Tom Wolfe, the master social novelist of our time, the spot-on chronicler of all things contemporary and cultural, presents a sensational new novel about life, love, and learningor the lack of itamid today's American colleges.
Our story unfolds at fictional Dupont University: those Olympian halls of scholarship housing the cream of America's youth, the roseate Gothic spires and manicured lawns suffused with tradition . . . Or so it appears to beautiful, brilliant Charlotte Simmons, a sheltered freshman from North Carolina. But Charlotte soon learns, to her mounting dismay, that for the upper-crust coeds of Dupont, sex, cool, and kegs trump academic achievement every time.
As Charlotte encounters the paragons of Dupont's privileged eliteher roommate, Beverly, a Groton-educated Brahmin in lusty pursuit of lacrosse players; Jojo Johanssen, the only white starting player on Dupont's godlike basketball team, whose position is threatened by a hotshot black freshman from the projects; the Young Turk of Saint Ray fraternity, Hoyt Thorpe, whose heady sense of entitlement and social domination is clinched by his accidental brawl with a bodyguard for the governor of California; and Adam Geller, one of the Millennial Mutants who run the university's "independent" newspaper and who consider themselves the last bastion of intellectual endeavor on the sex-crazed, jock-obsessed campusshe is seduced by the heady glamour of acceptance, betraying both her values and upbringing before she grasps the power of being differentand the exotic allure of her own innocence.
With his trademark satirical wit and famously sharp eye for telling detail, Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons draws on extensive observations at campuses across the country to immortalize the early-21st-century college-going experience.
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About the Author
Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was one of the founders of the New Journalism movement and the author of such contemporary classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, as well as the novels The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. As a reporter, he wrote articles for The Washington Post, the New York Herald Tribune, Esquire, and New York magazine, and is credited with coining the term, “The Me Decade.”
Among his many honors, Tom was awarded the National Book Award, the John Dos Passos Award, the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence, the National Humanities Medal, and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
A native of Richmond, Virginia, he earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee University, graduating cum laude, and a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale. He lived in New York City.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:March 2, 1931
Place of Birth:Richmond, Virginia
Education:B.A. (cum laude), Washington and Lee University, 1951; Ph.D. in American Studies, Yale University, 1957
Read an Excerpt
I Am Charlotte Simmons
By Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2004 Tom Wolfe
All right reserved.
PrologueThe Dupont Man
Every time the men's room door opened, the amped-up onslaught of Swarm, the band banging out the concert in the theater overhead, came crashing in, ricocheting off all the mirrors and ceramic surfaces until it seemed twice as loud. But then an air hinge would close the door, and Swarm would vanish, and you could once again hear students drunk on youth and beer being funny or at least loud as they stood before the urinals.
Two of them were finding it amusing to move their hands back and forth in front of the electric eyes to make the urinals keep flushing. One exclaimed to the other, "Whattaya mean, a slut? She told me she's been re-virginated!" They both broke up over that.
"She actually said that? 'Re-virginated'?"
"Yeah! 'Re-virginated' or 'born-again virgin,' something like that!"
"Maybe she thinks that's what morning-after pills do!" They both broke up again. They had reached that stage in a college boy's evening at which all comments seem more devastatingly funny if shouted.
Urinals kept flushing, boys kept disintegrating over each other's wit, and somewhere in the long row of toilet stalls somebody was vomiting. Then the door would open and Swarm would come crashing in again.
None of this distracted the only student who at this moment stood before the row of basins. His attention was riveted upon what he saw in the mirror, which was his own fair white face. A gale was blowing in his head. He liked it. He bared his teeth. He had never quite seen them this way before. So even! So white! They vibrated from perfection. And his square jaw... his chin and the perfect cleft in it... his thick thatchy, thatchy, light-brown hair... his brilliant hazel eyes... his! Right there in the mirror-him! All at once he felt like he was a second person looking over his own shoulder. The first him was mesmerized by his own good looks. Seriously. But the second him studied the face in the mirror with detachment and objectivity before coming to the same conclusion, which was that he looked fabulous. Then the two of him inspected his upper arms where they emerged from the sleeves of his polo shirt. He turned sideways and straightened one arm to make the triceps stand out. Jacked, both hims agreed. He had never felt happier in his life.
Not only that, he was on the verge of a profound discovery. It had to do with one person looking at the world through two pairs of eyes. If only he could freeze this moment in his mind and remember it tomorrow and write it down! Tonight he couldn't, not with the ruckus that was going on inside his skull.
"Yo, Hoyt! 'Sup?"
He looked away from the mirror, and there was Vance with his head of blond hair tousled as usual. They were in the same fraternity. He had an overwhelming desire to tell Vance what he had just discovered. He opened his mouth but couldn't find the words, and nothing came out. So he turned his palms upward and smiled and shrugged.
"Lookin' good, Hoyt!" said Vance as he approached the urinals, "lookin' good!"
Hoyt knew it really meant he looked very drunk. But in his current sublime state, what difference did it make?
"Hey, Hoyt," said Vance, who now stood before a urinal, "I saw you upstairs there hittin' on that little tigbiddy! Tell the truth! You really, honestly, think she's hot?"
"Coo Uh gitta bigga boner?" said Hoyt, who was trying to say, "Could I get a bigger boner?" and vaguely realized how far off he was.
"Soundin' good, too!" said Vance. He turned away in order to pay attention to the urinal, but then looked at Hoyt once more and said with a serious tone in his voice, "You know what I think? I think you're demolished, Hoyt. I think it's time to head back while your lights are still on."
Hoyt put up an incoherent argument, but not much of one, and pretty soon they left the building.
Outside it was a mild May night with a pleasant breeze and a full moon whose light created just enough of a gloaming to reveal the singular wavelike roof of the theater, known officially here at the university as the Phipps Opera House, one of the architect Eero Saarinen's famous 1950s Modern creations. The theater's entrance, ablaze with light, cast a path of fire across a plaza and out upon a row of sycamore trees at the threshold of another of the campus' famous ornaments, the Grove. From the moment he founded Dupont University 115 years ago, Charles Dupont, no kin of the du Ponts of Delaware and much more aesthetically inclined, had envisioned an actual grove of academe through which scholars young and old might take contemplative strolls. He had commissioned the legendary landscape artist Gordon Gillette. Swaths of Gillette's genius abounded throughout the campus; but above all there was this arboreal masterpiece, the Grove. Gillette had sent sinuous paths winding through it for the contemplative strolls. But although the practice was discouraged, students often walked straight through the woods, the way Hoyt and Vance walked now beneath the brightness of a big round moon.
The fresh air and peace and quiet of the huge stands of trees began to clear Hoyt's head, or somewhat. He felt as if he were back at that blissful intersection on the graph of drunkenness at which the high has gone as high as it can go without causing the powers of reasoning and coherence to sink off the chart and get trashed.... the exquisite point of perfect toxic poise... He was convinced he could once again utter a coherent sentence and make himself understood, and the blissful gale inside his head blew on.
At first he didn't say much, because he was trying to fix that moment before the mirror in his memory as he and Vance walked through the woods toward Ladding Walk and the heart of campus. But that moment kept slipping away... slipping away... slipping away... and before he knew it, an entirely different notion had bubbled up into his brain. It was the Grove... the Grove... the famous Grove... which said Dupont... and made him feel Dupont in his bones, which in turn made his bones infinitely superior to the bones of everybody in America who had never gone to Dupont. "I'm a Dupont man," he said to himself. Where was the writer who would immortalize that feeling?-the exaltation that lit up his very central nervous system when he met someone and quickly worked into the conversation some seemingly offhand indication that he was in college, and the person would (inevitably) ask, "What college do you go to?" and he would say as evenly and tonelessly as possible, "Dupont," and then observe the reaction. Some, especially women, would be openly impressed. They'd smile, their faces would brighten, they'd say, "Oh! Dupont!" while others, especially men, would tense up and fight to keep their faces from revealing how impressed they were and say, "I see" or "Uhmm" or nothing at all. He wasn't sure which he enjoyed more.
Excerpted from I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe Copyright © 2004 by Tom Wolfe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
1. I Am Charlotte Simmons might be considered a breakthrough for Tom Wolfe as a novelist in
that it's the first of his fictional works to be told (for the most part) from a woman's point of
view. Do you think Wolfe successfully and convincingly presents his tale from a female
2. Among the key relationships depicted in Chapter 1 is Charlotte's special bond with Miss
Pennington. What other mentors does Charlotte encounter over the full course of this novel?
Is Miss Pennington ever effectively replaced in this capacity? If so, when, and by whom, and
3. Define the following: "dormcest," "sexiled," "froshtitute," and "Sarc 3" (as well as "Sarc 2"
and "Sarc 1," for that matter). What other collegiate terms or slang vocabulary were new to
you as you made your way through the book?
4. At the beginning of Chapter 5, Hoyt Thorpe fondly looks back on learning (in a class called
"Europe in the Early Middle Ages") that long ago, throughout most if not all of civilization,
both East and West, there had been "only three classes of men in the world: warriors, clergy,
and slaves." Why do you think Hoyt is so drawn to this idea? Speaking metaphorically, who
are the "warriors, clergy, and slaves" of this novel? Which camp, for example, would you put
Charlotte in? What about her father, her roommate, or Jojo?
5. Who are the Millennial Mutants? Why do they call themselves this? Look back at a few of
their group discussions, wherein they jointly dissectand debatethis or that trend or
concept in contemporary American life (such as, for instance, Adam's ideas on what it means
to be "cool"). Then, try to investigate the validity and/or accuracy of the points being made by
the various Mutants; that is, dissect their dissections, critique their critiques, question their
assumptions and their logic, argue with their arguments.
6. Why is Jojo Johanssen so fixated on the life and thought of Socrates? What is it about
philosophical thoughtespecially ancient, fundamental, basic philosophythat appeals to
Jojo, a man of admittedly limited smarts? Are any of the other jocks at Dupont ever drawn to
matters intellectual? If so, whom? And why?
7. Looking back on the pivotal event of this novelthe Saint Ray formal, as detailed in Chapters
24, 25, and 26do you think it's accurate to assert (as has at least one book reviewer) that
Charlotte was raped?
8. What role does Charlotte's mother play in our heroine's life over the full arc of the story?
Describe their relationship. What does Charlotte seem to like or admire most about her
mother, and least? And why does Charlotte keep so many secrets from her? At one point, in
Chapter 27, Charlotte complains to her mother that she has lately "been under so much
stress." She immediately regrets using the word "stress," however, because "she knew
Momma would spot it right away for the trendy term it was. What was stress, when you got
right down to it, but just plain weakness when it came to doing the right thing?" Do you agree
with his view? Why or why not? And, more generally, what do you make of the country
wisdom (as culled from her Momma and from others) that Charlotte thinks back on, reminds
herself of, and draws lessons from through the novel?
9. Thinking particularly about the characters, personalities, backgrounds, and endeavors of Adam
Gellin, Jerome P. Quat, and Frederick Cutler III, explore the points that Tom Wolfe makes in
this book about Jewish intellectual life and achievement in America.
10. Clarify the difference between "Fuck Patois" and "Shit Patois"and, if it's not too
embarrassing, provide a few examples of each. More generally, discuss how the detailed,
wide-ranging, and incessant attention given by Wolfe to language throughout I Am Charlotte
Simmons relates to the attention he gives to (among other topics) class, wealth, society,
culture, ethnicity, history, politics, the media, literature, sports, and scholarship.
11. Both Chapters 31 and 32 end with the idea of being "a man"and yet two different ideas
seem to be at work here. Compare and contrast these two instances of manhood, and the
characters who define/embody these instances.
12. Although we are not told outright, what do you think will become of Hoyt Thorpe? What
path ultimately awaits him, upon graduation? What does his future hold? (Think back to the
story of his parents, of his childhood and his upbringing, when crafting your answer.) And
who finally revealed Hoyt's secrets to Adam Gellin, who sold him out?
13. Discuss I Am Charlotte Simmons as a work of fictionalized journalism, of reportage or
exposé. As one critic wrote of this novel, "Wolfe's authorial tone [throughout] is: You don't
have to like this, and I'm not too crazy about it myself, but this is the way it is, and we both
know it." Do you agree? Why or why not? Was there anything in this novel that youas a
reader and, perhaps, as a former college studentfound especially disturbing, surprising, or
even shocking? Or was there anything that struck you as incredible, implausible, or
unbelievable? In both cases, explain. In particular, talk about how Wolfe's novel explores:
the political correctness implicit in all of American scholarly life, and in all academic
politics; the big-time clout, and behind-the-scenes power and corruption, that defines
collegiate sports; and the rampant "binge drinking" that characterizes frat partiesand most
if not all other social functions at today's universities.
14. When asked by an interviewer which was chosen first during the creation of this bookthe
setting or the charactersWolfe admitted that it was the setting. Does this surprise you?
Why or why not?
15. Go back to a few of the many points in this novel where the lyrics to a popular song (be it
real or imaginary) are recited, quoted, or otherwise reprinted: rap, rock, whatever. Then,
discuss why and how these lyrics collectively function (like the Greek chorus of a classical
drama) as an ironic commentary on the narrative of I Am Charlotte Simmons.
16. Revisit the epigraph that begins this novel, the citation on Victor Ransome Starling from the
fictional Dictionary of Nobel Laureates. How does this citation mirror, or at least echo, the
behavior of various characters in the novel (especially Charlotte)?