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May 15, 2006

"The rueful, amused, finally despairing, but abidingly stylish, meditations of a Southern gentleman marooned in a Yankee empire": I Am Charlotte Simmons - Tom Wolfe

Posted by David Womersley

I Am Charlotte Simmons
by Tom Wolfe
Pp. xiv + 738. London: Viking, 2004
Paperback, 7.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Why do people go to university at eighteen? Why do the nations of the world think that the right time at which to ask people to concentrate on often abstract questions of academic interest harder than they have ever concentrated in the past, and harder than almost all of them will have to concentrate thereafter, is at the very moment when the distracting pleasures of incipient adulthood are at their most attractive and importunate, and when the opportunities for indulging those pleasures have expanded, with the move away from home, from the normally meagre to the completely limitless? Whatever the reasons may be, they presumably don't include the conviction that this is above all the period in life when people are best fitted to pursue what Charlotte Simmons, in Tom Wolfe's energetic and subtle novel of campus life, touchingly calls "the life of the mind".

Charlotte Simmons is a bright high-school girl from Sparta, Alleghany County, North Carolina who wins a scholarship to Dupont University a fictional campus which, however, bears affinities to such universities as Duke, Yale and Princeton. At Dupont, she stands out for two reasons: firstly, the immiseration of her background (a richly comic scene occurs early in the novel when Charlotte and her new room-mate, Beverley, who comes from a monied East Coast family, go out for dinner with their families at obedient to the insistence of Charlotte'sfather the Sizzlin' Skillet, largely on the grounds of the size of its portions); secondly, the seriousness with which she pursues her studies, rather than the pursuit of drunkenness and debauchery which alone engages the enthusiasm of her fellow students. The main narrative hook of the novel is, Will Charlotte Simmons remain Charlotte Simmons, or will she become acculturated to the hedonism of her environment?

Around the character of Charlotte Simmons Wolfe arranges other figures: Jojo Johanssen, the basketball player whose dominance on court is threatened by a talented freshman, and whose academic yearnings, hitherto systematically repressed by the requirements of the athletics program at Dupont, are encouraged by the friendship he cultivates with Charlotte; Hoyt Thorpe, the fratboy from a bogus background who seduces Charlotte, and whom Wolfe punishes at the end of the novel by snatching away from him the sinecure at a New York investment bank he had been offered as a consequence of having observed an important politician in a compromising situation; and Adam Gellin, the clever but impoverished student making ends meet by delivering pizza and by acting as a "tutor" (a.k.a. essay-writer) to those oxymoronic members of the university community, the "student-athletes", such as Jojo.

The fable that Wolfe constructs around these characters is distributed with an odd unevenness across the length of the novel; one has a sense of the plot accelerating alarmingly over the final one hundred and fifty pages, as the book races towards its catastrophe in unmitigated disaster for Hoyt Thorpe, near-disaster for Adam Gellin, redemption for Jojo Johanssen, and absorption into the prevailing student culture for the once proudly-separate Charlotte Simmons.

It would be easy to ascribe this rush for the exit to Wolfe's being more interested in describing a particular milieu campus life in America today than in constructing a novel. Certainly, Wolfe seems to have put in the hours on field-work so as to get the details of the milieu right. And yet the fable of the novel is not perfunctory; it possesses interesting, although perhaps insufficiently developed, features. The novel's title the defiant proclamation of intrinsic and inviolable character which is Charlotte's mantra as she navigates the shoals and whirlpools of Dupont life rings increasingly false as the book progresses. This is a world in which there is no authenticity, in which all are corrupted by the craving for attention, in which the visual is the measure of value. The book opens with Hoyt Thorpe checking out his own looks in a washroom mirror:

His attention was riveted on what he saw in the mirror, which was his own fair white face. A gale was blowing in his head. He liked it!
And at the end of the novel, with his future in smoking ruins, Hoyt is curiously consoled by reflecting on how good he looks in the photograph accompanying the story in the newspaper which blows his life apart:
But that picture that picture! Could any college boy ever look better than that?
It's almost as if the photograph the fact of having, on one occasion, generated an image so perfect is a sufficient compensation for the destruction of every avenue which might lead to a useful and contented future.

The heroic superficiality of this world extends everywhere: to the Nobel-laureate neurobiologist Victor Starling, whose lectures and whose carefully-chosen (but revolting) clothes are expressions of the cult of personality; to Jojo Johanssen, who requires the adulation of the crowds at basketball games; and to Charlotte herself, whose exhilarations at moments of academic triumph from her commencement day speech at her high school, to the moment when Starling singles her out in a lecture for answering a question with particular accuracy are all shaped by display, ostentation, and the pleasing consciousness of being observed. As she reflects with perceptive honesty in the book's closing paragraphs:

Wasn't it Charlotte Simmons who wanted a life of the mind? Or was what she wanted all along to be considered special and to be admired for that in itself, no matter how she achieved it?
Nor does the mode of pastoral offer any solution. Despite the love and loyalty of Charlotte's family, Sparta and Alleghany County are the abodes of nothing more than deprivation, repression and ignorance. Charlotte is right to leave it behind. But what should she embrace instead? In modern America, so Wolfe suggests, heaven is to be observed with envy, hell to be observed with scorn or (even worse) simply overlooked. There are no inner sources of well-being, there is no intrinsic resource which can be opposed to any effect against the shocks administered by the outside world. Those who might seem to have that inner strength such as Charlotte's parents are able to preserve the appearance of integrity only by segregating themselves sedulously from temptation. They are the embodiment of Milton's fugitive and cloistered virtue.

I Am Charlotte Simmons, then, shows Wolfe in his customary mode of half satire, half dispassionate diagnosis, contemplating another aspect of the fascinating surface of American mores. These are the rueful, amused, finally despairing, but abidingly stylish, meditations of a Southern gentleman marooned in a Yankee empire.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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