[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Tom Wolfe) The Old College Try
checker at panix.com
Sat Feb 5 15:22:44 UTC 2005
The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Essay: The Old College Try
By RACHEL DONADIO
Tom Wolfe's latest best seller, ''I Am Charlotte Simmons,'' has been
written off by critics from The Times Literary Supplement to USA
It's about a whip-smart ingenue from an Appalachian town called Sparta
who wins a scholarship to prestigious Dupont University, where she
contends with alcohol, sex and coed bathrooms, and loses her innocence
in more ways than one. The novel's other types -- Wolfe doesn't have
characters as much as ''big, vivid blots of typology,'' as the critic
James Wood has written -- include Charlotte's snobby, anorexic
prep-school roommate; a dumb white basketball player with glimmerings
of intellectual curiosity and a Dupont-bought S.U.V.; a nerdy Jewish
intellectual who aspires to a Rhodes scholarship and writes term
papers for athletes; and a handsome, vicious, corrupt frat boy.
There's also an aging progressive ''antiathlete'' professor who wears
ill-fitting sweaters, and a Nobel laureate neuroscientist who's done
research on cats in heat and is impressed by a paper Charlotte writes
Reviewers have complained that ''I Am Charlotte Simmons'' fails as a
novel, since Wolfe never breaks free of the bonds of reportage to soar
to the imaginative heights good fiction demands; that at 676 pages
it's too long; and that, come on, college students aren't as debauched
and lost as all that, are they?
Or are they?
To get a sense of that, it's worth exploring how ''I Am Charlotte
Simmons'' has been received at colleges, where it is selling briskly.
The novel is at No. 8 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's campus
best-seller list -- below Jon Stewart's ''America,'' ''The Bush
Survival Guide,'' ''The Polar Express'' and ''He's Just Not That Into
Even some negative student reviews -- and there are many, including
some by readers at Harvard, Duke, the University of Michigan and the
University of Oklahoma -- have acknowledged a poignant accuracy in
Wolfe's portrayal of contemporary campus life.
''It's sort of amazing what this 74-year-old dandy has managed to pick
up,'' Eve Fairbanks, a Yale senior, writes in a rigorous essay in the
forthcoming Yale Review of Books, an undergraduate publication.
Fairbanks says she was ''fully prepared'' to hate the book, but
ultimately she and her friends found it ''pretty dead-on.''
For the most part, both on campus and off, the reviews have fallen
along ideological lines, with conservatives relishing Wolfe's
apocalyptic vision of moral decay and liberals decrying it. In a rave
in the conservative weekly National Review, John Derbyshire wrote that
under Dupont's ''cruel, oppressive cult of coolness, all point and
purpose drains out of life, and a dull, solipsistic hedonism takes
over.'' In Wolfe's ''depressing'' picture, he observed, ''the soul is
of no importance or interest to these kids because their elders
believe it does not exist.''
In panning the book in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Elaine
Showalter, a professor emerita at Princeton and a feminist scholar,
called the book ''bitchy, status-seeking and dissecting'' and lamented
that Wolfe ''totally misses the feminist revolution.'' Her
pronouncement that ''it takes a writer as snobbish, superficial and
insecure as Tom Wolfe (who got his own undergraduate degree from
Washington and Lee University, where he played baseball) to write such
puerile rubbish'' generated a few letters to the editor from readers
who noted the irony of Showalter's dismissing Wolfe on those grounds
while accusing him of snobbery.
Likewise, ''I Am Charlotte Simmons'' is most popular with
undergraduates who view it through a conservative lens. In The
Chronicle, a daily newspaper at Duke (which is said to be a model for
Dupont), Matt Gillum wrote, ''Judging from the hack reviews it
inspired, Dr. Wolfe appears to have pinched the nipple of truth way
too hard and got the liberals squealing.''
The book ''successfully defines the intellectual and moral free fall
of 21st-century academia,'' Benjamin Peisch wrote in The Bowdoin
Orient, a weekly newspaper at Bowdoin College with no obvious
political orientation. ''Best of all, he skewers modern academia.
Intellectual conversation has been smothered by rampant debauchery and
political correctness. Wild parties dominate the entire campus.
Athletes are given a free pass for four years. Professors are
handcuffed by campus politics.''
In The Michigan Review, a conservative magazine at the University of
Michigan, Matt Mulder wrote that ''I Am Charlotte Simmons''
foreshadows a revolution in which ''we, the few, the young and the
proudly conservative, have an opportunity to plant the seeds for
student revolution.'' He said the book unearths ''what many of us have
experienced for quite some time -- college life is characterized by an
obsession with sex, political correctness and moral absence.''
Others think Wolfe missed the mark. ''If Wolfe were to accurately
depict college life, he would have to start from a radically different
premise,'' an editorial in The Columbia Daily Spectator remarked.
''The same kids who can seem so fixated on status or sex actually have
professional and intellectual goals.''
In her review, Fairbanks says she was ''chastened'' by the way ''Wolfe
considers college not as a pollutant that infects perfectly good
people, but as a key player in the greater tragedy of human vanity.''
With ''I Am Charlotte Simmons,'' ''we see Wolfe's real worldview, and
it is bleak,'' she writes. ''In the face of Wolfe's black, black
vision, what can we do but throw our own hands up in defeat? You got
us, Tom. You got us good. . . . The parties, the alcohol, the vomit,
our sheeplike adaptation to it all. Should we move to Sparta,
Indeed, what is Wolfe recommending exactly? Avoid college? Become an
evangelical, the tradition in which Charlotte was raised and then
essentially abandons? That does seem to be an increasingly popular
route. In a recent book, ''God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and
the Missionary Generation Are Changing America'' (St. Martin's), Naomi
Schaefer Riley reports that the number of students enrolled in a
consortium of more than 100 Christian liberal arts colleges rose 60
percent between 1990 and 2002, while enrollment in secular colleges
remained essentially flat. The schools Riley researched -- including
the Mormon Brigham Young University, the fundamentalist Bob Jones
University and the Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva University -- don't look at
all like Dupont. There is little drinking, and students are expected
to marry before having sex.
Surely contemporary America offers a third way between, as it were,
the missionary calling and the missionary position. If so, ''I Am
Charlotte Simmons'' doesn't exactly offer one. In its obsession with
innocence and experience, with rural naïvete and cosmopolitan moral
pollution, with the clash between romantic idealism and the
indignities of reality, the book is in many ways Wolfe's answer to
''Madame Bovary,'' which Charlotte is reading in a French class she
later drops, after discovering it's aimed at athletes who, much to her
horror, are reading the novel in translation. In the end, Charlotte
falls for the guy who has all along been identified with Charles
Bovary, the tragic heroine's husband. ''Madame Bovary, c'est moi,''
Flaubert famously remarked. Is Wolfe saying, ''I am Charlotte
Perhaps one key to Wolfe's bleak vision lies on the page in which he
dedicates the book ''to my two collegians,'' his college-age daughter
and son, and thanks them for vetting it for undergraduate patois and
dorkiness. It's a charming dedication, and apparently heartfelt.
Indeed, one gets the sense that coursing through this book is the fear
and sadness of a father who has sent his children off into the world,
into the brutal state of nature that is American campus life.
This seems to resonate. ''I've heard more friends of mine lament the
effect it's had on their parents,'' Fairbanks, the Yale senior,
remarked in an e-mail message about the book. ''They complain that
their parents now call and anxiously ask about how the frat party they
went to last night was, which of their female roommates are anorexic
and which of the male ones are sex offenders, and whether they like
the newest release by 'Doctor Dis,' who they believe is a real rapper.
. . . In this way, the book is a bit dangerous. I know my own mother's
reading group, all moms of people my age, refuses to read the book
because they 'don't want to know.' ''
Rachel Donadio is an editor and writer at the Book Review.
More information about the paleopsych