Lion of the Blogosphere

I Am Charlotte Simmons by the late Tom Wolfe

Classic Lion: My review of I Am Charlotte Simmons by the late Tom Wolfe, which I wrote in 2004.

Part I

It has been a long time since I’ve read a book that was so good that I didn’t want to do anything else but read it until I was finished with it. But along came I am Charlotte Simmons which I started reading aboard an Amtrak train on Thanksgiving morning, and 676 pages later I finally finished it on Monday evening.

Tom Wolfe’s third novel is at least as good, if not better, than his first, Bonfire of the Vanities, and is head and shoulders above A Man In Full. Anyone who has read the first two novels will recognize the framework of Charlotte Simmons. Once again, Tom Wolfe tells the story of several individuals whose lives become intertwined. Each chapter is written from the point of view of one of his main characters, but always Tom Wolfe’s point of view is also there.

Even though there are similarities, Tom Wolfe took a big stretch with this book. In his previous novels, he wrote about the hidden worlds of real estate development, investment banking, and the Bronx DA’s office. (I remember serving an internship at the Queens County District Attorney’s Office, and everyone said how accurately Tom Wolfe captured what it’s like to be a DA in one of New York City’s outer boroughs.) In his previous novels, his main characters were men, but this time, the main character in his book is an eighteen year old girl attending fictional Dupont University (think Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Duke). What a stretch for a man of 73 to put himself into the mind of an eighteen year old girl. I can’t help but imagine that life in the college dorms was more alien to Tom Wolfe than any other place he ever visited.

But because so many more people are familiar with college, or at least think they are, Tom Wolfe has opened himself up to a lot more criticism. And the criticism has come in droves. It seem like every professional reviewer has been determined to completely trash this book, and even the amateur reviewers at Amazon.com have been highly critical.

The first notable bad review, written by Michiko Kakutani, was published in The New York Times two weeks before the book was even released to the public. How eager the critics were to trash this book before anyone even had a chance to read it.

Michiko wrote, “This time, instead of boldly going where few writers have gone before, he gives us some tiresomely generic if hyperbolic glimpses of student life at a fictional school . . .” The implication is that books like this are being written every day, but I can’t think of any book similar to Charlotte Simmons, and certainly Michiko doesn’t name any in her review. Maybe she’s just jealous of Tom Wolfe’s mastery of the English language, his gift for turning ordinary scenes into the fantastic, and his ability glue his readers to the pages of books where nothing much really seems to happen.

Michiko also wrote, “. . . in the course of a very long 676 pages [, Tom Wolfe] serves up the revelation — yikes! — that students crave sex and beer, love to party, wear casual clothes and use four-letter words.” Yes, this is a common complaint from many of the critics. Everyone knows that college is about sex and beer, what’s new here? But does everyone really believe that life at an elite school (think Ivy League) is really like it’s depicted in Charlotte Simmons?

Yes, we’ve all seen the movie Animal House. (At least we adults who read blogs have seen it. Charlotte Simmons obviously didn’t see it. We imagine that her religious mother didn’t let her watch R rated movies.) But Animal House is a parody, it’s not real. The scenes in Charlotte Simmons are a lot more powerful than Animal Housebecause they are real scenes.

But some people don’t think this is real. In one of the ironies of the negative reviews, while some like Ms Kakutani say “duh! of course that’s what’s happening at colleges,” other reviews criticize the book for being unrealistic. In another review in the New York Times, Jacob Weisberg says that this is a “comic book version of college” and not the real thing.

And I really love this quote from a reviewer at Amazon.com:

If you’re a parent getting ready to send a child off to college don’t panic. “NOT ALL STUDENTS ARE LIKE THOSE REPERSENTED IN THIS BOOK.” I am a mechanic that has made many service calls to several colleges. Most of my calls to colleges have been to Marquette University in Milwaukee Wisconsin. While I am aware that some of the students at this school could be those represented in this book, my experience is that most students are not like those represented in this book. Most of the students I have dealt at Marquette appear to take their chance at a college education as a serious privilege.

This guy thinks he has the expertise to say that Tom Wolfe has gotten college life at elite Ivy League schools wrong because he’s a mechanic who has visited a second rate Catholic school in Wisconsin.

In fact, Marquette University may very well be like the Dupont that Charlotte Simmons’ mother imagined, except with the students not being quite so bright. Marquette University would be the last place that privileged students from elite boarding schools would wind up attending. The students at Marquette are probably from middle class families who bring their conventional middle class values with them to college.

I’ve written about these conventional middle class values before in my essay “Jessica Cutler and the values of Washington.” This is an excerpt:

[T]here is a huge gap between how voters think people on Capitol Hill are behaving, and the way they really behave.

Why should there be such a gap? Didn’t people hear about Monica Lewinsky, Chandra Levy, and a variety of other Washington sex scandals? Shouldn’t they know by now that a large percentage of important and semi-important men in Washington are having sex with women in their twenties? Don’t they know by now that a large percentage of female interns and other low paid female workers in resume building jobs are the opposite of pure and virginal?

No, people don’t know this because it’s not what they want to believe. They want to believe that Washington is full of people who behave consistently with conventional middle class values. These values dictate that you should work hard, be honest, believe in God, be moderate in the consumption of alcohol, remain a virgin until you get married, and thereafter remain faithful to your spouse.

Tom Wolfe, being nearly as brilliant a sociologist as myself (and admittedly a ten times more brilliant writer), has written a book about the exact same conflict of values between the elite and the middle class that I previously wrote about in my blog.

I found a comment left at the blog Critical Mass that offers an excellent observation:

I think Wolfe is a lot more on the mark than older people would like to admit. Let’s call it willful ignorance, but, having recently graduated college, I don’t think people realize how morally, ethically and intellectually depraved a large swath of college students (and, coincidentally, the faculty) really are. Wolfe may be focusing just on one part of the population, but that population may be a plurality on most campuses (even the most respected ones). I knew plenty of people who never went to class, didn’t do any work, drank had sex and did drugs in excess…..everything that runs counter to the “noble academic institution” most people believe college is and should be.

And here’s an excerpt from another review left at Amazon.com, which offers the best commentary that I have yet seen:

I am a huge Tom Wolfe fan who happens to be a girl from a small town who went to/ is still at the University of Pennsylvania. Let me tell you, his descriptions of college life are very accurate. I had thought, going to an Ivy League , I would be with the best and the brightest…I was not expecting to be stuck in a crazy puke-filled dorm where people act like animals, and are loud, drunk, and totally inconsiderate of those around them. To go from a town where people actually ACT like human beings to a college dorm like this is a sad, disappointing journey- one that is not always expected. At least it’s not expected if you don’t live around people who couldn’t live without alcohol. It’s NOT unrealistic for Wolfe to make Charlotte so innocent because that’s how SOME decent college students are before they are exposed to vulgar, barbarian frat boys at college who do things MUCH worse than anything described in this book. To me, and to Charlotte, it is TRAGIC to go to a good school and see people who are such total drunk immature wastes, people who drag others down without thinking twice about it.

Unlike most reviews, here is one written by an actual college student at an actual elite institution who has come from a small town just like Charlotte Simmons did. And she says the book is dead on accurate.

The conclusion of Part I of my review of I am Charlotte Simmons is that the negative reviewers are wrong about the book’s take on campus life. It’s not a comic book look at college, but the real thing. And the hedonism of college life is absolutely notcommon knowledge among the middle class of America.

Part II

Is Charlotte unbelievably naïve?

One of the frequent complaints about this novel is that Charlotte is unbelievably naïve, and this ruins the whole book. How can someone with a 1600 SAT, it is reasoned, not realize that there’s sex going on at college? Doesn’t she have a TV set that picks up the same programs that everyone else in the United States watches?

I found Charlotte’s naïveté perfectly believable, and the fact that some people just don’t get it indicates how big of a cultural divide we really have in America, and shows that there are smart educated people who are completely unable to understand how people from backgrounds different than themselves think.

First of all, yes Charlotte had a perfect 1600 on the SAT, but we all know that there are people who are very book smart yet somehow are completely lacking in what they call street smarts. The Adam Gellin “nerd” character in the book is one such example, and it’s interesting to note that although everyone has been criticizing Tom Wolfe’s depiction of Charlotte, I have not yet read a single review where someone said that Adam Gellin was not a believable character.

And yes, Charlotte has a television, but she wouldn’t have cable television because her parents are too poor. Now think about what shows exist on regular broadcast TV that would prepare anyone for what Tom Wolfe wrote about in his book, and what real college students at elite universities say is an accurate depiction. I can’t think of any!

Broadcast TV is actually the very embodiment of those conventional middle class values that I wrote about in part I of the review. Just about everyone on broadcast TV believes in God, consumes alcohol only moderately if at all, has sex only in a very committed relationship, and of course no one on TV has ever, ever, ever had an abortion.

On the TV show Beverly Hills 90210, the classic show about young people, the Tori Spelling character didn’t lose her virginity until many many seasons had passed, and it was with her high school sweetheart who had been her boyfriend for eons.

Furthermore, who even knows if Beverly Hills 90210 was the kind of show that Charlotte’s mother let her watch? Charlotte’s mother, being the strict heavily religious type, probably censored her children’s TV viewing. I’m sure that she never permitted her kids to see any R rated movies. Although they probably never went out to the movies anyway because they were so poor.

Most kids learn about what other kids are really doing not from television, but from other kids! And Tom Wolfe explained in the book how Charlotte had no friends in high school except Laurie who was also a religious type. Because she was so smart in a small town where everyone else was dumb, she obviously had nothing in common with the other kids, which adequately explains her lack of friends and her inexperience with boys.

We also have to realize that Charlotte had no contact with anyone from the upper middle class or the upper class, and these were the classes to which the vast majority of students at the fictional Dupont belonged. In Charlotte’s small town, she saw only two classes: the middle class (based on values, not family wealth) and the lower class. Because the middle class has so much better manners than the lower class, she extrapolated and assumed that the manners of the upper classes would be that much better! Charlotte didn’t realize that the middle class is actually the most boring of all classes.

It is true that Tom Wolfe uses a naïve main character as a device that allows him to express his own shock at what he saw going on at college. Tom Wolfe may be an old guy of 73, but he’s a whole lot more sophisticated than Charlotte. He’s seen all the R rated movies like Animal House that Charlotte didn’t, and he has even hung out with Black Panthers. If Tom Wolfe is shocked at the outrageousness of college behavior, then someone from Charlotte’s background would be even more so.

I now offer the following passage from an article in the Stanford school newspaper:

[F]reshman Lindsay Reinsmith thought the central storyline — depicting Charlotte’s struggle to adapt to life outside a small town — was a plausible one. Reinsmith hails from The Woodlands, Tx., a small Houston suburb, which she described as “predominantly Christian conservative and very sheltered.”

Reinsmith said many of her high school classmates rarely ventured outside city limits, and she, like Charlotte, was shocked by college life.

“After a lot of my friends left The Woodlands, they were startled by the open way other people dealt with social issues, especially sex, at college,” she said. “They didn’t really know how to approach the issue because they were never taught how.”

Once again, an actual student at an actual elite university agreeing with the accuracy of Tom Wolfe’s characters.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

Posted in Books

71 Responses

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  1. You sound awfully emotional about this book.

    “I found Charlotte’s naïveté perfectly believable, and the fact that some people just don’t get it indicates how big of a cultural divide we really have in America…”

    Huh?

    Charlotte is supposed to be from a dirt poor North Carolina background – but she got a perfect 1600 on her SATs and is a virgin? Gimme a break, Lion.

    I think city people, especially conservative Jews like you, have an idealized view of the small town masses.

    And was she supposed to be hot?

    gothamette

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

    • Her family raised her with good values. They were probably very conservative Christian. Among the lower classes higher religiosity is correlated with higher income and self-control (it’s probably the opposite among the upper classes and the elites).

      GondwanaMan

      May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

      • Although T. Boone Pickens is wealthy and religious. Maybe Texas is different.

        GondwanaMan

        May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

      • What did her father do for a living?

        gothamette

        May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

      • Her father worked at a factory until it was outsourced (globalization and how it is partially responsible for the disintegration of people like Charlotte’s family is a subtle theme in the book).

        Her father then worked as a postal worker (note he was deacribed as a very burlesque hillbilly type man, the kind who’d win every bar brawl in a western saloon). His arm had a tattoo and vein that nearly popped when he insisted on carrying charlotte’s stuff to her dorm room (because he is prole/doesn’t realize student move in day helpers don’t need tips). The postal job was meant to illustrate his partial emasculation/destruction of a great patriarchal spirit.

        Paul Ryan's Sickly Old Lap Dog

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

      • It was Charlotte Curtis, not Ada Louise Huxtable. Wolfe expressly thanked Curtis in Radical Chic. Charlotte…oh never mind.

        gothamette

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

    • She is described as extremely hot. She is, among other things, the dream girlfriend of the extreme nice guy beta male type who drifts into her orbit during the course of the story.

      Greg Pandatshang

      May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

      • I’m sort of embarassed that I used that awful man-o-sphere phrase. How is she described?

        gothamette

        May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

      • She isn’t described as “extremely hot”, IIRC. And Wolfe mentions she’s got like 3 outfits to wear.

        Dave Pinsen

        May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

      • The white sports star describes her as follows: “… a trim girl with nice legs, good calves, and long brown hair, who evidently hadn’t recognized him at all as she approached from the rear. He liked what he could make out of the nice, firm bottom inside those denim shorts … It didn’t matter what a brain she was. In fact, there was something nice and feminine about that. It went with a look she had. She wasn’t just some hot number. She wasn’t beautiful in any way you usually thought about at this place. He couldn’t have given it a name, but whatever she had was above all that. She looked like an illustration from one of those fairy-tale books where the young woman is under a spell or something and can’t come to until she gets a kiss from the young man who loves her, the kind of girl who looks pure – yet that very thing about her gives you even more of the old tingle.”

        Or, in the narration of the beta nerd, “Her face, framed by the flowing brown hair, was not only young and angelic but also, somehow, maternal.”

        Greg Pandatshang

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

      • She’s just a really girl next door country girl and her modesty/naturally feminine naive nature makes her even more tantalizing for wolves like the fraternity brother who eventually despoils her.

        Spoilers:

        I thought the one dimensional ending to Hoyt, the frat boy that takes Charlotte’s virginity, was a bit trite. Hoyt wouldn’t just dump Charlotte after months of dating to have sex with her once. No thrill of the hunt guy does that. I guess it should just be interpreted as a metaphor. It was also the only way to portray a Charlotte that is so cheap and used and downtrodden that you almost want to put the globalist masters who did this to her and people like her out of their misery.

        Paul Ryan's Sickly Old Lap Dog

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

      • It sounds as if Wolfe is describing an “attractive Plain Jane,” which is what I think the vast majority of men are really attracted to.

        I think that “hotness” is a totally fabricated quality, guys. It’s a horrible, evil, contemptible artifact of Hollywood, which has now gone on steroids. The overwhelming majority of men, in their heart of hearts (or whatever that jokester Heartiste calls it) aren’t really attracted to hotness in the long run. It attracts them in the short run, and they are as horrified & frightened of it as they are attracted but it’s more of repulsion than a true attraction. But let me not waste my wisdom further….I should be making money off of this, and one day I will.

        Oddly, this description has made me interested to read the book, more than any of the impassioned defenses of the book have.

        Your blog is truly an educational experience, Lion!

        gothamette

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

      • A fair & balanced article from The New Yorker:

        https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/tom-wolfe-sage-of-status-anxiety

        It points out something that’s been forgotten. His article Radical Chic wasn’t the one that permanently sank Leonard Bernstein’s rep as an intelligent liberal in NYC. It was the NY Times article, which was totally vicious and totally hilarious. I believe it was written by Ada Louise Huxtable. Not a relation of Cliff.

        gothamette

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

      • It’s been so long since I’ve read Wolfe that I’d forgotten exactly how bad a writer he was, but I know why he appeals to the Unz. crowd. “Derb” wrote a eulogy. Here’s a quote:

        “A Jewish student, trying to get out of trouble with a Jewish professor, makes sure “to let it be known that his family was Jewish, by packing his great-grandparents, pogroms in Eastern Europe, fear of being forcibly dragooned into military service in Poland, Ellis Island, the Lower East Side, and sweatshops into a single sentence, without losing track of the syntax …” For goodness’ sake, Tom, don’t you know you’re not supposed to notice this stuff?”

        For crying out loud. This is NOT how I speak. This is NOT how I behave. Never did. Not one person in my family speaks or behaves this way. If anything calling attention to being Jewish to a Jewish professor would get a Jewish student tossed out of the office.

        Not one Jew that I know speaks or behaves this way. I guess if the only Jews you know are the ones who write for The Forward, it may seem that way, but isn’t a writer supposed to see beyond crude media fabrications (admittedly, fabrications that come from a corner of the Jewish world, but still, fabrications).

        I know it’s probably impossible to convince the toxic anti-Semites who form the Unz readership of these facts, but it’s appropriate to point it out to YOU, Lion – you are a fan of a man who crudely caricatures everyone he writes about – Jews among them. Not only Jews, but Jews as well.

        Wolfe was a third rate, toxic downer, and what little reputation he has won’t last. If you want to understand social climbing, read Dreiser.

        gothamette

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

      • “If you want to understand social climbing, read Dreiser.”

        I read Sister Carrie, but that was a really long time ago, like in the 1980s.

      • If “hot” means something along the lines of glamorous like a fashion model or flashy like Miley Cyrus twerking, then I think you’re completely right (I have a huge pet peeve about the idea that you occasionally hear that straight men of all people are responsible for the half-starved look for models seen on the covers of glossy magazines). I was thinking of hot as simply whatever gives more of the old tingle.

        It’s hypothetically possible that the media’s image of “what men want” is being thrown off a bit from what seems normal to me by the preferences of NAMs. But I don’t really believe that. My impression from the people I’ve talked to is that the average black man just wants, like the song says, “a big butt and a smile”, i.e. an “attractive Plain Janequa” of appropriate proportions.

        Greg Pandatshang

        May 20, 2018 at EDT pm

    • That is truly the most contemptible comment I have ever read here. It may come as a surprise to you that intelligence is distributed randomly–even in such places as Sparta, NC. Yes, it’s a real place, and yes I read the book. YOU might benefit by reading Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance to see that there actually are people who can overcome the limitations of their culture and origins–maybe not many, but they exist, and Charlotte’s is the story of one of them.

      You might also read another of Wolfe’s novels, A Man In Full, in which you would be introduced to Conrad Hensley, the son of hippie parents who later degenerated into full-fledged alcoholics, his aspiration to attain middle-class status and determination to get there, even to the point of insisting on marrying the girl he knocked up and later having another kid with.

      As for Charlotte, IIRC the way Wolfe described her she would not have been considered hot, but far from repulsive.

      Jesus Tostig

      May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

      • I consider your comment contemptible, too, so we’re equal.

        I wasn’t saying you can’t have a 1600 SAT score from Sparta. I said I didn’t believe in Wolfe’s ability to characterize such a paragon (and she’s a virgin! and no drugs! no drinking!) in a convincing fashion.

        If you had read my previous comments on this site, I have always disagreed with the HBD notion that upper-class = intelligent.

        Obviously, you can’t read, so I’ll stop there.

        Back to the Usenet newsgroups!

        gothamette

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

    • “Charlotte is supposed to be from a dirt poor North Carolina background – but she got a perfect 1600 on her SATs and is a virgin? Gimme a break, Lion.”

      The interesting thing about your comment is that I said the exact opposite on this blog a few years ago. Leon linked an article alleging that smart kids from working class backgrounds who went to top schools were shocked at the promiscuity of the upper class students. I argued with him that the upper class students couldn’t possibly be so promiscuous. Do you remember that, Leon?

      I’m thinking we might both be wrong and Leon right on this one.

      destructure

      May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

      • @destructure,

        This has gotten off to a bad start.

        First, any fiction writer can create any character he wants. We’re all individuals and individuals combine the most fantastic contradictions. Who would believe that there is a middle-aged Jewish woman Trump supporter (well kinda) who by day lives a typical Manhattan life?

        Or how about a trash collector who is an opera buff and balletomane, an expert on the NYC Ballet from the 50s to the 80s?

        Such people don’t exist. Except that they do.

        But Tom Wolfe doesn’t deal with the exceptional. He takes the norm and blows it up to caricatured proportions to MAKE A POINT. And that’s fine with me – if the character is a full blooded human being.

        I read one of his “novels” – Bonfire, and thought that simply as a work of art, it was a failure. The product of an overgrown 12 year old mind.

        Your mileage may vary – that’s fine.

        But back to Charlotte Simmons, if she is repped as being a typical good old North Carolina small town girl, among the evil city slickers – that is bullshit, destructure.

        The kids who grew up next door to me are drug-free virgins. The reason being that they were closely helicoptered, they are children of divorce, and they were consistently traumatized.

        I can’t say whether Charlotte Simmons is a convincing character, because I haven’t read the book, but going from what I read in Bonfire, I doubt it.

        gothamette

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

      • “If she is repped as being a typical good old North Carolina small town girl, among the evil city slickers – that is bullshit, destructure.”

        G- you are correct here. I love the South and southerners, but what you see is rarely what you get, especially when it comes to the gals. The Sadie Hawkins character from Lil Abner didn’t fall from the sky. Neither did the traveling salesman on the farm stories. The demure and virginal routine is mostly for the benefit of other women.

        Curle

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

      • Charlotte Simmons is depicted as having an unhealthily sheltered upbringing. Home from freshman year for Christmas break, obviously upset (and refusing to tell anybody why), she tries to soothe herself by remembering the words her father would say tucking her into bed as an 8yo, and she doesn’t understand why that doesn’t work.

        Greg Pandatshang

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

      • gothamette & curle — Did I say anything about cities vs small towns? Or southerners? No. My comment involved sexual promiscuity among different classes attending top schools. Period.

        “Obviously, you can’t read, so I’ll stop there.

        Pot, meet kettle.

        destructure

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

      • Children, stop fighting.

      • People are rarely as one dimensionally virtuous as any group lets on.

        It’s the same for monogamy pre 1950s. You think people didn’t want to screw around then? You think people were exceedingly happy… unfortunately to use a term leftists coopted and trashed and made unusable, it really is all relative.

        Paul Ryan's Sickly Old Lap Dog

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

    • Nya-nyah-nyah. Is that the best you can do?

      Jesus Tostig

      May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

      • She’s becoming unhinged in this thread.

        Paul Ryan's Sickly Old Lap Dog

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

  2. Since Homeland Security is planning to warehouse some immigrant children on military bases, ResetEra says that now is the time to launch an insurrection against Trump because Mueller is taking too long.

    Otis the Sweaty

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

  3. I remember Van Jones commenting that the kids at Yale did more drugs than kids in the ghetto in New Haven, they just got away with it more. Anecdotally, that’s probably true.

    GondwanaMan

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

    • Jeff Sessions ought to do some raids on Ivy League dorms.

      Mike Street Station

      May 16, 2018 at EDT am

      • Not a bad idea. That’s a good way to get leverage over their parents.

        Paul Ryan's Sickly Old Lap Dog

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

  4. The northwest European white middle-class is unusual in the sense that they’re fairly conservative in personal sexual mores, work ethic and religious values, but fairly liberal on acceptance/tolerance of other cultures (in the last regard, at least compared to other ethnic groups, particularly various Asian ones). On the flip-side, they’re probably the least extended-family oriented of any group (regardless of ethnicity or class).

    GondwanaMan

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

  5. The NYC equivalent to Marquette is Fordham University. Still plenty of bright students there.

    McFly

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

    • Yup this is what I was thinking (not about Fordham in particular, but how schools like Marquette still have a lot of Ivy league-level students in their top 20-30%.

      GondwanaMan

      May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

  6. I went to undergrad around the turn of the decade. I finished my graduate program just a year ago.

    Nothing sounds particularly surprising about the Charlotte Simmons book. There are all kinds of degeneracy to be seen on college campuses.

    If there was an old decorum on how to behave on campus, how to act like a gentleman, well, that’s been gone for decades.

    I would say that college campuses have gotten more puritanically, schizophrenically SJW, so girls are urged to slut it up but then accuse the boys of rape. As such, the unwashed hedonism of a Dupont University might be something of the 90s and early 2000s, and would today face the countervailing force of SJW attitudes.

    College campuses are still fairly genteel. Resorting to violence is nearly unthinkable. As such, I can’t say that college campuses are moral vacuums, but don’t expect for anyone there to teach you how to moderate your alcohol intake or find genuine sexual virtue, in which you pursue relationships with the opposite sex in an honest attempt to find a lifelong partner with the purpose of creating a family.

    FWIW, my undergraduate school was Podunk, but I went to an elite graduate program. I think the Podunk school will have more Christians of varying degrees of religious faith, but otherwise you’ll see a similar amount of debauchery.

    Sid

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

  7. For the benefit of people who haven’t read the book – Lion already knows this and doesn’t say otherwise – the Amazon reviewer is wrong to imply that Charlotte Simmons is primarily about “people who never went to class, didn’t do any work, drank had sex and did drugs in excess”. That describes some of the characters. Charlotte herself sure goes to class and works hard (at most points in the story, anyway). Note that, while the main frat boy character is an academic underachiever (planning to succeed in life through networking rather than study), he does mention that his best friend from the fraternity somehow manages to find time to study a lot and get good grades in between the bouts of binge drinking.

    Greg Pandatshang

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

    • P.S. I agree this is classic Lion. Nice work.

      Greg Pandatshang

      May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

  8. Was the guy who wrote about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters while it was happening really shocked by DuPont/Duke social life?

    BTW- Marquette, alma mater of rocket scientist Paul Ryan.

    Curle

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

    • Nope. He went to Miami of Ohio.

      McFly

      May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

  9. The review is very long. So I’ve only read half of it so far. But it’s a very good review with a lot of insight and perspective, Good job. I don’t think I started reading your blog until 2010 or maybe even later. So I missed it the first time around.

    As for the bad reviews from others. The book was published around 2004. And Tom Wolf was a strong supporter of Bush during the election. In fact, Wolfe’s support was reciprocated when Bush said he was a fan who had read all of Wolfe’s books. I figure the professional critics were taking it out on him.

    destructure

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

    • “The review is very long.”

      I had more concentration for writing long blog posts back then.

    • I’m trying to recall when the chrysalis of 1/2 *** became a roaring feline? Surely post-2004?

      Curle

      May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

      • It was after hurricane sandy. He received an uptick in traffic covering a tragic story that took place on staten island. He eventually deleted that post and started this blog not long after.

        I haven’t read this book but can vouch for the fact that dorm life sucks. I went to boarding school so spent 8 years living in dorms. After the experience I swore to myself none of my children would ever live in dorms (so far none have). I don’t care how much money is involved or what the family background is- housing a bunch of kids/ young adults en masse with negligible supervision is a bad idea.

        I grew up in a rural area and my neighbor had a 1600 SAT. I had a perfect verbal but very imperfect math.

        toomanymice

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

    • The bad reviews are because liberals can’t stand real talk. To shove how ugly the reality they’ve created into their face is for them like Mum-ra looking at his own reflection.

      Utterly repulsive.

      Paul Ryan's Sickly Old Lap Dog

      May 16, 2018 at EDT am

  10. I liked Charlotte Simmons a lot; probably my 2nd favorite Wolfe novel after Bonfire. (A Man in Full had some really powerful scenes but didn’t tie together well as a whole.) But it always amazed me that with all the research of college life Wolfe did, he still managed to talk about the college basketball game having QUARTERS.

    Jokah Macpherson

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

  11. FWIW your writing style has definitely gotten better since 2004. I mean this post is still pretty good but the flow has gotten better over the years in hard-to-describe ways.

    Jokah Macpherson

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

    • His style and usage have remained consistent but what I have noticed is his tone has grown darker, cynical and more cursory over the years. He also dogs himself more these days- I was surprised he called himself brilliant here (even if tongue in cheek) because these days he tends to be down on himself.

      lion small typo: and his ability TO glue his readers to the pages of books

      toomanymice

      May 16, 2018 at EDT am

  12. That is a good review, Lion, and reminds me why out of all the blogs I could be reading this is one of the few I keep returning to for insights.

    Anyways, my take is that Tom Wolfe has a great reputation because he wrote about semi-remote things that people had read about in the news (urban shysters! test pilot jocks! weird rich dudes into modern art!) and thought were “important” parts of their culture that they should know about . I think though that anyone aware enough of the world to know how well Tom Wolfe wrote really did not miss much by not reading his books – in that sense, he was just a journalist, although often a supremely interesting one , page by page. And he had an artist’s ear for how people really talk – watch an old WC Fields movie, there was another guy who had a good ear for how people really talk.

    His appeal for people older than most people reading this blog was sort of like the appeal of a show like the “Wire” or “Breaking Bad”, where some subculture that we hear about every day is depicted (accurately or not most people will ever know) as being a real nation unto itself. (I did not watch either of those shows much so I am maybe just guessing here). You should have a show runner for those shows who you can trust to stay true to the vision, and that was something he excelled at in his books. Because he really worked hard on research, I guess. That being said, I never got the feeling he had a deep understanding of other people. But that might just be my general perception of people who are “spiritual but not religious” or who belong to some humbly incorrect religion (I think Wolfe was not very religious, and kind of did not appreciate the Christian culture he was born into. I could be wrong). Anyway, his novels were in that sense (in the sense that he did lots and lots of superficial research and had an underlying feeling for the truth of the worlds he chronicled, without being a profound genius with the compassion that any great artist, if there ever is a great artist, will have) precursors of the “binge watching” that is so popular among millennials.

    Well, any guy smart enough to be an intellectual who is not a liberal intellectual and who can still afford a 12 room apartment in Manhattan just by selling books is going to get a lot right. Also his daughter Alexandra seems very bright (she is a journalist too), so he probably had very good genes when it comes to comprehension of the world. He got some things wrong – when talking about the camaraderie in the military, he missed the fact that those guys got bored with each other’s company a lot quicker than they let on (he made them sound like the Knights of the Round Table, bruderschaft forever and ever and all that) and also were more religious than they let on, and when talking about modern art he missed the fact that some of those guys were secular mystics and really believed (sadly) their own modernistic shtick, and he missed the fact that one or two of them (among the abstractionists, Hans Hoffman, for example) were just plain geniuses of painting with, sad to say, little common sense, who happened to get stuck in a bad era for such people.

    Anyway one time I posted on art here and someone told me I was a clueless naive fool. YMMV, I hope, if someone disagrees with anything I have said here I would be happy to hear it but please, since we are talking about a fellow human who recently passed away, no stupid insults, thanks.

    howitzer daniel

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

    • I’ve never served in the military and I’m don’t like small talk, but I do work with a fellow who never stops talking about anything and everything and he was in the Navy, enlisted. I do most anything to avoid him, though he’s mostly pleasant. Luckily I have an office door I can close and I’ve learned to be abrupt when avoiding an entre to conversation.

      Your comment about getting bored with each other struck a nerve. I can’t imagine being confined to close quarters with him or anyone else really.

      Curle

      May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

      • What is it about Navy guys? All they do is talk at you about being in the navy. It’s pathological.

        Two in the Bush

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

      • “What is it about Navy guys? All they do is talk at you about being in the navy.”

        I think the Village People addressed this question some years ago.

        ice hole

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

      • Two in the Bush —

        This is truth. Air Force enlisted might be somewhat the same. Army and Marines, not so much.

        My personal thinking is that the more your military service was like summer camp and the less you were “in the sh*t”, the more inclined you are to go on about it.

        I knew a guy who had been an officer in the Green Berets; he never shared a single anecdote about his service and responded to every question about it in the most laconic manner possible before changing the subject. Otherwise a very friendly and outgoing guy.

        Wency

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

  13. Couple of other notes:

    The Woodlands, TX is hardly a prole community, but rather an upscale corporate suburb of Houston, populated by professional types and very middle-class families–as per Wikipedia citation of 2007 estimate of $94,626 per household income.

    Adam Gellin was a proto-incel back in 2003, and his assignment to The Tribe, I’m sorry to say (as per my own history when I was that age) is quite realistic. However, Wolfe seems to be little bit behind the times on certain cultural characteristics. He named Adam’s parents Nat and Frances, which would be more appropriate for his GRANDparents. In 2003 that generation would be more likely to be named Alan and Mindy.

    Wolfe also got it wrong in Back to Blood in his description of a South Florida Jewish retirement colony. The scene he described was more like 20-30 years earlier rather than contemporary to 2012. Most of the kind of people he wrote about then are long gone (except for my 98-year old mom), and the next generation (mine) has no interest in that kind of lifestyle.

    sestamibi

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

  14. Someone made a film out of this book, which I plan to go and buy tomorrow.
    Tom Wolfe was a great writer, I’ll drink to him tonight!

    jjbees

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

  15. Although I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, I strongly identify with the Amazon reviewer, the small-town girl who went to Penn. I wasn’t so naive that I had never heard of college partying, but in senior year of high school I just assumed that all the kids who wanted to do that went to big state universities, because those seemed to be where all the jocks and “cool” kids I overheard talking about looking forward to partying in college were planning on going. I chose a small liberal-arts college specifically because I thought everyone who chose such a school did so because they wanted to learn, to have small class sizes so they could engage in Socratic dialogue with their professors, and that I and my fellow students would spend our spare time sitting around in upholstered chairs in a mahogany-paneled library wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, reading Aristotle in the original Greek and discussing it while listening to Mozart, sipping tea, and puffing on pipes. It was the most shocking experience I had yet had in life to be dropped off by my parents for orientation and find that the social scene was totally dominated by fraternities and that all anyone wanted to talk about was where they were going to get “fuckin’ wasted” that night.

    Hermes

    May 15, 2018 at EDT pm

    • Why are upper middle class children such degenerate piles of dogshit?

      Paul Ryan's Sickly Old Lap Dog

      May 16, 2018 at EDT am

      • College is their first experience with being unsupervised.

        J1

        May 16, 2018 at EDT am

      • Not true, they act that way in their urban metropolises as well and they are mostly unsupervised there as well.

        Paul Ryan's Sickly Old Lap Dog

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

    • My experience of upper tier small liberal arts colleges in the 80s was one large party every 3 weeks usually on Sat night. Some unorganized drinking on the other Friday and Saturday nights but not of the blowout variety. That was it. And not everyone got drunk. Rest of the week was devoted to school.

      Curle

      May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

  16. Thank you for this excellent review! I will put this on my summer reading list. I am on the clock right now, so unfortunately I can’t provide a longer response, but three decades on I think I have yet to fully process my elite college experience. Totally overwhelming for a shy, male public school kid from the suburbs. Still, I had some great times, and some great conversations, often outside of class, TBH. I will never forget my senior honors English literature seminar. We were “discussing” the English Romantics I think, and I suddenly realized that almost no one other than me had done the reading, and few, perhaps no one, had understood it. Where are they now? Rich lawyers, housewives, one or two are probably teaching English lit now. Go figure. So, I second Hermes on this point.

    The Shepherd

    May 16, 2018 at EDT am

  17. At the risk of stating the obvious, fictional characters aren’t premised on statistical averages.

    Yes, a small town, working-class girl from North Carolina would be unlikely to ace the SATs, but such people do exist, and the extreme contrasts in their background and personal attributes tend to make them more interesting than “average” types, whose actions and ideas tend to be all of a kind.

    Having said that, I’m not much of a fan of Wolfe’s fiction, though I do appreciate his satirical eye.

    ice hole

    May 16, 2018 at EDT am

  18. I lived off campus, worked, and had a steady girlfriend from high school so wasn’t involved in college partying. My STEM classmates were serious about studying and getting jobs.

    E. Rekshun

    May 16, 2018 at EDT am

    • “My STEM classmates were serious about studying and getting jobs.”

      So prole.

      • The best part was when Charlotte returns to her small town and one of the boys who was a ruffian and wanted to “play” with her is painted as a nice down to earth guy who was just a little drunk/rough at the beginning of the story (I guesss in today’s parlance his glaring was rape).

        He was thinking of joining the military when she came to visit because there were no jobs otherwise in their small town. It was possibly one of the most underappreciated heartbreaking scenes in the novel.

        Especially when the boy says something about how he no longer feels good enough for Charlotte because of all those superior Ivy League men and Charlotte barely has the words to explain why his character is 1000 better than the typical male student she encounters. It’s also a good commentary on how pissed off the proles and lower/middle middles would be if they truly understood just how little right their “betters” have torule over them.

        It’d be chaos and Armageddon the next day.

        Paul Ryan's Sickly Old Lap Dog

        May 16, 2018 at EDT pm

  19. I never heard of this book before now:

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/11/tom-wolfe-v-noah-chomsky-roots-of-language

    I guess it didn’t turn out to be the literary spat of the season, at least, not in the US – No one cared what Tom Wolfe had to say in recent years.

    “The arcane study of language has a new literary entrant: the famed New Journalism author Tom Wolfe. Never one to back away from a fight, Wolfe, 85, has picked two disputes in his new book, The Kingdom of Speech – one with Charles Darwin and a second with linguist Noam Chomsky, 87, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Skirmishes broke out over the summer and look set to continue. Wolfe takes on Darwin’s theory of evolution – “a messy guess – baggy, boggy, soggy and leaking all over the place”. He also assails Chomsky’s central theory that babies are born with a language organ that produces, in effect, a “universal grammar” which could explain why children are able to speak so early.”

    Wolfe didn’t agree with Darwin. What will this do to his standing in the Sailer-sphere, which depends utterly on the theory of natural selection?

    WRT Chomsky, regardless of his politics, his theory of innate language capacity in infants is completely consistent with the concept of hardwired genetic capacities.

    Wolfe was an industrious crank who managed to turn his ideas into cash. That’s a talent, I’ll admit.

    gothamette

    May 17, 2018 at EDT am

    • Language Hat had some coverage of Chomsky v Wolfe a while back: http://languagehat.com/tom-wolfe-vs-chomsky/ … not terribly favorable to Wolfe.

      Greg Pandatshang

      May 20, 2018 at EDT pm

      • The book was mercilessly slammed. Wolfe thought evolution was mythology, like a Navajo creation myth. This fact is overlooked by his alt-right supporters.

        gothamette

        May 20, 2018 at EDT pm

  20. I just read Heinlein’s book of short stories, “The Menace from Earth” (when I bought it I didn’t realize it was short stories), and the title story is written from the perspective of a girl about the age of Wolfe’s character. She’s a bit more edgy.

    Joe

    May 18, 2018 at EDT am

    • I have to reread that. Thanks for the tip.

      • I also enjoyed the opening story about time travel, because the main character has to give himself a fake name to distinguish himself from earlier versions of himself, and he’s tastefully chosen “Joe.”

        Joe

        May 18, 2018 at EDT pm

  21. Elite institutions in France are even more tiny and mighty – think almost all our Presidents since 50 years come from the same University who has intake of 80 persons – and people are a mix of extreme mind openness (orgy, drugs, etc) and conservatism (marriage, public life etc ). As the under-world (lumpen-prole), people are desenfranchized from the rules.

    Bruno

    May 23, 2018 at EDT pm


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