Tom Wolfe's American Ubermensch: I Am Charlotte Simmons and the Rhetoric of "Manly Courage"

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Tom Wolfe's most recent book, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), is a campus novel replete with the kind of literary pyrotechnics for which Wolfe has long been famous--the point-of-view shifts; the extended and extensive use of dialogue to establish both scene and subjectivities of characters; and the liberal use of quirky punctuation, to include rampant ellipses, colons, italics, and exclamation points. Perhaps more importantly, Charlotte Simmons is a novel buttressed by the sort of pre-composition reportage through which Wolfe has traditionally established authorial ethos and expertise. In several pre-and post-publication interviews, Wolfe speaks of having conducted observational research at college campuses across the United States--Stanford University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, among them--to gather and verify Charlotte Simmons's material. (1) Armed with his considerable stylistic repertoire, then, as well as a commitment to journalistic evidentiary grounding, Wolfe pursues in the novel the realistic representation of his heroine Charlotte Simmons's first semester at the prestigious Dupont University. Charlotte is a brilliant and chaste eighteen-year-old who hails from Sparta, North Carolina, a town tucked deep within the Blue Ridge Mountains, whose economic lifeblood is the production of Christmas trees. She commences her undergraduate career hoping to begin a process of lifelong learning that will facilitate her transcendence of a quotidian upbringing. What she finds at Dupont, however, are fellow students almost exclusively of privileged backgrounds whose concerns alternate between greed, substance abuse, and casual sex. She finds, too, a campus run by faculty members who largely separate themselves into competing deterministic camps, a split occurring along a sciences/humanities dichotomy: first, there are the behaviorists, who speculate that there may be no free will, that genetics and the pressures of one's environment may hold the key to the entirety of human experience; and second, there are the Theorists, who raise anti-foundationalism to a foundational level, who make of relativism, Relativism. (2) Within this debased environment--a reductive one that presupposes a lack of validity inherent in individual experience--Charlotte will lose her virginity at a beer-soaked fraternity formal, experience acute clinical depression, nearly flunk out of school, and prepare to enter her second semester paralyzed by a hyperactive, normalizing consciousness of social status.

The genius of Wolfe's novel is that it pursues Charlotte's demise in a darkly comic manner, thereby carrying the reader for some seven hundred pages. Wolfe was rewarded for this achievement at bookstores across the country, with Charlotte Simmons landing on bestseller lists, just as did Wolfe's most popular previous works--to include, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), The Right Stuff (1979), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), and A Man in Full (1998). (3) Despite this success--or possibly because of it--Charlotte Simmons's critical reception has been mixed. Positive reviews of Wolfe's work laud its energy and tend to welcome the novel's sometimes dogmatic depiction of the contemporary life academe. For instance, in a disarmingly honest attempt to save the text from its detractors, the novelist-critic Barbara Scrupski writes that Charlotte Simmons lays bare the limits of "the ethics of the liberal elites," or those who speak "the voice of affectlessness, of studied, deliberate 'cool'" (87, 88). Scrupski continues:

It must surely be painful to see Tom Wolfe point out to them so vividly the faults of their dream: these are no children of nature running free, but foul-mouthed, spoiled teenagers, drinking themselves sick, engaging in games of psychological cruelty [...] and indulging in random, meaningless sex. (90)

Negative reviews of the text have latched on to its graphic and grueling depictions of sex acts, with Jeff Baker, in a review for The Oregonian, even going so far as to suggest that Wolfe's authorial gaze is akin to that of "a dirty old man" (E7). …