[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Tom Wolfe) The Old College Try

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The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Essay: The Old College Try


    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
    refuting Darwin.

    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.

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