual favors, but I will omit the sordid details), he theorizes at some length upon the evolutionary destiny of the “man not tolerant of woman.”  Heretofore, he argues, human development has been hampered by its dependence on natural generation.  With the advent of “artificial propagation,” however, all that will change.  While, in the past, those “men intolerant of women” have been hounded and persecuted and unable, for the most part, to pass along the “power of their mutation,” they will in the future become “more and more numerous.”  He envisions the evolutionary “demise” of the female and the emergence of a “virile, new man.”  In short, McKee imagines himself the forerunner of a superior new race destined to “people the earth like mountainous spore explosions with their own kind.”  Although Willingham clearly intends this sophomoric theorizing of McKee’s to be read as a parody of Nietzschean naturalism, it also identifies McKee as the masochistic counterpart to the brutally sadistic Paris. Indeed, McKee worships Paris as a sort of Nietzschean Übermensch, albeit one not fully aware of the true nature of his superiority.  In the moral economy of Willingham’s novel, both of these cadets represent equally repulsive versions of masculinity.

One of the weaknesses of End as a Man is that cadet Marquales’ association with these two negative models of manhood is merely adventitious.  While he is gratified by the signs of favor that they show him, he is not deeply drawn by or attracted to either.  One could imagine a different novel in which Marquales, uncertain of his own masculinity, struggles in heroic fashion against the influence of both these models toward a more mature and genuinely virile understanding of manhood.  But no such development arises.  It is true that, in the end, he rejects the friendship of both, but only in a desperate attempt to save his own skin.  If there is a hero in this novel, it is The Academy’s president, Gen. A.L. Draughton, who emerges somewhat surprisingly at the end as the most admirable image of manhood on offer here.  Early on, Draughton (possibly modeled on Gen. Charles P. Summerall, who was serving as president of the Citadel when Willingham attended) appears as a distant authority, given to speechifying in the rather stilted rhetoric of the Edwardian era.  By the end of the novel, however, when we see him at close quarters, he is a more engaging figure: a man of great dedication and strength of will whose whole being is focused on the daunting task of transforming 1,600 cadets into officers capable of leading others into battle.  His final speech to them, on the occasion of Paris’ expulsion, is also the novel’s last word on manhood.  He reminds the assembly that the

world is full of the shattered bodies and crushed spirits of men who have been unable to master themselves. . . . No youth can pass through four years of The Academy and not end as a man. . . . Think of that word; listen to it.  Man.  A simple monosyllable, but it has great force.  Nothing is stronger than this word, for without the quality it signifies, the life of the race, and your own, is rendered utterly futile.

Of course, such a speech could not be delivered at the Citadel today, for among the assembly would be scattered a number of young women, whose presence at that venerable institution was mandated in 1995 by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the name of equal opportunity.

Having read End as a Man with great interest, I paid a visit to the Citadel library to look up Willingham’s picture in the 1941 number of the cadet yearbook, The Sphinx.  Sure enough, there he was, smiling impishly, looking very much as he does on the dust jacket of the Vanguard Press first edition of the novel.  What most drew my interest, however, were the faces of the 1941 graduating class, many of whom would soon see action in World War II.  The maturity of those faces was striking; they were—most of them—the faces of men, so unlike the childish male visages that throng our campuses today in search of anything but self-mastery.