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Are You Charotte Simmons?
When journalist Tom Wolfe ’57PhD released his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, last fall, he explained it was “a depiction of the American university today” at a fictional college that is “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one.” Wolfe’s eponymous heroine is a brilliant, well-read, but extremely sheltered girl from a poor family in the North Carolina hills. She goes to the fictional Dupont University with plans to live the “life of the mind” that she could not share with anyone at home except for an attentive teacher and mentor. But no one else in the book seems to share her goal. Her roommate Beverly, a rich Groton graduate, is shallow, bitchy, and boy-crazy. The other principal student characters are Hoyt, a good-looking, predatory fraternity boy; Jojo, a starter on Dupont’s national championship basketball team; and Adam, a scholarship student who writes for the campus newspaper and seethes at how the Hoyts and Jojos dominate campus life.
Knowing Wolfe’s gift for social observation, and knowing that he visited a number of elite campuses—including Yale’s—to research his novel, the Yale Alumni Magazine decided to road-test the book with eight current Yale undergraduates. After taking the book home for winter break, they shared their thoughts with executive editor Mark Alden Branch ’86 over lunch at our offices.
Branch: What are your general impressions of the book? Was it on target, or was it even a useful caricature of the college life that you’ve enjoyed?
Brekhman: I think it’s very representative, and because it is so representative it kind of gets long and tedious by the time you get past page 500. It’s like an encyclopedia of modern college life. And how excited can you get about an encyclopedia?
Lovett: It’s almost like it was hard reading the book because it’s about us. I think he’s dead on with some of the observations.
Jones: He gave some of the characters interesting backgrounds, but then didn’t really develop the characters so much. It’s pretty much a series of observations rather than a story.
Schechter: I actually didn’t buy a lot of it—that a person like Charlotte could exist. She was so naïve. I almost feel like that’s not possible.
Mergener: It’s possible! [Laughter.] I certainly identified with Charlotte through much of the book. I came to Yale, I’d led a very sheltered life in a little suburb and couldn’t fathom what I’d find here, and it was shocking to me. In high school, none of my friends drank or smoked, so I was wide-eyed at the party scene here. While I think at times Wolfe took it too far, there were times when he was spot on. The other characters were somewhat stereotypical, but I did think that Charlotte was really complex, especially towards the beginning of the book.
Jones: I’m from a very small town in Ohio and though by no means was I as naïve as Charlotte, I identified with some of the class issues. There was definitely a difference between my life and the lives of my roommates, who were mostly from New York. I never felt the kind of shame that I think Charlotte does about her family, but it was definitely kind of funny when my dad, who’s a farmer, was hanging out with my friend’s father, who was a VP at Goldman Sachs. I do think that that’s an element that was portrayed very well in the book, when Charlotte’s father suggests to her rich roommate’s parents that they all go to the Sizzlin' Skillet for dinner.
Rosenberg: One of the passages I found the most sympathetic was Adam talking about having to work while he’s in school. I think Wolfe actually writes more sensitively about social class than anything else in the book. But I was shocked by the way he portrayed interactions between women, which were unlike anything I’ve experienced since middle school. Every woman Charlotte encounters is hostile, from the gremlins who sit on the stairs and abuse her every time she comes home to her totally idiotic and unsympathetic freshman counselor. For Charlotte to go an entire semester without finding a single girl she can relate to in some way or who she doesn’t treat with the utmost disdain is surprising. I don’t think all girls are as catty, obsessed with clothes, and absurd as Wolfe portrays them.
Anim: I agree. How many times are there when she’s walking on campus and there are girls shrieking in the presence of boys? How unbelievably bird-brained does he think females are?
Schechter: But women do shriek on campus around boys. I know that sounds disturbing, but admit it: how many times have we seen this? It is a stereotype but I think it is perpetuated for a reason. I have a question for Mark. I thought this was a very interesting depiction of a basketball team. I know the Yale team may not be like Dupont, which seemed to be based on Duke, but did you find some of his depiction true?
Lovett: It is totally different here. When you’re talking about schools like Dupont or Duke, there is serious money on the line. So you can see how the president would get involved when the basketball player is caught turning in a paper he didn’t write—but none of that goes on here, where the school almost appears to go out of its way to ensure that we are in no way treated differently from any other student.
Branch: What about Wolfe’s depiction of intellectual life on campus? Charlotte, for all of her naïvete, is already a brilliant and well-read person eager to live what she calls “the life of the mind.” But the only people outside the classroom who ever talk about ideas or matters of the intellect are Adam’s friends, the self-described “millennial mutants” who are all just bucking for Rhodes Scholarships and trying to impress each other with their cleverness.
Rosenberg: Most Yale students I know act out the life of the mind in a number of different ways in and out of the classroom—whether it’s a political group or music or whatever. Charlotte’s “life of the mind” involves being extraordinarily well read, but not necessarily applying her intellect with other people. At Yale I see students living out their intellectual interests in lively and different ways.
Jones: The paradigm that Wolfe plays out for the life of the mind is solely based on achievement or exceptionalism. You have the “millennial mutants” who are just trying to get ahead instead of having a really legitimate interest in what they’re doing. And then you have Charlotte, who talks about herself in the third person all the time and says, “I am Charlotte Simmons, I am the most brilliant scholar who has ever lived,” but you see very few examples of why she is so, of why she is passionate about things. She’s definitely not sharing her interests with other people or growing in that way.
Schechter: The most important conversations people have here are in their suites at night or randomly on a walk back from a basketball game or something like that. Because people do have their own private life of the mind, but there is also this sphere in which we’re coming together to share what it is that we brought to this school, and I think Yale’s done a very good job of engineering the situations in which these conversations can take place—things like master’s teas or the Mellon Forum, where seniors share their senior essays.
Branch: Wolfe suggests that most students view going to class and doing their coursework as the dues they pay in order to remain at “Club Dupont.” What role does the classroom play for you?
Mergener: When I took my tour of Yale, my tour guide said that Yale is 40 percent academics and 60 percent extracurriculars, and I found that an unbelievable statement. How could that be? This is Yale! But I think that pretty much is the case. I think people see classes as something you have to get out of the way. I don’t think most people leave here thinking academics define their Yale career.
Brekhman: But this is a very legitimate criticism of elite higher education in America. You have people whose whole job and career it is to purvey knowledge, and we’re saying that what they are doing is secondary. What does it mean then when people get a Yale diploma?
Goodman: There are a lot of different experiences here. I can name a lot of people I’ve encountered in my career at Yale whose academic work in the classroom has been very central to their formation of sense of self and direction of life. For me, every semester there are one or two classes that really permeate my thinking about the world.
Rosenberg: I think Rachel’s getting into something that’s absolutely on point. This life of the mind that Charlotte describes isn’t particularly interesting. She’s very well read but that doesn’t reflect her life. I think classes at Yale are more useful and valuable when they project outward onto your life and the life you’re going to live in the world. A silly example: I have a friend who invented the idea of “Schrodinger’s Date.” It’s supposed to describe when you’re going out for coffee and it’s unclear if you’re on a date or just friends. Is the date dead or alive? Taking certain kinds of classes—quantum mechanics, in this case—and applying them to your life, figuring out that they have a certain kind of application, that’s a lot of fun.
Branch: Wolfe devotes a lot of space to the excruciating scene at the fraternity party, where they go out of town, and Charlotte gets very drunk and loses her virginity to Hoyt, the frat guy. And her regret about it sends her into a debilitating depression. What did you all think about this?
Rosenberg: One thing that I consider really upsetting about the book is that I think she got raped. But in her mind, she’s the one who’s committed the unspeakable act. That’s the way it’s portrayed.
Goodman: I was completely appalled by anything in the book that had to do with women or sexuality, not because there was anything unrealistic about what happened, because I know stuff like that happens all the time, but because there was a total lack of complexity about the sexual and moral codes of our generation. This is an area where things are incredibly different for us from how they were for our parents. I think what’s going on now is that there is a multiplicity of codes, particularly around sexuality. Nobody uses the word rape in the book. Even if Charlotte didn’t feel like she was raped, it is something that is in the vocabulary enough at a place like this that it would have crossed someone’s mind. But Charlotte didn’t encounter any ideas of female sexual empowerment.
Schechter: Yaw is a freshman counselor and so is Anatoly. Don’t you guys talk to freshmen about sex? I feel like I was prepared at Yale, in the sense that I was told what rape was, I knew how to be safe. I feel like I came in with a better knowledge because of the preparation we had at the beginning of the year when I was a freshman.
Anim: There’s a lot of education that goes on at the beginning. And there’s a new program this year called “Sex Signals,” where the whole idea was trying to relay the message that communication is the key—as far as what your limits are—and the freshmen found it to be really helpful.
Goodman: I think it goes back to Wolfe’s total inability to understand anything about gender in the world. He just doesn’t care about women. He just doesn’t care about Charlotte, and the only way he can explain the social world or how she’s going to fit into it is through these three male worlds—Charlotte figuring out which male world she’s going to become an accessory to. There’s no such thing as a co-ed world, which is really strange.
Brekhman: But the book is not simply about Charlotte Simmons. It’s not about her psyche. He doesn’t have to understand everything about a female adolescent’s life to figure out how she’s going to fit into this world. This book is about the pressures that an elite university places upon a normal girl who had some ambitions before coming to school. And how can she have limits when the whole point of college is experimentation, as he so clearly demonstrates in the book? When the expectation is that you come here and you drop all your limits and you experiment because that’s the nature of college?
Rosenberg: But is that true for you? You’ve dropped all the limits you had when you came to college?
Brekhman: I had a freshman who came in and said, “I’m the most pure girl in the entire world. I don’t have sex, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, and I don’t eat meat.” And out of those five things, probably four were not true by the end of the first term. And she’s doing great.
Branch: How realistic was the book in its depiction of romantic relationships? What fascinates older people is that you don’t go on dates anymore.
Brekhman: Wolfe’s point of view was similar to what David Brooks has written about student relationships—about how it’s transaction-based, like business relationships. It’s not a long-term investment.
Goodman: But I’ve known a lot of people at Yale who are in very serious relationships. And that’s still a real thing. It’s probably true that some of the courtship rituals are a little incomprehensible.
Mergener: I think he did a good job of showing the lack of a middle ground. I think it’s the case at Yale that most relationships are either very casual, like hooking-up relationships, or they are very deeply committed—almost married couples. You don’t see a lot of dating. It’s just not like that.
Schechter: Guys, if one of your friends says something like, “I’m taking her out to the Yale Rep and Scoozzi,” you’re like, “C'mon, buddy.” [Laughter.]
Anim: I had a roommate sophomore year who every week took a different girl out on a date—and to nice places like Roomba.
Women’s voices: Oh my gosh! Who is this? Can I have his number? [Laughter.]
Anim: I’d better not say his name on tape. But it was so out of the ordinary.
Lovett: The only reason I can think of that you would ask a girl on a date is if you were in a situation where you might not see her again. Here, you’re going to run into that person again.
Mergener: If you go to a party and see your friend and some guy she just met booty dancing for three hours, it’s quite different from if you see two people you know holding hands. That’s much more serious.
Rosenberg: I actually do know a lot of people who date. People do go out for coffee a lot.
Mergener: Yeah, but coffee is not a commitment. I mean, you could be there to study, you could be there to talk, or to find out about a summer internship. That’s why we like it. You’re not putting yourself on the line, you’re not taking a risk.
Branch: So we’re back to Schrodinger’s Date. How do you know if something is a romantic relationship?
Mergener: Maybe if you start running into somebody more than you ordinarily do, or he suddenly starts eating in your college more often. There are ways.
Branch: One more question. Wolfe uses the term “sexile” to describe the situation where someone is forced out of their room so their roommate can bring in a guest for romantic purposes. Did that ring any bells for you?
Brekhman: One night sophomore year as I was headed back to the dorm from a party, my roommate called—drunk—and said, “Don’t come home tonight.” I was a little upset, but I understood that this was part and parcel of being a roommate, and I spent a most uncomfortable night at the library—where another couple was hooking up.
Yaw Anim '05 of New York is a psychology major and a freshman counselor in Davenport College.
Anatoly Brekhman '05 of Elkridge, Maryland, is majoring in applied physics and the history of science. He is a freshman counselor in Morse College.
Rachel Goodman '05 of Scarsdale, New York, is a political science major.
Kristi Jones '05 of Warsaw, Ohio, is a history major. She is a former president of the literary society St. Anthony Hall.
Mark Lovett '05 of Pittsburgh is an economics major. He is a member of the men’s varsity basketball team.
Lindsey Mergener '05 of Farmington Hills, Michigan, is majoring in ethics, politics, and economics. She is a former news editor of the Yale Daily News and a member of the undergraduate council at St. Thomas More, the Catholic center at Yale.
Alyssa Rosenberg '06 of Lexington, Massachusetts, is majoring in history and humanities. She is a member of New Haven’s Democratic Town Committee and writes a column for the Yale Daily News.
Rachel Schechter '07 of Los Angeles plans to major in classical civilization and economics.
“She gazed about at all the other students who were walking across the Great Yard. She was among the elite of the youth of America! . Before her, behind her, walking this way and that way across the Great Yard, enjoying the sun, enjoying the shade and majesty of the ancient trees, chattering away into their cell phones, which their daddies could pay for as easily as drawing their next breath, suffused with the conspicuous lapidary consumption of all this royal Middle English Gothic architecture and the knowledge that they were among that elite minifraction of the youth of America—of the youth of the world!—who went to Dupont—all about her moved her 6,200 fellow students, or a great many of them, in midflight, blithely ignorant of the fact that they were merely conscious little rocks, every one of them, whereas . I am Charlotte Simmons.”
“Girls at Dupont quickly learned the protocol of the Dupont Memorial Library’s Ryland Reading Room, where on any given night except Saturday, the largest concentration of boys on the campus could be found. Long, stout, medievalish study tables filled the vast space from front to back … Practically every boy in the Ryland Reading Room was there to study. Girls came to study and scout for boys. The boy-scouters sat at the tables in chairs facing the entrance, the nearer an aisle the better. If a girl sat with her back to the entrance, that meant she was there solely to study.”
“The muscular students here at Farquhar were merely subscribing to the new male body fashion—the jacked, ripped, buff look … Ordinary guys with such big arms, big shoulders, big necks, big chests, they could wear sleeveless T-shirts and strap-style I’m-Buff shirts to show off in! What were they going to do with all these amazing muscles? . Nothing, that’s what. They weren’t going to be athletes, and they weren’t going to fight anybody. It was a fashion, these muscles, just like anything else you put on your body . Pure fashion!”
“He knew, of course, that students were more casual these days, but the ones he was looking at—shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops—and pickup trucks? Things change, of course, but he couldn’t get out of his mind the old picture of Ford and Buick station wagons with students—Dupont was all male then—hanging around the tailgates wearing button-downs, neckties, and tweed jackets or blazers.”
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