on 16 January 2017
In his first two novels, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full”, Tom Wolfe satirised American big business and the country’s legal system; with his third, “I am Charlotte Simmons”, he turns his attention to education. The title character is an intellectually brilliant working-class girl from an impoverished rural backwater of North Carolina who wins a scholarship to Dupont University. (The university is a fictitious one, although it is supposedly set in a real town, Chester, Pennsylvania). The plot deals with the relationships between Charlotte and three male admirers- Hoyt Thorpe (a member of the exclusive Saint Ray fraternity), Joseph “Jojo” Johanssen (a star athlete on the college's basketball team) and Adam Gellin (a politically radical journalist on the college newspaper).
There are two institutions at American universities which seem incomprehensible to outsiders, the fraternity system and the sports programmes which allow star athletes to benefit from a college education, however modest their academic achievements may be. It is these two institutions which lie at the centre of the novel. Dupont has a particularly successful basketball team whose members are held in the highest regard by most of their fellow students. The team’s coach, Buster Roth, is a national celebrity whose earnings, boosted by endorsements, come to two million dollars a year, far more than the salary of any of the academic staff, including the College President.
Dupont is supposed to be an elite, Ivy League establishment, on a par with Harvard, Yale or Princeton, the sort of place where a high proportion of the faculty are Nobel Prize winners. It therefore surprised me that much of the student body, as described by Wolfe, is pervaded by a culture of anti-intellectualism. The most important thing, for most students, is to be seen as “cool”, and there is a widespread belief that coolness and academic effort are mutually incompatible. This attitude is particularly common among the athletes and the frat boys, who regard diligent study more as a vice than as a virtue, and those like Jojo’s friend Charles or Hoyt’s friend Vance who actually do work hard and achieve good grades are careful to hide this fact from their colleagues. Even outside the basketball team and the fraternity building, however, many students have a similar attitude and value social success more than the intellectual variety. Charlotte’s snobbish, upper-class room-mate Beverly, for example, is far more interested in getting drunk and sleeping around than she is in the subjects she is supposed to be studying.
Like most of his fraternity, Hoyt Thorpe is a male version of Beverly- good looking, sexually promiscuous, hard-drinking and with a powerful sense of entitlement. Although his grades are poor and his family are not as grand as he likes to make out, he believes that, merely by virtue of his membership of Saint Ray, he is entitled to some position of power at the heart of American society, preferably in the financial sector where the big bucks are to be made.
Adam Gellin is very different to Hoyt, and in some ways much nicer. (He is, for example, a sincere and generous friend to Charlotte, whom Hoyt treats badly). He is genuinely intelligent and works hard at his studies. He too, however, has his own sense of entitlement. He is part of a left-wing intellectual clique who call themselves the “Millennial Mutants” and who believe that by virtue of their supposed intellectual gifts they are the future movers and shakers of the world, entitled to some position of power at the heart of American society, preferably in Government or in some opinion-forming body. There are also some curious gaps in Adam’s knowledge; a self-proclaimed radical intellectual, for example, really should have known that Karl Marx was German, not Austrian, and that his “Das Kapital” was written in the 1860s, not the 1880s.
Jojo undergoes considerable character development in the course of the novel. In the early chapters he is the stereotypical “dumb jock”, living only for basketball. (His great ambition is to become a professional player in the NBA). He largely ignores his academic work, doing only the bare minimum demanded of him, and sometimes not even that. (An important plot development occurs when Jojo persuades Adam to write an essay for him). Yet, partly as a result of Charlotte’s influence, his personality undergoes a change. He starts to take a genuine interest in academic subjects and even signs up for an intellectually rigorous course in Greek philosophy, despite thereby incurring the scorn of Coach Roth who insists that his athletes should only take least demanding courses possible. (There are similarities between Jojo and Conrad in “A Man in Full” who also undergoes personal development as a result of exposure to Greek thought). Although, in terms of points on the IQ scale, Jojo is probably less “intelligent” than someone like Hoyt Thorpe, he has more potential to benefit from his time at Dupont. At least he has learned that knowledge and learning can be valuable in their own right, not simply as a means to some materialistic goal.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as either “The Bonfire of the Vanities” or “A Man in Full”, and I think that the main reason for this was that Charlotte, the novel’s main character, is also a rather contradictory one. On the one hand, we are told that she is not only formidably intelligent but also beautiful and self-confident. On the other hand she finds it difficult to make friends, yearns to be accepted by Beverly and her set (even though she can see just how shallow they are), worries about whether she can get Hoyt as a boyfriend (even though it should be obvious to her that he is a worthless bastard) and is thrown into a deep depression when he cruelly dumps her after their one sexual encounter.
Part of Charlotte’s problem is that she finds it difficult to reconcile the values of her home town with those of the university. At first she tries to live according to the Puritanical moral code she has learned from her devoutly Christian family, especially her mother, but slides towards an acceptance of the far more hedonistic Dupont ethos, possibly because in Charlotte’s case the intellectual principle behind this code is not so much “What would Jesus do?” as “What would Momma say?” Wolfe never really makes it clear whether Charlotte actually shares Momma’s religious beliefs. Towards the end of the novel he implies that she does not, but makes curiously little of this fact, even though from Momma’s point of view Charlotte’s abandoning her Christian faith would be a far worse sin than her trying alcohol, or even losing her virginity.
Apart from the sex scenes, which as other reviewers have pointed out are horribly clinical, another reason why I was less impressed by this novel than by its predecessors is that Wolfe’s picture of the American academic world never really came to life in the same way as his portrayal of, say, high finance in “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. Some “campus novels” (“Lucky Jim”, “Places Where They Sing”, “Porterhouse Blue”) have concentrated on the university teaching staff, but this one concentrates far more on the students themselves, and Wolfe, already in his seventies when he wrote the book, gives the impression that he does not have much interest in, or sympathy for, the younger generation. He seems to take it as granted that the unattractive qualities which he objects to in a few students- drunkenness, promiscuity, snobbery, anti-intellectualism- are widespread throughout the student body as a whole; the “Millennial Mutants” are presented as exceptions to a general rule, a small spark of intellectual light in the vast Philistine darkness that is Dupont University. If that is really Tom Wolfe’s view of his country’s young people one wonders why he bothered to write an entire novel about them.