When I Am Charlotte Simmons was published in 2004, the major papers reviewed it, as they always do for the new novel of Tom Wolfe. For 40 years he has been chronicling American life, with essays and novels exploring who we are, how we live, and to some extent, what it all means. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post were aghast at Wolfe’ naivete, sure that he had been living too far from the most important places for too long, which has its own irony because he has lived in New York City for most of his life. “What cabbage leaf have you been living under, Tom Wolfe?”
The story is about an 18 year-old, Charlotte Simmons, who enters the fictional DuPont University for her freshman year, very clearly and very certainly knowing who she is, “I am Charlotte Simmons, after all!” Intelligent and attractive, she finds her way into a fraternity party not too many weeks into the semester, and is noticed by the coolest guy in the house. As the tale is told, he begins to initiate her into frat life, and the expectations of becoming more “adult,” being 21 as he is. More could be told, but the climactic moment comes when the fraternity has its annual great gala banquet in the spring at a hotel in Washington DC. Everyone brings a girl! Great expense is expected, much drinking and dancing is too, and most of all, a final sexual conquest is the telos of their existence. Everything is oriented toward that end. And not surprisingly, the conquest is a defeat, with Charlotte losing things that matter most to her.
As the backdrop for his novel, Wolfe spent several years visiting universities like Duke, Stanford, Penn, the University of Michigan and the University of the North Carolina, wanting to understand the university culture of the early years of 21st-century. Having read his work pretty carefully over many years, I am sure of this: he is a good reporter— history will show whether he is a great novelist. What he does very well is put his finger to the wind, writing with uncanny accuracy about what he sees and hears.
All of this has been rumbling around in my mind the last week with the horrific news about the rape in a very prominent fraternity house at the University of Virginia. The Rolling Stone article is hard to read, as it is so crude, and so sad, and so violent. The settings are different, of course, but the parallel to Wolfe’s novel are uncanny, i.e. the assumption of an ethos of drunkenness and debauchery, and necessarily one where young men violate young women.
It was the critique of sexual “freedom” that earned Wolfe the derision of the Times and the Post, dismissing his story of sexuality become horribly skewed. Of course there was nothing in their reviews that approved of rape, and a culture of rape; but the ethos that produces it, the attitudes that form it, yes. They were “aghast” at Wolfe for even imagining that “hooking up” could ever be a problem— even and especially for an 18 year-old girl in her first year of college. “Who are you to say, Tom Wolfe, that Charlotte couldn’t be a good girl, a good student and good in bed?”
When Thomas Jefferson began his university he was certain— full of Enlightenment hubris as he was —that a Temple of Reason should be the architectural apex of his famous academical village, the beautifully-imagined Lawn of the University of Virginia. He called it the Rotunda, and it still has the place of institutional privilege and honor.
But it was not more than 20 years before his experiment in Enlightenment rationalism had gone off the pedagogical and social rails. Protesting the hedonism of Jefferson’s university. the Anglican and Presbyterian clergy of Virginia went to the state legislature, arguing that something must change for the good of the Old Dominion. As one historian described it, “Virginia students, most of whom were accustomed to the free country life of the plantation, were disdainful of restraints or restrictions not imposed by parental right. Impressed by a code of honor that, when distorted, exalted privilege over responsibility and haughtiness over humility, some students rather quickly turned the university into what one officer described as a state of ‘insubordination, lawlessness, and riot.'”
More could be said, more should be said— for example, that William McGuffey, author of the famous McGuffey’s Readers was hired to be the Professor of Moral Philosophy, as the university’s primary response to the institutional hedonism —but what is clear 175 years later is that the “insubordination, lawlessness, and riot” still exist at the heart of Mr. Jefferson’s University. And now so many other schools too, perhaps most others; at least that is the report of the twenty somethings I know well. The Enlightenment Project is built on “the pretended autonomy of theoretical thought.” as the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd called Jefferson’s Reason, and we have imagined that it can be a meaningful basis for human flourishing. It has not, and it does not.
The stories go on, and sometimes, horribly and tragically, the Charlotte Simmonses of the world find their way into the fraternity houses of the modern university, and leave, hurt in body and soul, knowing more than they ever wanted to know about the wounding ways of unbounded freedom, when privilege is exalted over responsibility and haughtiness over humility. It is UVa’s sordid story, but one that is repeated in schools large and small all over America— almost everywhere, it is the way things are.
But not the way they’re supposed to be. The early 20th-century writer, Hart Crane, reflecting on love in the modern world, so very poetically put it like this, “Love: a burnt match skating in a urinal.” Too many times in too many frat houses in too many universities, love has become lost in lust. We long for something more.
(Photo from the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.)