The IWF’s Jan. 18 panel on Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons aired this weekend on C-SPAN (click here for streaming video), and we got a raft of e-mails about whether or not Wolfe “got” contemporary college life in his novel. At “Charlotte Simmons”‘s fictional Ivy-style Dupont University, young high-SAT achievers frolic, fornicate, and booze, booze, booze to their hearts’ content without moral guidance or supervision from mature adults.
On the panel the New York Times’s David Brooks said Wolfe didn’t pay enough attention to the idealism and academic seriousness of many college students, while author (and IWF board member) Christina Hoff Sommers said that Wolfe didn’t pay enough attention to the gurus of postmodern political correctness who are the students’ teachers. John Derbyshire of National Review liked the novel because of its theme of mechanistic brain biology replacing traditional philosophical notions of the mind and soul, while Michael Dirda of the Washington Post didn’t like the novel because he found Wolfe mechanistic in other ways: his plotting and his judgmentalism with regard to college sexual mores.
Here’s what some of our readers say, starting with C.M.:
“[A]s a college student, I was intrigued to see what someone who is so obviously far removed from his own college experience would say. Despite Mr. Wolfe’s otherwise dated appearance and demeanor, he does to a certain extent manage to portray the college youth of today. Certain generalizations are standard at most campuses: there are athletes like Jojo [the jock], fraternity guys like Hoyt [the vain, lazy, and fraudulent cad], and girls like Charlotte [the innocent small-town girl consecrated to the life of the mind who is inevitably destroyed]. These individual characters are only a few specs on the whole collegiate spectrum.
“A better way to generalize today’s college students would be to say that we as a whole have taken the party mentality of the Sixties and combined it with the work ethic of the Fifties and created a ‘work hard, play hard’ philosophy. Students today now have to be more competitive than ever before to land the same jobs that were given to high school graduates in Mr. Wolfe’s days…While all this is happening, we are being tugged the other way by the MTV/Spring Break culture. (e.g., any magazine or TV. show targeting teenagers).”
So maybe both Brooks and Wolfe are right. Now for R.K. from the other side (she’s a high school youth services director):
“Since we set 18 as the age of ‘adulthood,’ we start emancipating youth at [age] 14. What parents go to high school PTA meetings? not many I assure you. Even in middle school parents often feel out of it and leave the kids entirely to the schools while they work two to four jobs jobs to keep money to support expensive homes in the suburbs and money for later education.”
“Mr. Wolfe is spot on in his analysis. Some of your panelists are deluding themselves. Mr. Wolfe has done us a great service to highlight a major problem.”
And finally, K.C.:
“Anyone who thinks Tom Wolfe is exaggerating campus hooking up might take a look at this advice column. While the writer gives pretty good advice to the lovelorn (and room-mate crazed) young, I’m always astonished at how many young women mess themselves up over guys they have casual sex with. Take a gander at today’s letters.”
I did. The site’s called Tomato Nation, and it’s pretty amazing. I don’t know which item in Sarah D. Bunting’s online advice column intrigued me more–the gal who’s falling in love, a no-no, with her “f—buddy” (that’s a synonym for “friends with benefits,” the term used on my campus) or the guy who was trying to do his homework at his dorm-room desk while his drunken roommate and girlfriend (or maybe f—buddy) snogged it two feet away in the bed. This is real-life stuff. Who says Tom Wolfe’s just an aging voyeur?