One book that’s been in the news lately, aside from The DaVinci Code, is Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons—a novel about the culture and activities of campus life at an elite American university. The book has been reviewed widely in conservative circles, and even caused a mild media tizzy recently when it was discovered that President Bush had read the book, though it was not on his published reading list:
What the official list omits is Tom Wolfe’s racy new beer- and sex-soaked novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” The president, a Wolfe fan, has not only read the book but is enthusiastically recommending it to friends.
Indeed, the novel is not for the faint of heart, but racy is hardly an appropriate term (Wolfe was awarded the “Bad Sex Writing” award for the book). The content of the novel, while frank, does not titillate as much as it sheds light upon the culture that is many an American college campus. Wolfe introduces us to a world where roommates are “sexiled”—banished from their dorm rooms while their roommates copulate with their “hookups.” Star athletes are surrounded by sexually–willing groupies, and have their homework done for them by their tutors while they play the latest video games. The few students concerned with learning are concerned only as far as what it will take to play the politics of academia in order to obtain a Rhodes scholarship or the prestige of a graduate degree.
Wolfe’s protagonist is Charlotte Simmons, a freshman from rural North Carolina who arrives at the fictional elite university to find a world far removed from her small, close-nit community where religion and family values reigned. The poor Appalachian country girl clashes with the snobbery of her wealthy blue-state classmates in morality, intellectual vigor (ironically it is Charlotte who thinks that the others are dunces), and priorities.
At first, when faced with adversity, Charlotte clings to the mantra given her by her mother: “I am Charlotte Simmons.” By reminding herself who she was and from whence she came, Charlotte hopes to ward off the encroaching evils.
It’s not long before Charlotte discovers that this vapid self-assertion does little to guard her moral innocence. Buttressed by a subplot that deals with biological determinism, the novel finds Charlotte unable to resist becoming the very type of person she detests. She falls fast and hard—her self-concept crashing down with her.
With Charlotte and three other main characters, the subplot of determinism gradually becomes the driving motif of the novel. The Jojo Johannsen, the proverbial “dumb jock,” realizes that his overly–tutored athletic education program has been a sham—is he capable of learning anything substantive? The frat-boy Hoyt Thorpe has glided through his college career, establishing an enormous reputation, along with an enormous academic deficit. Is there a way for him to “rig the system” so that he lands a comfortable job?
While certainly displaying the futility and dangers of modern campus mores, Wolfe is not preachy, and leaves judgment up to the reader. In fact, any adequate means of Charlotte’s holding to the morality of her upbringing are largely unexplored. As Ken Masugi of the Claremont Review of Books aptly notes:
For all his brilliance at portraying contemporary life, Wolfe approaches and then veers away from confronting the most important human questions, explored most profoundly by the Bible and Greek philosophy. May his next novel take the mean between Socrates and Stoicism and discover Aristotle. And may that be his opening to the Bible and an even greater flourishing of his mind.
While his exploration of life’s “ultimate questions” falls short, Wolfe does raise some piercing questions regarding our modern incarnation of the university. Just what, one wonders after reading the book, is the chief purpose of higher education today? Wolfe seems to propose that entertainment and reckless self-indulgence are at the very least part of the answer. Students lacking well-grounded beliefs and behavior risk having the prevailing campus zeitgeist dictate belief and behavior to them.
It’s not been that long since my own undergraduate days—eight or so years. I didn’t attend an elite private university like Wolfe’s fictional Dupont, but much of the behavior Wolfe reflects was present. People who relied solely upon their upbringing to combat moral chaos often fell, and when they fell, they fell hard. Only those who found their identities outside themelves (most notably in Christ) could withstand the tempest.
For a 74 year-old, Tom Wolfe has an exceptional grasp of the language, behavior, and mannerisms of the college set. I Am Charlotte Simmons is an engagingly written novel. If you’re sending a child or other loved one to college soon, you should read this book with trepidation. I will, however, warn the reader of the graphic dialogue and behavior in the novel would offend all but the most forlorn sailor. The tragedy is that such language is the current lingua franca of almost any university campus. Like I said, I Am Charlotte Simmons is not for the faint at heart, but perhaps its warning can help us in some way to strengthen the hearts of our youth.