An evening with Charlotte Simmons

This evening, I was fortunate enough to attend a panel discussion of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel I Am Charlotte Simmons at the Independent Women’s Forum. The panel — David Brooks, Christina Hoff Sommers, John Derbyshire, and Michael Dirda — was terrific. It split 2-2 on the merits of the book. Brooks and Derbyshire were pro; Sommers and Dirda were con. These are interesting pairings. Derbyshire is a social conservative; Brooks is not. Sommers is a peerless debunker of feminist myths; Dirda is a self-professed child of the 1960s and defender of the ensuing cultural revolution.
The following brief summary of what I heard does not do justice to the excellent presentations each of the panelists made. I hope, however, that it will be of some interest to those who have read the book.
Brooks and Derbyshire admire Wolfe’s book because of its virtuosity and because, in addition to entertaining, it asks serious questions about morality, biology, and the issue at the intersection of these two realms — determinism. Brooks and Derbyshire have different takes on where the book comes out on some of these issues. Brooks sees Wolfe as rejecting the metaphor that we are merely conscious rocks in motion — in other words, that there is no such thing as a soul. Derbyshire seems less sure that this is where Wolfe stands, as am I.
Sommers and Dirda both have the same primary objection to Charlotte Simmons. Both believe that the book fails to present an honest portrait of college life today. Sommers thinks that the real story on college campuses is not rampant sex, but rampant workaholism and resume building. Citing various studies, she noted that sexual activity on campus is declining and that, in general, the present generation of college students is more studious and less vice-ridden than were generation x and the baby boomers. Sommers also thinks Wolfe missed the real scandal on campus today — the strangeness and lack of rigor of the liberal arts professoriate. Dirda disagreed with the last point, but generally was in accord with Sommers about the rest. However, he based his disagreement with Wolfe’s picture of college life less on empirical arguments about what college students are actually doing these days than on his sense that Wolfe is too moralistic, too rooted in a 1950s sensibility.
There’s no doubt (and Brooks and Derbyshire admit) that Wolfe has overstated the extent to which sex dominates modern campus life and has understated the seriousness of today’s undergraduates. But I believe, based on what I’ve heard from my college-age daughter and her friends, that what Wolfe describes is very real. That it amounts to a subculture rather than the culture does not, in my view, undermine the book’s worth. This is particularly true inasmuch as Wolfe does not claim to be capturing the entire culture and, indeed, presents a number of students who stand (rather sullenly to be sure) outside the sex-crazed subculture. More damning, I think, is the fact that Wolfe presents no happy characters and none, other than Charlotte, who is virtuous. As Brooks points out, however, this is standard Wolfe. Had he stuck to presenting businessmen in this light, who would have objected?
To me, the point is that Wolfe’s book, in Derbyshire’s words, shines light into dark and very real corners and, in doing so, asks important and troubling questions. All that plus a great plot, great language, great humor, and basketball? I’ve got to cast my vote with Brooks and Derbyshire.


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