Book Review:I am Charlotte Simmons
Reviewed by Rich Brooks
31 January 2005
[I am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe]
Tom Wolfe is to my mind our best contemporary American writer, so -- after learning about his latest novel from his guest appearance on a TV talk show -- I immediately ordered a copy of I am Charlotte Simmons. Wolfe is hard to categorize, because he isn't a mere novelist in the strictest sense of the word, nor is he a conventional reporter. He is perhaps foremost an honest and keen-eyed social critic who does not suffer fools or political correctitude gladly. I believe he is generally perceived as a "conservative," but his is not a politically oriented conservatism; he seemingly fits in well with the New York literary establishment in spite of his devastating satire that was Bonfire of the Vanities.
The reporter in Wolfe researches thoroughly the material he fictionalizes, and in this case his research is truly impressive. The dapper 73-year old author spent three months of his life going to college campuses across the country and actually living with students to learn firsthand how the younger generation thinks, acts and speaks. Included in these visits were Stanford and the Universities of Michigan, Florida, North Carolina and Alabama. The University depicted in the book and the locale of most of the action, however, is the fictional Dupont University, an Ivy League-caliber school near Philadelphia.
The book may be summarized as the story of a brilliant but naïve girl from the mountains of Appalachia who encounters extreme culture shock when she attends Dupont on a scholarship. She leaves her home in Sparta, North Carolina, wild-eyed with excitement over the intellectual challenges she is sure to discover, but quickly discovers a far different environment and ethos than in her mountain home. Hillbilly girl from a strict Baptist upbringing discovers a hedonistic, materialistic world she had never dreamed of, and in the first few months at Dupont she feels lonely and isolated in spite of the fact she is beautiful as well as brainy. I would note here that Sparta and Alleghany County are actual places on the map and Wolfe also visited and interviewed locals there. I am impressed by such meticulous attention to detail as is evident throughout all of his writings.
"Dupont University" is filled with spoiled rich kids, frat boys and sorority sluts obsessed with sex and binge drinking. Apparently college students no longer go out on "dates" as they did in my day, but the current practice is to "hook up" - sometimes without even learning their sexual partner's name. Charlotte was shocked to discover not only co-ed dorms but coed bathrooms, and these are now apparently the norm at most schools. The reader can't help but wonder if and when she will lose her virginity. Wolfe, however -- unlike most modern popular novelists -- tastefully limits explicit sexual descriptions.
The basketball program figures prominently in the book, and we see how these "student athletes" are really mercenaries segregated from the rest of the student body and given special privileges. On this score, nothing has really changed since I went to college. Most of these athletes are black, although Dupont has one White basketball star who has had to adapt to nigger ways to succeed in the game. Three other Whites are on the team but only as non-playing "swimmers" whose only function is to raise the team grade point average to a passing level. Wolfe minces no words when it comes to race.
Wolfe is quite frank about jews in several parts of the novel, perhaps about as frank as he could be without being dubbed an anti-Semite. There is a passage in the book where he is describing two jews, the president of the university and a professor. It is worth quoting at length:
The man sitting across from him, the butterball grotesquely squeezed into a dark gray sweater, was of another sort entirely, despite the fact that they were both Jewish and agreed on practically every public issue of the day. Both believed passionately in protecting minorities, particularly African Americans, as well as Jews. Both regarded Israel as the most important nation on earth, although neither was tempted to live there. Both instinctively sided with the underdog: police violence really got them steamed. Both were firm believers in diversity and multiculturalism in colleges. Both believed in abortion, not so much because they thought anyone they knew might want an abortion as because legalizing it helped put an exhausted and dysfunctional Christendom and its weird, hidebound religious restraints in their place. For the same reason, both believed in gay rights, women's rights, transgender rights, fox, bear, wolf, swordfish, halibut, ozone, wetland, and hardwood rights, gun control, contemporary art, and the Democratic Party. Both were against hunting and, for that matter, woods, fields, mountain trails, rock climbing, sailing, fishing, and the outdoors in general, except for golf courses and the beach.
I won't say any more about the plot, which I found engrossing. This is the first work of fiction I've read in several years (in fact I think the last novel I read was Wolfe's previous one, A Man in Full), and I'd almost forgotten the pleasures of losing oneself in another world for several days. I am Charlotte Simmons is fairly long at 676 pages, but it is a page turner that you won't want to put down until you've finished.
Wolfe in the interview with him I watched made it clear that this book was not written as a moral condemnation of today's college students. He believes such things as morals and manners are cyclical and self-correcting, and in any event there has always been a lot going on in higher education besides higher education. However, it is not a pretty picture he paints, especially when viewed from the perspective of a parent who shells out at least $20,000 a year for such debauchery. There is, of course, a strong -- even dominant -- jewish presense in the academic world, so jews must rightly be blamed for much of what is wrong with higher education. Wolfe comes up just short of acknowledging this, but it is there between the lines.
If I had to sum up this novel in one word, it would be "authentic." Though it is a work of fiction, I am Charlotte Simmons is an authentic look at a generation and class crucial to the future of our country.
Visit Mr. Brooks's White Alert.