There are no Charlotte Simmons’ at MSU. Some people may resemble the character from Tom Wolfe’s new novel, but literally, no one here is actually named Charlotte Simmons. I checked. No one quite that naïve could have made it here, but it’s possible that a few impressionable, bookish types out there could have served as inspiration for the character. But certainly there are no students that expected college life to be a place where academia thrives and annoying off-the-cuff, high-school comments come to die. Everyone knows college is about the party scene with frat parties during the week, “experimenting” with different people and objects, and never opening a book. At least that’s the picture Wolfe sketches in his new novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.
[wolfe] Wolfe, 74, researched the lives of college students at over a dozen campuses, including the University of Michigan, to help him narrate the first year of college as seen by Charlotte Simmons, a quiet, bright, southern girl attending college at a prestigious, fictitious university. Charlotte is first shocked by the foul language of her peers, their non-stop partying and sexual escapades and chooses to find a life within her studies and books. However, Charlotte decides to throw these ideals to the wayside when she finds a boyfriend in a pampered basketball player. The picture of ivy-covered walls is relatable, but may not be accurate. Students do party and swear, but Wolfe over-intensifies these ideas. In an attempt to immortalize himself as the prevailing sociologist of 2000s college life, Wolfe proves he is too old to capture our generation as well as he did his own. However, the old man is not completely out of touch and gets some of it right, including his descriptions of college-speak.
The Language
In I am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe reveals a world where students only speak in the “prevailing college creole: Fuck Patois”. He sprinkles the foulest expletives randomly throughout the college-student speak. In Wolfe’s world, it is almost impossible to walk though any dorm, tailgate or even library without hearing students adding little extras to their tales.
“I think that was something [Wolfe] really wanted to get across,” history and political science major Jacob Boylan said after reading the novel. “Kids our age are overly profane and it’s killing our vocabularies, even at the most prestigious universities in America like Dupont [Wolfe’s ficticious university] or in real life Harvard or Yale.”
Junior English major Megan Brown disagrees with Wolfe’s portrayal. “The people I know are actually trying to expand their vocabulary,” Brown said.
In Wolfe’s depiction, female students have even also broken away from their hushed tones, and this does seem to mirror real life. “Women have a tendency not to speak that way [with profanity] because of this code of politeness,” linguistics and writing, rhetoric, and American cultures professor Denise Troutman said. However, young women in Wolfe’s book and on real college campuses are breaking the rules of this code. One trip to an on-campus “Ladies” room will prove that college women can talk just like the boys.
The Parties
[book] In the novel, Charlotte seems to have a prudish view toward other students’ partying antics. “[Wolfe] makes her out to be a willfully naïve goody two-shoes. . . as if this Miss Smartypants had never watched television or read a magazine in her life,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in his New York Times review of the novel. Standing next to fellow students in her matching plaid pajamas, slippers and robe, or her high-waisted jeans, Charlotte does seem different.
Going through college without drinking or partying is fine, and many students do. But does that mean it is not acceptable to strike a balance between studies and parties? Wolfe implies just that with Charlotte’s appalled attitude.
“There is a middle ground, but I think it’s hard to find,” psychology major Kristen Capps said about students finding a balance between studying and partying. “Kids that party do party a lot, and kids that study do study a lot.”
Mostly focusing on the late night weekend parties, Wolfe seems to miss what freshmen experience during the week. Routinely rolling out of bed and going to class, living with someone you have never met and meeting hundreds of new people can be emotionally trying. Readers get a glimpse of Charlotte’s homesickness when she writes a letter to her parents and calls a friend from home for support. “Laurie will know! Laurie will understand!” Wolfe does touch on some truth when he depicts Charlotte as unsure where she fits on campus, when home and Dupont are equally not her niche. Any college student can empathize with these first-year identity woes.
The Sex
OK, college students have sex. They have sex in their lofts with their roommate in the one next to theirs or will even kick their roommate out. But sex on the floor as your roommate comes in and you aren’t embarrassed at all; in fact you introduce your roommate to your new “friend”, since you can’t remember his or her name? This is what is described in one scene in the dorm of two basketball players. It’s arguable that college students are as shamelessly enslaved to their loins as much as Wolfe’s characters.
[sex] Charlotte makes a clear point, though, when describing her membership in the “Virgin Club.” “This is supposed to be this great university, but it’s like if you haven’t ‘given it up,’ . . . then you just don’t belong here.”
Sex in the novel is not viewed as taboo, much like on a real campus. According to Wolfe’s depiction, it’s OK to ask your roommate to leave so you can “hook up” in the middle of the night, it’s OK to assume if you have a boyfriend you two will have sex, it’s even OK for Charlotte’s religious best friend to tell her to do some experimenting because “college is this four-year period when you can try anything. . . and if anything goes wrong there’s no consequences”.
The Accuracy?
Wolfe’s depiction of a typical college student can be overly stereotypical, but I Am Charlotte Simmons does have moments of glory tucked within its daunting 676 pages. For example, his description of the library with its “rustle of many people in motion” and the speed-walk battle for the last computer available is dead on.
“I think it gives a pretty accurate perception of what college is like on the weekends,” Boylan said. “What’s great is that we can all relate to this book right now because we’re going through it.”
Yet, Wolfe’s amplified stereotypes: the jock, the nerd, the quiet girl, the party girl, can give a negative spin to readers who are unfamiliar with college students.
“There are some students who may fit these stereotypical roles,” Troutman said. “Unfortunately, we continue to get these perpetuated myths of college students.”
Wolfe’s take on college life may be bold, only focusing on the excitement of the parties and not the mundane of daily classes and duties. This boldness makes some important points, like students constantly swearing, but oversimplifies and labels us into rather offensive boxes. It is very likely that there are no complete composite characters from I am Charlotte Simmons roaming around campus. But there are probably quite a few nuanced versions of Wolfe’s sex-crazed jocks, party girls, and even Charlottes out there.

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