“I need some ass! I haven’t been laid in six months!”
This is not the sort of language that you would expect to hear emanating from the exquisite mouth of Tom Wolfe GRD ’57. Pardon his crudeness, but his exclamation is the perfect Wolfian generalization of the aggressive female sexuality that he found so rampant among American undergrads while researching his latest novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” The book has been a best-seller on college campuses across the country — including Yale, where Wolfe came two years ago to study up for the novel.
Sitting on a corduroy couch in his trademark white suit, Wolfe is frailer than he appears in photographs and his quiet demeanor belies the flashy language and loud characters that occupy his writing. Sitting with him in his book-lined living room overlooking Central Park, it becomes easier to understand how he could remain inconspicuous while at keggers researching his novel and also why so many college students would open up to him about their lives.
“It really wasn’t that hard,” he said of the attempt to write about people less than one-third his age. “I looked upon it as a reporting task. There are so many areas in which I did not fit in at all. I didn’t fit in with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters … I think after a while they thought it was actually cool because they didn’t know anyone who wore a suit and tie.”
Wolfe, who himself spent many years in school earning a Ph.D. in American Studies, was not totally out of his element in this project. After all, Yale is all about tradition and there are some similarities between Old Blue in Wolfe’s day and the institution now.
He said the inebriation on campus “is no different from the college drinking that has gone on for the last 175 years,” and mentioned an incident from several centuries ago when a group of drunken college students in North Carolina assassinated an unpopular professor.
Also, graduate students in Wolfe’s day did not have much of a social life.
“I tried to start an annual gin and ‘gin rickshaw’ race when I was in the graduate school just to get some sort of social life going,” Wolfe recalled fondly. But he only found one rickshaw, so he and his friends just drank the gin.
Students also lusted after New Haven residents. Discussing his days holed up in a Sterling Memorial Library cubicle, Wolfe recalled that at that time, “it was what were known as townies” who stocked the shelves.
“I would start to fantasize about the girls in the stacks,” Wolfe said. The object of his affection: a townie named Maggie.
The residential-college system has not changed much either. Comprised mainly of blue bloods, Davenport and Calhoun were “infused with a white-shoe look,” Wolfe said. Other colleges were characterized by an “army-surplus look.”
“If I remember, the kind of leftover dumping ground was Silliman,” he said.
But eager not to offend anyone, Wolfe quickly interjected, “But now they’re all equal!”
While some remnants of the college experience may have been familiar for Wolfe, most of what he saw was not.
Women of Yale, listen up: What most disappoints Wolfe about modern college students is the loss of feminine innocence. When I press him to pass judgment on college kids, he allowed, “I cannot get used to women talking like men.”
Thus his imitation of the public demands for “ass.”
Though Wolfe did not attend any student parties at Yale (opting instead for the fun times at Stanford, Duke and several other campuses) he did recall one story he heard from a Yale student. A guy had a “random hookup” with a girl and did not remember her name, Wolfe related — a sense of amusement rather than disfavor in his tone. The next day, the girl’s suitemates figured out the boy’s name and sent him a flirtatious e-mail from her account. When the boy called his hookup the next day, she told him, “Get real, warm dick. That was a random hookup.”
“I really should have used that. It was just a marvelous moment in our new sexual arrangement,” Wolfe said.
Getting back to the heart of the matter, Wolfe addressed the pressures imposed by this “new sexual arrangement.”
“I think the whole thing is hard on women,” he said. “And feminism made an inadvertent statement when it made the view that young women should have the same predatory rights as young men.”
Many women said they found Wolfe’s perception of female collegians inhibited by a narrow obsession with sexuality.
“There’s no real relation in the book not based upon jealousy, competition or sex, which I found totally not representative of friendships,” Emily Stevenson ’05 said.
Alison Bloom-Feshbach ’06 echoed this criticism of Wolfe’s dire perspective of college life, saying she was frustrated with the fact that he didn’t show anyone making any friends, “which is a huge part of what college is about.” Though she too enjoyed reading the book (attributing her enthusiasm to a navel-gazing interest in “reading a critique of your lifestyle”) she did not find any character with whom she sympathized.
“No one appeared to be anything more than superficial,” Bloom-Feshbach said. “They’re all social climbers; there’s no legitimate person, male or female.”
David White ’04 said Wolfe neglected to pick up another aspect of college life, one that he says is even more distressing than the rampant sex and booze.
“He misses out on the resume whoring on campus,” White said.
Wolfe, however, does document the all-importance of social status in determining how college students live their lives.
“Everybody at Yale does care about who they’re seen with at Toad’s,” White said, agreeing that “Charlotte Simmons” captures the social-climbing phenomena. “And Theta girls care about how they look in front of lacrosse players and football players.”
Surprisingly, the naked party — a sure sign of elite status at Yale if there ever was one — did not make it into the novel.
“I wish I had been to one of those,” Wolfe said, although it would have been difficult to reconcile his public image as the dapper man in the white suit with him in his birthday suit.
The laxity in sexual mores has a lot to do with what Wolfe described as the academic establishment’s gradual abandonment of “character building,” something that Yale and other elite universities once exuded. It is on this subject that Wolfe sounds like Donald Kagan or William F. Buckley Jr ’50.
“Within the idea of character building are the notions of religious faith and patriotism,” Wolfe asserted, values that are now long-lost in the minds of those running American universities.
But Yalies should not feel overly guilty. Wolfe said he believes the University is not as drenched in beer and lust as most other American schools, and that Elis work harder and in a more challenging academic environment.
After having conquered the seemingly impenetrable university walls, what is next for Wolfe?
“I’ve always wanted to do a book on the Berlin Wall,” he revealed. “I don’t think that book exists in the same way that, to my amazement, the book on coed dorms didn’t exist.”
But before moving onto that project, he does have some advice for the likes of President Richard Levin to make Yale an even more rigorous place.
“Let me throw out an idea that some university president could do,” Wolfe offered. “Instead of having four courses per semester, have five, and have 8:30 classes that people actually have to go to and have classes on Saturday morning, which not all that long ago was very common … the faculty would rise up in open rebellion and possibly students too.”
Then, somewhat imploringly, he asked, “Would it make any difference?”
Clearly, Wolfe’s ability to understand the college student goes only so far.
He is, however, skeptical of the intractability of our immodest ways. He offered Regency England as an example
, a licentious age with uninhibited sexuality and the abuse of nitrous oxide. Then, it was followed by the conservative Victorian era, Wolfe pointed out, “And I really don’t know why.”
Will a Victorian age arise on college campuses? If it does, Wolfe’s status as a masterful social critic will once again be confirmed.
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