The Saturday Read – Tom Wolfe, ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons’

When this week’s selection for ‘The Saturday Read’ was released in 2004 the reviews were brutal and unusual for a writer with the reputation of Tom Wolfe. In hindsight, with the headlines from college campuses in the past year, the author might have been more in tune with campus life 11 years ago than reviewers acknowledged.

‘The Saturday Read’ this week is ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons’.

I recommend this novel for both students heading off to college and the parents left behind. In his dedication, author Wolfe acknowledged the contribution of his then college age children who provided input on authenticity throughout his writing process.

“You have been a joy, a surprise, a source of wonderment for me at every stage of your young lives. So I suppose I shouldn’t be astonished by what you have done for me and this book; but I am, and dedicating it to you is a mere whisper of my gratitude.”

“What I never imagined you could do – I couldn’t have done it at your age – was to step back in the most detached way and point out the workings of human nature in general and the esoteric workings of social status in particular.  I say “esoteric”, because in many cases these were areas of life one would not ordinarily think of as social at all. Given your powers of abstraction, you father had only to reassemble the material he had accumulated visiting campuses across the country. What I feel about you both I can say best with a long embrace.”

I include the dedication to remind parents that their children will return home surprisingly different, but recognizable. They may even amaze with their insight. And they will always welcome a long parental embrace.

Now back to Charlotte. She comes from a small Appalachian town in western North Carolina and arrives as a scholarship student at the elite Dupont University. Her acceptance was reported as the lead story in her hometown Allegheny News.

Charlotte is seeking a life of the mind but ends up with popularity and prestige linked to her relationship to a star basketball player. Her journey registered with a number of readers in college at the time of the book release.

The Yale Alumni magazine published comments from undergraduates to find out if alumnus Wolfe’s fictionalized view aligned with the student experience. Here is a sampling from three respondents.

“It’s possible! 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.”

“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.”

“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.”

For Charlotte the college experience was transformational. And that’s why you go to college; not to get a job in the short term, not to be the same person you were on the first day of class, but to engage in the experience and grow into an ever curious, contributing member of society who will cause continual ‘surprise and wonderment’ in your parents.

Why read the book if you are not a college student or parent? ‘Charlotte’ is a narrative of change and sometimes startling interactions with a new environment. Our global workplace is one characterized by volatility and often unwelcome transition. Spending time in a fictionalized version of our reality provides an alternate narrative to explore. And it’s a good story, with good writing.

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