Such a generous helping of stereotype and hyperbole as Tom Wolfe serves up in I Am Charlotte Simmons might leave readers feeling over-satiated, but I’d hate to make too much of it. The effect here isn’t quite Wodehousean hilarity, but it works surprisingly well.
We begin as Charlotte, graduating at the top of her high school class and earning myriad honors and plaudits, leaves her North Carolina mountain town of Sparta behind for the luminous Dupont University, constructed fictitiously in southeastern Pennsylvania. Sparta looks much like its location and name suggest it would, a rustic backwater full of inarticulate and unscholarly (but buoyant and stoical) townsfolk. This environment never satisfied Charlotte, and her more simple-minded classmates never warmed to her bright disposition. But not to worry, her teacher and mentor Miss Pennington tells her: “I’m not going to let you look back. You’ve got to keep your eyes on the future.”
And Charlotte’s is a future that any member of the northeastern cognoscenti would want her to keep her eyes on. Miss Pennington herself, though a southerner, exhibits some curiously blue-state attributes. She has no family; she quotes Nietzsche approvingly; she provokes Charlotte’s mother to wonder if she is “sophisticated, worldly-wise, and erudite.” From her vantage point, and from Charlotte’s, Dupont seems like an Athenian paradise.
It looks a little different from Wolfe’s angle. Our first glimpses of Dupont introduce us to inebriated frat boys and muscle-head jocks. For all the cerebral elevation Charlotte believes she could find here, Dupont’s Greek community seems more concerned with reaching that “exquisite point of toxic poise,” and its athletes appear more anxious about game records than grades. This atmosphere effectively stifles the college’s real intellectuals.
A boy from each of these cadres hopes to win Charlotte’s affections. She first meets Jojo Johanssen, an anomalously white star basketball player who hires a tutor, the brainy but awkward Adam Gellin, to write a history paper, shortly before undergoing a (rather far-fetched) epiphany rendering him more eager for a meaningful education.
Charlotte later meets Hoyt Thorpe, a lecherous frat boy who early on tries to take advantage of her at a party, but who (deceivingly) convinces her that he has more respectable intentions. Hoyt has also witnessed a Dupont student fellate last year’s commencement speaker, the moralizing GOP governor of California.
Adam is Charlotte’s third suitor. Adam is a mild-mannered but politically radical school newspaper reporter hoping to divulge Hoyt’s secret, at the same time fearing expulsion for abetting Jojo’s plagiarism.
Charlotte’s experiences with these men prove, in varied ways, quite trying, and her relationship with Hoyt leaves her especially dejected. Wolfe’s plot is captivating enough to make up for his deficient humor, and the attention he gives to the demands placed on young virtuous women by wayward men deserves hearty commendation, though his contemporaries will likely not give it to him.
Wolfe has an acute appreciation of our interdependence as human beings, for our every action’s provoking reactions in those around us. Charlotte, throughout the novel, attempts to remind herself that her destiny remains in her own hands, and that her integrity (principally her sexual integrity) can’t be soiled by the likes of Hoyt Thorpe. The refrain “I am Charlotte Simmons,” which she now and again recites, speaks not merely to who she is but to who she is not.
Charlotte may not be like Hoyt or the legion of sorority girls with whom he and his frat brothers routinely hook up, but Wolfe has it written pretty boldly upon the wall just how easily she can stay her sweet, unworldly self. Wolfe provides us an analogy in which we learn that Charlotte’s Nobel Prize-winning neuroscience professor, Victor Ransome Starling, once extracted the amygdala (the part of the brain that keeps emotions in check) from thirty cats. These cats became fiendishly oversexed, but so too did the cats in the control group that retained their amygdalas but could observe the other cats from their cages:
Over a period of weeks they had become so thoroughly steeped in an environment of hypermanic sexual obsession that behaviour induced surgically in the amygdalectomized cats had been induced in the controls without any intervention whatsoever. Starling had discovered that a strong social or “cultural” atmosphere, even as abnormal as this one, could in time overwhelm the genetically determined responses of perfectly normal, healthy animals.
What professor Starling discovered about those cats doesn’t bode well for poor Charlotte.
Delightfully, Wolfe treats youthful apologies for libertinism as infantile rubbish. College, Charlotte’s high school friend Laurie exhorts her, “is the time to cut loose! To really learn about everything! To learn about guys, to really get to know them! Really find out what goes on in the world.” College is indeed the time to find out what goes on in the world; that carnal knowledge preoccupies Laurie more than any other subject makes her seem more philistine than curious.
Wolfe’s theme, by turns reactionary and populist, made me want to love the book, and I really came close. But if he has identified a serious problem with contemporary youth, he answers it by indicting some rather anachronistic culprits. Yes, yes, we all know what randy brutes those jocks and frat boys can be, but didn’t the leftist “intellectuals” of Adam Gellin’s ilk play their part in making college campuses the sex-crazed communities they now are? We hear a friend of Adam’s speak at length about the praise college students bestow upon athletes, likening it to medieval enthusiasm for the derring-do of knights. “When knights were victorious in battle,” he says, “one of their rewards was random sex”. Nothing has changed in a thousand years!” That something did change is lost even on Wolfe. (Sexual revolution, anyone?)
But still, Wolfe has written a fine story, with a fine, if compromised, message. Readers with enough time to plough through his 676 pages of vibrant text should find it worthwhile.
Bradley J. Vasoli is an internet editor for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC, and a recent graduate of American University’s School of Public Affairs.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire