"At 74, Tom Wolfe has become an old fart…" (Chicago Sun-Times). "He is now 73, an age when many individuals may tend…" (The Independent). "It might be that…his 73-year-old sensibilities…" (The Seattle Times). "You might think that someone who graduated from college 53 years ago would be the wrong person to write a novel about contemporary college students…. You'd be right." (San Jose Mercury News).
All contemporary American college students know, as does Tom Wolfe, that to talk like this on a campus today is taboo. Judgment of skill or ability, direct or implied, on the basis of race, sex, gender, disability, national origin, religion, sexual preference, or birthday accrual creates a negative and disempowering climate, and as such is prohibited by Sections 2d, 4e, and 76a of the nondiscrimination code of every university. People trying to explain why they understand American college life better than Tom Wolfe should know this. Ageists have no place on the American campus, nor in reviewing the work of old fogeys who write about it.
But if it's the voice of youth they want, here it is: I graduated from college, not 53 years ago, but last year. I was there, man, and I'm telling you that Tom Wolfe is spot on. If college sat down with a ghostwriter to produce an autobiography, the result would sound and feel like I am Charlotte Simmons. That is, if the ghostwriter had a wild genius for the American language.
That Wolfe is, as his ageist detractors never fail to point out, a 74-year-old Southern man, only makes his accomplishment all the more impressive. His eyes and ears are as sharp as ever. Friday nights at his fictional Dupont University, as at any school, bump with profane nursery rhymes (popularly known as gangster rap) and shrieks of girlish delight at manly antics. Wolfe notices that young men consider it a matter of duty to watch ESPN in 3-hour blocks, even when it means being up as early as ten-thirty. (My roommates went beyond the call by placing a second TV atop the main one, for ESPN-2.) He notices that the Mashed Potato or whatever dance they did in ancient days has become The Act, Clothed. Here is a sound that every college student recognizes: that terrible ascending chime of AOL Instant Messenger ringing into dorm hallways from every room. And below the computer is a nest of wires attached to the "techie alphabet toys…the PC, the TV, the CD, DVD, DSL, VCR, MP4…each asleep rattlesnake-style with a single tiny diode-green eye open…." Wolfe paints a portrait true to life itself, composed of hundreds of acute social observations, garnered through years of research on nearly a dozen campuses.
* * *
Charlotte Simmons, our heroine, is a charming and gifted girl from a devout family in backwoods Sparta, North Carolina, who earns a scholarship to prestigious Dupont—the Ivy League plus NCAA championships. Her mastery of Aristotle and Flaubert brings her academic triumph, but the success she craves is social, and comes in the form of three suitors: the awkward journalist Adam Gellin, the hoops star Jojo Johanssen, and the frat lady-killer Hoyt Thorpe. One nearly drives her to suicide, a second redeems her, and she ends up with the remaining one. Along the way, we go to class, basketball games, libraries, tailgates, administrative meetings, and political rallies—all elements of the "human comedy that [is] college life."
I am Charlotte Simmons is cleverly plotted with more than a few hilarious scenes. But it is Wolfe's restless and inventive prose that makes the book a sheer pleasure to read. Here is Charlotte entering a party:
They went up four or five low steps onto the portico and through a pair of dignified old double doors into— bango! —whines, thuds, shrieks, cries, and other agonies of electric guitars, electric basses, electric keyboards, amped-up drums, digital synthesizers, and young singers screaming their throats raw in defiance of God knows what—a regular storm, in short, raging through a swarm of boys and girls yammering, yawping, squirming this way and that, rooting about like weevils in a delirious twilight rank with a sour, rich, rotting sweet odor swelling up like a gas in the heat—the ungodly heat!—of so many bodies mashing in on one another and combusting with adrenaline—."
Wolfe, as ever, keeps the language on its toes, dancing with glee. In one instance, we hear "a merry schadenfreudish voice"; in another, a girl's eyes "brighten to about three hundred watts, and her smile became two weeks and three days wide." Finding no word in Webster's adequately describing a room filled to the ceiling with books, Wolfe gives us: biblioglutted. You have sat at your desk, perhaps, banging away at your magnum opus, and wondering, "Now how can I convey my hero's disjointed thinking in the midst of confusion and alarm?" Try this typographical stutter gun: "::::::trying not to look at him::::::the condom, the ball-peen hammer::::::the undertow again::::::the Doubts::::::more time::::::can't think spinning like this!::::::Look, Hoyt::::::just wait a second, okay?::::::"
One passage explores how campus parlance has the F-word as an exclamation ("F!"), a noun ("You silly F!"), an imperative expressing contempt ("F that"), or an adverb modifying and intensifying an adjective. But if you think that's F-ing insightful, observe that the S-word has become a synonym for everything: possessions ("Where's your S?"), lies or misleading explanations ("Are you S-ing me?"), drunk ("S-faced"), trouble ("in deep S"), ineptitude ("couldn't play point guard for S"), care about ("give a S"), ignorance ("he doesn't know S"), hopeless situation ("up S Creek"), disappointment ("oh, S!"), startling ("holy S!"), et cetera ("and massages and S"), very ("mean as S"), violence ("before the S hit the fan"), verbal abuse "(don't give me S"), self-importance ("he thinks he's some S"), and feces, literally ("S"). Wolfe records 32 usages. I've personally heard all 32 of them as part of my higher education, but I'd never reflected on the phenomenon quite so vividly.
* * *
So Wolfe's critics are wrong to say the old fellow doesn't get college right. But others accuse Wolfe of precisely that: getting it right. According to the New York Times's Michiko Kakutani, "Mr. Wolfe takes on the momentous subject of college life…and in the course of a very long 676 pages serves up the revelation—yikes!—that students crave sex and beer, love to party, wear casual clothes and use four-letter words." Priya Jain writes in Salon with the same yawn: "Anyone who has been an undergrad in, say, the last 30 years has lived through all of this, and there's not much new to learn."
Really? I was somewhat non-existent 30 years ago, much less in college. But did they have Girls Gone Wild way back when? How about roofies, ecstasy, coed bathrooms, proliferating sex columnists, AIDS? (One thing remains constant: since 1980, about 45% of students have reported an excessive fondness for drink.) Slang, too, bespeaks campus change. I consulted Connie Eble, a lexicographer of college slang at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In 1974, she says, students there were asked to list what they considered "good, current campus slang." Thirty years later, they were asked again. The 2004 study found that 95% of the terms from 1974 were no longer used. (Put another way, only 5% of the slang words survived.) "Bad," which in '74 meant "good," now means "bad" again. The word for "impressive" or "interesting" is "tight." To express approval, avoid "That's cosmic!" Try "Off the heezy fo' sheezy."
The study also found that these days, "words are more explicitly sexual and derogatory." Disco-era sorority sisters may have disliked being called "foxy mamas," but less so, I'm sure, than "sorostitutes." Worse is the term butterface, a 'female with an attractive figure but a less-than-appealing face.' (As in "…everything but her face.") But that language should become more sexualized is appropriate seeing that everything else on campus has. Sexual liberation is no longer a movement, but brisk business. A new student-run porn magazine with real students has sold tens of thousands of copies at Boston University. "We wanted Boink to represent college and all that college is," says the editor, not unreasonably. At my alma mater, adult film producers would drive up from Los Angeles to host parties in which their actors performed with—on—our students. The story made the cover of Rolling Stone. There is more of this on the way. But we're supposed to think this is all old hat? What about the speech codes? And the aggressive political correctness?
Wolfe, of course, notices these, too. One day at Dupont U., a class is shown a photograph of bullfighting and a girl lets slip, "That—is— horrible! It's—so—wrong!" "That's your reaction to a culture different from your own?" snaps the professor. "Spanish culture is far older than ours, by a factor of millennia…. Would you favor us with a list of alien cultures you find most objectionable?" The students chuckle while Charlotte absorbs the lesson: "Denigration of another culture, especially one whose people are less well off than your own, and referring to anything as evil, which would indicate you might very well have religious convictions, were more socially unacceptable at Dupont than cruelty to animals."
Political correctness, along with literary postmodernism ("B.S."), radical feminism, and an obsession with race appear in Charlotte Simmons just as they appear on nearly every American college campus. And because this appearance is unpleasant to those politically disposed to defend them as signs of progress, Wolfe has been denounced for writing a jeremiad disguised as a novel. Wolfe is "a right-wing scold, a moralizing antique, William Bennett in an ice-cream suit," said the Chicago Sun-Times's Henry Kisor, echoing other liberal critics. In fact, such a deluge of this kind of criticism greeted the publishing of Charlotte Simmons that the deluge itself became a news item. But these literati are reacting exactly like those university presidents who insist on continuing Byzantine and morally shocking racial quotas while demanding even more insistently that these policies remain secret. Wolfe is telling it like it is. If his liberal critics don't like what they see, their quarrel is with the universities, not Mr. Wolfe.
* * *
In truth, the university has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. For instance, the number of women enrolled in higher education rose from 5,035,862 in 1975 to 9,263,000 in 2003, an increase of 84%. (Male enrollment rose by 15%.) Minority undergraduate enrollment increased from 16.3% to 30.1% between 1976 and 2001. But perhaps the greatest transformation is this: the activist students and junior faculty of the '60s and '70s are today's department chairs and administrative grandees. And they have been working hard to refashion the campus in their image. The result? A survey of 183 colleges shows that in four departments—English literature, political science, religious studies, and philosophy—more than 80% of the faculty identifies as liberal, and no more than 5% identifies as conservative. In sociology departments, 0% identify as Republicans. (One lonely discipline seems to resist the spirit of progress: agriculture.) Federal Electoral Commission filings report the first- and second-ranking organizations in the country in terms of per capita contributions to the Kerry '04 campaign: the University of California and Harvard, respectively.
The one-party university promotes intellectual rigor with the sort of success achieved by the one-party state. This helps explain why the Larry Summers affair at Harvard became a show trial. The outrage…the self-effacement…the formal reprimands promulgated in large halls via secret ballot—it's enough to make you a believer in what Roger Kimball called the "Sovietization of intellectual life, where the value or truth of a work is determined not by its intrinsic qualities but by the degree to which it supports a given political line." The spectacle of radical feminists savaging and humiliating Summers—while pledging to tolerate campus bullying no longer—is proof enough that the supposed oppressed are in control of academia's commanding heights. But Wolfe is as alive to the comedy as to the tragedy of the American university. "Queer Theory" and "Ethnic Separatist Studies" remind one less of Leninism than the 19th century's numerology and phrenology, in that they both discourse in bizarre pseudo-scientific lingo about things that don't exist. Still, the high priests of the academic occult have been successful enough at churning out half-educated true believers to ensure that Reason will not reign on campus any time soon.
An American writer of another century—like Wolfe, a Southerner who migrated to New York—also narrated a part of America precisely as he saw it. One of these efforts was censured on grounds that "it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating." This is not to say that Charlotte Simmons is another Huckleberry Finn. The language and behavior of its characters—true to life—are too crude for that. But it is to say that Wolfe is not alone in his admirable purpose of capturing a distinct slice of modern American life. Someone living a half-century from now will be able to pick up I am Charlotte Simmons and be assured of its accuracy as a chronicle of how students talked, studied, lived, drank, and loved circa 2005. This is something of which an author might be proud, even if his subjects, or their supposedly grown-up defenders, might be ashamed.