I Am Charlotte Simmons: Tom Wolfe on college life

By Colin Williams

When I first stumbled upon Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” I checked it out expecting a critique of the triviality of college. It is just that. Wolfe did his homework, going out and researching terms like “floorcest” and “getting head.” However, the aging journalist/novelist’s recent conservative bent shows. “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” while bringing up good talking points on today’s college scene, is unreasonably harsh in its portrayal of the hedonism of students.The plot of the novel consists mainly of Charlotte Simmons’ personal journey through freshman year at the fictional Dupont University, which is loosely based mainly on Duke but also on Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania. The three Men Who Would Get With Charlotte-a frat boy, a basketball star and a nerd-also take up a lot of the narrative space.

Essentially, Charlotte is a ridiculously na’ve yet somehow staggeringly brilliant backcountry girl from North Carolina. She is apparently stunningly beautiful yet unaware of this, as well as extremely conservative despite her very extensive reading in English and French. While at first appalled by Dupont’s excesses, she eventually falls into the party scene, intrigued by her effect on men. Through her little-used feminine wiles, she draws a basketball star out of the court and onto a more academic path and causes the nerd to fall in love with her. Unfortunately for her, she is also taken to a frat formal by the frat boy, named Hoyt Thorpe, who promptly gets her wasted and takes her virginity. Her shame at being so used leads her on a quest for redemption that ends up with her dating the basketball star, and everyone lives happily ever after, except the evil frat boy who is exposed by the nerd for an unrelated subplot involving fellatio and a fictional governor of California.

The plot isn’t terrible but it is a bit excessive. This review would have been out probably two weeks ago were it not for the 676 pages of Wolfeian prose. Nonetheless, there is a lot to talk about in this novel. For starters, the characters. Charlotte herself strikes me as improbable. She is at once ignorant and chaste yet very, very well-read and good-looking. This balance of character traits seems a little unlikely, and her “mama’s little girl” attitude feels too contrived. Hoyt Thorpe is also a two-dimensional character, all frat boy antics and lust, but he’s less off-base than the also two-dimensional virgin nerd or the basketball star. The rest of the students at Dupont are usually stupid, grunting guys who chase blondes around the quad-this seriously happens in every chapter-or loser-types who hole up in the library or gossip in the hallways.

For a party-oriented state school, I could see some if not many of these stereotypes being fulfilled. But Dupont is portrayed as a high-class Pennsylvania school that is “second, behind Princeton,” in the US News rankings. From a Macalester perspective, it is even easier to see this disparity between intellect and conduct as completely fake. Charlotte often mentions the 1490 SAT average, which seems contradicted by the sheer number of stupid people Wolfe has infesting the Gothic halls of good ol’ Dupont with their rap music and their sexiling. Wolfe’s very conservative distaste for hooking up is writ large all over this book. Charlotte’s first time is portrayed as an epic sin against herself, and immediately following sex, frat boy Hoyt can be overhead commenting on “her hillbilly beaver.” While the emotionless sex that has become pervasive in colleges definitely leaves something to be desired, Wolfe leaves no doubt as to his distaste for one-night stands.

However, this book does expose some of the college ridiculousness that has yet to be properly addressed. In particular, he comes down hard on the overprivileged athletes of the Division I NCAA ilk. The U of M apparently has giant, air-conditioned suites for their football team, and the way in which other “student-athletes” at big schools are favored with absurd amounts of academic “help,” new cars and the ardor of more than a few groupies who stop by to service team members seems pretty ridiculous when compared to the relative squalor in which the best students live. Wolfe does his best to eschew this lifestyle and I agree with him on that point, at least.

Wolfe also attacks the US News rating culture which encourages college administrators to take steps such as putting their star teams up in swanky apartments or, say, building new athletic centers and Institutes for Global Citizenship. Dupont’s president immediately thinks of the rankings when trying to sort out a plagiarism mess involving the nerd and the basketball star, and the extensiveness of Wolfe’s journalism skills are brought out in the way things are fudged to reflect better test scores, higher diversity and other favorable selling points.

Overall, I think it’s harder to relate to some of the book after having been at Mac for two years. The flat characters, the overprivileged athletes, the debauchery of frat-palace keggers-honestly, none of these are things I can say I’ve seen at Mac. For other students, “I Am Charlotte Simmons” may more accurately reflect reality. In many schools, frats do rule the party scene, and there really is a decent incidence of loud chases through the quad. But Wolfe is still exaggerating. The book’s Dupont seems unrealistic and hyperbolic given the high caliber of its education, and I think Wolfe has done with “I Am Charlotte Simmons” what he has done with his critiques of art and architecture: exaggerated because the way it used to be is just so much nicer and easier to understand for him. While Wolfe’s moral outrage is sometimes well-directed as in some of his other books, I think his attempt at exposing college debauchery ultimately falls short.