Three decades ago, writer Tom Wolfe captured the excesses of the 1960s in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In the 1980s, he skewered the folly and emptiness of that decade in the great novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Now, in I Am Charlotte Simmons, he does the same for the early twenty-first century.
Wolfe?s novel covers some of the same ground as his previous book, Hooking Up. As the title suggests, part of that book dealt with the sexual mores of young Americans. Wolfe famously noted that, in the ?era of hooking up,? young people exchanged every possible body fluid before they exchanged names.
This hyper-sexual culture forms the backdrop to I Am Charlotte Simmons. In the book, Charlotte, a young woman with a Christian background, enters Dupont University, a stand-in for any of our most prestigious schools. There she discovers that nothing in her small-town North Carolina upbringing has prepared her for the world she faces.
The problem isn?t academic; it?s moral. Dupont is filled with students who, in their striving for academic and athletic excellence, have neglected what?s most important: excellence of character.
And that lack of character isn?t only a matter of sex, although that is where the moral cluelessness of Dupont?s students is most clearly displayed. It also shows up in their speech. Students who have aced the verbal portion of the SAT can scarcely utter a sentence without profanity?a verbal pattern that Wolfe reproduces with sometimes depressing fidelity.
Dupont?s amoral universe overcomes Charlotte?s Christian background. Though eventually she realizes how far she has fallen, it?s not before learning some very painful, humbling lessons.
Wolfe says that he didn?t write the novel ?with the notion that [he] was going to write any sort of indictment.? Instead, he was curious about contemporary college life. Especially since, as he put it, ?college had more and more replaced the church as the source of new values, of new ethical outlooks.?
If that?s the case, this new church is failing miserably. The drinking, profanity, and sex are only symptoms of a much larger malady. ?Building ?character? is no longer an essential component of a college education,? Wolfe says, something ?you?ll never hear? university officials address. He goes on to note that ?the decline of religion among the educated and well-to-do? is the cause of much of the decay portrayed in his novel. Amen.
One critic called Wolfe?s novel ?peculiarly dated,? implying that students no longer behave as depicted in the book. I haven?t seen any evidence that the behavior has changed, nor, I suspect, has the reviewer. Wolfe is one of the best and most insightful writers of our time. I don?t recommend you read this book, however, because it is graphic and vulgar?though, as expected, beautifully written.
But the real point is not the novel itself; it?s the message. Wolfe has given our culture a warning shot across the bow.
At this time of year, as students are waiting to hear about early admission or what college they?re going to, the message is clear: As Charlotte Simmons learned the hard way, tending after the life of the mind while neglecting the state of our soul is the worst kind of folly.
For further reading and information:
Today?s BreakPoint offer: In Ask Me Anything?a great Christmas gift for the college student you know!?a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Dr. J. Budziszewski (aka Professor Theophilus) answers piercing, real life questions, the same urgent questions he receives from students on campus or through his regular column on the webzine, boundless.org.
Don Aucoin, ? Tom Wolfe Is Taking the Flak in Stride ,? International Herald Tribune, 12 November 2004.
Michiko Kakutani, ? So Where?s the Zeitgeist? It Just Looks like College ,? New York Times, 29 October 2004. (Free registration required.)
Sean McMeekin, ? I Am Charlotte Simmons, sinner ,? Boundless, 9 December 2004.
Joseph Bottum, ? School Days ,? Weekly Standard, 22 November 2004.
Ron Charles, ? The groves of Sodom and Gomorrah U. ,? Christian Science Monitor, 9 November 2004.
Bob Minzsheimer, ? ?Charlotte?s? campus runs on sex ,? Arizona Republic, 14 November 2004.
Jacob Weisberg, ? Peeping Tom ,? New York Times, 28 November 2004. (Free registration required.)
?Tom Wolfe Goes to College with ?Charlotte Simmons,? ? All Things Considered, NPR, 10 November 2004.
Diana West, ? Mucking out the media barn ,? Townhall.com, 6 December 2004.
Paul Lieberman, ? Students treat Tom Wolfe to a new education ,? Chicago Tribune, 7 December 2004.
Charles Colson with Anne Morse, ? Worldview Boot Camp: Evangelical young people need training in the truth about truth ,? Christianity Today, 9 December 2004.
?A Chill in the Classroom ,? Wall Street Journal, 3 December 2004.
Kelly Monroe, Finding God at Harvard (Zondervan, 1997).