I am Charlotte Simmons
By Tom Wolfe
Wolfe is pushing 75. And he then goes and writes a book about college life at an Ivy League college in America. To write this typical journalistic novel, Wolfe apparently lived in a campus for a while to study life there. I guess I am Charlotte Simmons is what results when an old man observes and writes about young people and their lives – an account of a generation in pursuit of things that a man who has lived through WWII will deem superficial and inconsequential.
Charlotte Simmons is a brilliant high school graduate from a really small town Sparta, in the back of beyond. She is the only one from her town who has ever been admitted to Dupont, a prestigious Ivy League college (apparently modeled after Duke). She comes to college armed with nothing more than a suitcase of unfashionable clothes and her mind. And in Dupont, she confronts a world completely different from anything she has ever known. She arrives wanting to live ‘the life of the mind’. She finds instead a cell-phone and computer-wielding bulimic roommate and a generation obsessed with drinking, sex and sports. The heroes are not Nobel prize winners, they are jocks who are in Dupont purely for their athletic prowess and ‘frat boys’, the prep school types who are in college to get an investment banking job. The jocks and the ‘frat boys’ can literally get all the girls and the glory. Sex is an obsession and virginity is a shame. Real study is for nerds and geeks and is not cool. The basketball team and its college life is a revelation for those not familiar with American college life. The way they maintain an average grade point (through ‘sleepers’ who are in the team primarily because they can up the average grades), the ‘tutors’ they have, the ‘easy’ courses they are allowed to take and the fanatical fan following that allows them access to girls and fast cars, make them the superstars of college life.
Charlotte is the prim and proper small town girl shocked by these excesses. It is through her eyes that we see this debauched college life. Jojo is the dumb basketball jock who gets caught plagiarizing a paper in a ‘real’ class and who (through Charlotte’s influence) has aspirations to do some authentic study in college. Adam is the ‘uncool’ intellectual, in love with Charlotte, her intelligence and her virginal beauty. He is the nerd no woman can actually love, including Charlotte. Hoyt is the frat boy, living the easy life with adoring girls and a serious drinking problem. He is bribed with an investment banking job to keep shut about a sex scandal involving the governor and a student. And he is the one who Charlotte finally has sex with and in the process sets in motion a turning point in Charlotte’s college life. It is the moment that embodies the ultimate clash between Charlotte’s quite puritanical world view and the contemporary hedonistic generation. It is also the moment that starts Charlotte’s ultimate co-option into her own generation.
All of these are characters more in the mould of caricatures. They serve no other purpose than to embody the world being painted. Wolfe is making a point about contemporary youth culture and all these people are bullet points in his thesis. It is an interesting thesis for sure, but a thesis nonetheless.
Wolfe portrays an extreme point of view of life in a college. Conservative America will cheer him on for sure, for moralising about a culture where traditional American values of puritanism and self-denial have no place. And yet the extremeness of the viewpoint makes it less real and in my mind, lessens the point he is trying to make. Sure, we appreciate the possibility that the obsession with sex, drink and sports in current college life has been taken to far greater lengths than is sensible. That the disregard for an intellectual life (the very purpose of a college, one would assume) will have consequences on America as a society. But really, is it all that bad? Do girls in college really have little to think about other than boys (there is not a single character other than Charlotte and a rather shrill feminist called rather obviously Camilla who shows any interest in anything other than boys)? Are co-ed dorms really the terror they are shown to be? Can basketball jocks really get through college without knowing who Socrates was? Can there really be a freshman like Charlotte in today's America, so untouched by the sexuality that must have invaded even her small town world?
I am Charlotte Simmons is an interesting book and is worth reading just for the context. It is not in my opinion a great piece of fiction, however. It does not touch you, in many cases it does not feel real and there is little empathy any of the characters generate. Least of all Charlotte, who comes across as a rather prissy small town girl with a completely closed mind. All of this is probably because the book is a portrait of a generation far removed from the man who paints it.