Lisa Roy Vox: Review of Tom Wolfe's, I Am Charlotte Simmons (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)
Ms. Vox is a Ph.D. Candidate, U.S. History, Emory University.
As a post-1945 U.S. historian looking ahead for what will be the sources which had the most to say about United States culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Tom Wolfe’s belief in literary realism, in the “non-fiction novel” that lays bare before the public an unforgiving portrait of itself, is admittedly a very attractive notion. Wolfe’s latest effort, I Am Charlotte Simmons, published in November 2004, attempts to document the present-day college experience. In my U.S. history classes, I like to include novels as primary sources. For instance, I have assigned Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976) to prompt discussion about day-to-day divisions within the Civil Rights Movement; Walker reveals, in a way I cannot, the passions and tensions that consumed black and white young workers in the early Civil Rights Movement as they came into close contact and inevitably established romantic and sexual relationships in a highly politicized context. And so my sympathies have lain with Wolfe’s efforts to “document” American life in a narrative style.
Wolfe has not been humble about his approach; in a November 1989 Harper’s Magazine article, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” he compared himself to past luminaries ranging from Charles Dickens to Sinclair Lewis, all of whom, he maintained, recognized the importance of material; not content to drawn upon the personal, these authors went into society as observers, and wrote about what they saw, not about their inner turmoil. Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), had fit this model he outlined and had invited comparisons to Dickens (which continued with A Man in Full in 1998). I Am Charlotte Simmons, however, has not invited Dickens comparisons. While Wolfe did his research—visiting universities in preparation—reviewers have tended to agree that Wolfe’s portrayal is uneven at best.
Through the eyes of a pure, small-town and brilliant freshman named Charlotte Simmons, readers are a given a view of university life thoroughly suffused with sex. As concerned as ever with status, Wolfe suggests in this novel that status is directly related to students’ sexual activities. Simmons is as beautiful as she is naïve, which renders her doubly attractive to upperclassmen. From a poor, rural town in North Carolina, Simmons spends her first semester torn between sexual desires (but read status concerns) and her virtue.
At his best in the novel, Wolfe describes Charlotte surrendering to temptation and engaging in painful sex with a senior fraternity man, Hoyt, who humiliatingly dumps her afterwards. The scene is rife with wincing detail; Charlotte experiences searing pain when her indifferent lover, Hoyt, penetrates her; finished, he abruptly stands up instead of holding her in his arms as she had imagined. Adding to her humiliation, he expresses disgust at her virginal blood on the hotel bed sheets. Afterwards, Hoyt ends their relationship and spreads embarrassing rumors about the incident. The disillusionment of her first sexual experience sends Charlotte reeling into a deep depression.
While such scenes read startlingly true in some ways-- Charlotte’s physical and emotional pain, clinical depression, the immaturity of a first sexual relationship—Wolfe’s attempt to capture the American university fails in significant ways. Wolfe said in an NPR interview (All Things Considered, 11/10/04) that students revealed that during sexual encounters they often think about status questions—am I doing this right? Will I seem too timid? Should I go all the way? The result is that Wolfe consciously writes about sex in strictly biological language to de-eroticize the encounters. When Charlotte engages in foreplay, her thoughts are not about desire, but about the prestige of kissing, touching, and having sex with a reputable man on campus. Wolfe denies Charlotte any true sexual feelings (except for some strange and frequent references to “wet panties” to indicate her arousal).
Wolfe sees sex on college campuses as devoid of romance. While the men in Wolfe’s novel are characterized in lustful terms during sex, the women are doing it for pragmatic reasons. Sex becomes a timed race to de-virginize freshman girls for fraternity members, a “right” for male athletes, and a mark of manhood for the bookishly inclined men on campus. For the women? It’s all about sleeping with the right guy to be in the right circles; similarly, a woman can be fucked out of a social circle as well, which is what happens to Charlotte.
Campus sexual politics are still sexist—as evidenced by the still extant phrases of a woman’s “walk of shame” and a man’s “walk of fame” back to a dorm room following a sex tryst. Wolfe’s portrait, however, is unconsciously rather than observantly sexist in the sense of denying self-awareness and clear motives to his female protagonist. Indeed, Wolfe both deprives Charlotte a sense of self and directly reveals his own sexist slant when during the novel a male friend of Charlotte orders the depressed Charlotte out of bed to take her exams: “Charlotte abruptly stopped crying and stared up at Adam with her mouth slightly open and her tearful eyes shining . . . with respect bordering oddly on pleasure, as women sometimes do when a man claims the high ground and rebukes them” (583). Charlotte is denied any sort of sexual awakening or initial sheer bodily pleasure at the anticipation of sex, even while Wolfe acknowledges that much for the men. From reading Wolfe in 2004, it would seem another sexual revolution has taken place since the 1960s—bored with sexuality free of supervision and constraints, the young have turned sex into just a ritualistic act that determines their pecking order. Young women, it would seem from reading Wolfe, have not gained much over previous generations; in his novel, they still are not having sex for their own pleasure.
Wolfe’s most puzzling description, however, is of Charlotte’s struggle over the temptations which besiege her at college. Charlotte comes from rural North Carolina to a sophisticated university, which, according to the novel, rivals Harvard. Wolfe never assigns her determination in this new environment to remain “pure” clear motives. Is it merely her dedication to her upbringing which stressed remaining a virgin before marriage? In only a few instances, does Wolfe refer to Charlotte’s home surroundings as overtly religious in its culture (24, 153). For a young woman in 2004 with traditional values from rural North Carolina, close to her family, and determined to remain virginal, only an explanation that involves a strong religious identity could decipher Charlotte’s extreme angst over the widespread temptations of alcohol, sex, and even cursing present at college. When Charlotte initially puts off Hoyt’s slow sexual advances, she is torn between the dizzy appeal of their encounters and the resulting elevation of her status and her sense that she should not engage in sexual exploration. Here she is a poorly drawn character. She does not, for instance, pray, attend church, seek out other Christians, read the Bible or even think about anything religious. When she worries about whether she should or should not have sex, religious considerations do not enter the picture. As she slowly gives in, there is no concomitant religious crisis. Her concerns are all secular—and her torment over giving into sexual temptation, then, is not fully credible given the biographical background Wolfe has given Charlotte.
Unfortunately Wolfe’s purported reluctance to engage in psychological analyses of characters and stick to surface observations resulted in a mistake that historians, journalists and other observers have been making for decades—neglecting the importance of religion to Americans. The students with whom Wolfe came into contact may not have mentioned religion—these are private struggles, much more private and harder to vocalize for a young teenager or twenty-something than a drunken sexual experience—but Wolfe’s own knowledge of American culture should have informed him on this point. With historians and journalists awakening to religion’s prominent role in American culture, Wolfe has little excuse for failing to recognize a dilemma that often overwhelms students from backgrounds with traditional or religious values—especially from small-town families with close ties—when encountering the pressure and desire to have sex at college.
Reviews have been rather critical. While Wolfe may have been compared to Dickens previously, most reviewers are content to open their reviews by mocking his famous suits and commenting that Wolfe’s genius is largely missing in this latest one. Because of Wolfe’s carefully crafted eccentric public persona, his authorial presence is so much more intrusive than other authors’; when reading I Am Charlotte Simmons, one cannot help but imagine Wolfe wandering around the campuses he lists as having visited for research. Did he attend frat parties in that suit?
I have yet to come across the obvious observation about Wolfe; as a displaced Southerner who only wears cream-colored suits, who enjoys berating fellow authors, who prides himself on an ear for language (as in I Am Charlotte Simmons, commenting on college students’ current pervasive swearing habits), Wolfe wants to be the modern Mark Twain. In his 1989 essay detailing his literary ancestors, Wolfe tellingly leaves out the most obvious American forebear of an author who meets his ideal—Twain. Wolfe, however, is no Mark Twain for modern America. Wolfe betrays his own stated purposes of literature by falling in love with his title character at the end of I Am Charlotte Simmons, instead of remaining faithful to “realism” no matter the painful costs. Like a god who rewards and punishes according to a noble ideal of justice, Wolfe arbitrarily grants Charlotte a happy ending and Hoyt, her tormentor, an unhappy one. The novel ends with Charlotte in a relationship with a popular basketball player whom she remakes into a monogamous, respectful, studious man with ambitions beyond the court and who, by being her devoted boyfriend, raises her status to boot. Hoyt, meanwhile, graduates with no hope for a job with any high status or earning potential. It is a strange ending for an author who prides himself on realism, and thus a harsh portrait of life where the just and good hardly ever are rewarded simply for being just that.
Wolfe has been at his best when examining upper-class men in sectors of society where one would expect to find status as a primary concern—Wall Street and Southern high society. Wolfe visited college campuses with the a priori concept of status as central to American life. He discovered campuses saturated with sex, and what he heard, interpreted, and wrote about sex, then, was filtered through his belief about the importance of status. The resulting picture was so dismal and so antithetical to the way most of us think about a basic human function and need—sex—that even Wolfe had to chisel a hole into the end of the tunnel to let in some light by giving readers a happy ending, however unsatisfactory and ill-suited. Maybe Wolfe should have just asked himself if he had gotten it right in the first place.
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