Big Man on Campus

Michael Anton, Claremont Review of Books, September 2005.


I am Charlotte Simmons hit the shelves one week after the 2004 election, just in time to explain to perplexed blue-staters what people in flyover country are really like, and to confirm Red America’s worst fears about what really goes on way out there in the Blue. This was not really Wolfe’s purpose—just as Bonfire was not written to predict the rise of Al Sharpton, and Man in Full was not supposed to be a roman à clef about the Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco fiascos. Wolfe’s plots and characters may seem to be ripped from the headlines, to borrow a phrase, yet precisely the reverse is true. Wolfe is such a perspicacious reporter that he regularly scoops the headlines simply by getting to the story before anyone else. Even with the glacial delays of the publishing industry, and Wolfe’s own…difficulties in meeting his (often self-imposed) deadlines, he still manages to beat the competition.

Wolfe has in fact marveled on more than one occasion that, in terms of literary material, he seems to have vast tracts of American life all to himself. He professes amazement that no hippie ever wrote a novel about the ’60s that blew Acid Test out of the water. He describes the experience of writing Bonfire as one of constantly, furtively looking over his shoulder, terrified that some other novelist (Truman Capote?) would beat him to the punch with a big, Balzacian book about 1980s New York. And he approached Charlotte Simmons with the same spirit. Dozens of “campus novels” have been written, from classics like Lucky Jim to clever diversions like Changing Places. But most have been dreck. And, Wolfe noticed, the good ones as well as the bad ones were not so much “campus novels” as “faculty novels,” written by English professors about English professors for English professors. No one had even tried to write a novel from the perspective of the students. Aren’t students what the university is all about?

Claremont Review of Books