“An Undergrad in Full,” review of I am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe, Wall Street Journal, 5 November 2004.
Tom Wolfe was of course known as a social satirist long before he became the novelist we know today. One thinks, for instance, of “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide to America.” It includes a section in which Mr. Wolfe describes being on a panel at Princeton that included Paul Krassner and Allen Ginsberg. They are going on and on about the repression of the times (the mid-1970s), and Mr. Wolfe finds himself blurting out in disbelief: “My God, what are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a… Happiness Explosion!”
“I Am Charlotte Simmons” (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 676 pages, $28.95) revisits the campus scene three decades later, novelistically, presenting it all through the eyes of an intelligent coed who must contend with the Happiness Explosion itself — and its fallout. Social satire is everywhere evident, but there is a sober theme, too, and it is very much worth paying attention to.
Charlotte Simmons is a college girl from a small town in the mountains of North Carolina who arrives at a fancy university of the highest type. Dupont, in Pennsylvania, is a composite of Harvard (it has a Yard), Yale (Gothic architecture), Stanford (fraternities) and Duke (a champion basketball team).
Charlotte is very intelligent, the only student in the life of her best high-school teacher who justifies an otherwise frustrating career. In her family’s poverty and her own lack of sophistication Charlotte is quite unrepresentative of students at Dupont (and indeed at Harvard, Yale, etc.), a fact enabling Mr. Wolfe to present her story in the strong contrasts he prefers. Readers get to see college life today as it might have appeared to another generation.