Tom Wolfe is Americas best unlicensed anthropologist. He has studied us for 45 years. He has actually shaped us as a culture.
He helped start the counter culture with Electric Kool Aid Acid Test (1968) and end it with the “Me Decade essay in 1976. He helped start the preppie revolution with The Right Stuff in 1979 and end it with The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1989.
While “real anthropologists slept happily in the light house of the academic world, Wolfe actually found his way to the flying bridge, eagerly shouting “how bout this? one moment, followed by a patrician ‘that will do a decade later. Wolfe made journalism and fiction do what treaties and theses could not: capture, shape, work and rework a culture.
If Wolfe has an heir apparent, its David Brooks, the author of the exemplary Bobos in Paradise. And the similarities between them are marked. They share good academic training (Yale and University of Chicago, respectively), a native curiosity, an impatience with cant, a keen eye for the telling detail and, most of all, the willingness to go where all these virtues take them (with no detours through the light house).
So its a matter of some interest when Brooks reviews Wolfe, as he did today in the pages of the New York Times. Its not clear to me that Brooks fully “gets what Wolfe is up to in I am Charlotte Simmons. He dutifully records Wolfes attempt to document a world in which “all the rules of life [are] dissolved, where ‘the morality that used to undergird [these rules] dissolved long ago, and where everyone, not just Charlotte, is “left swirling about in a chaotic rush of desire and action, without a coherent code to make sense of it all.
Brooks apparently believes there is a cultural fix available to us. He hints that universities might supply “character building and “courage to our many Charlottes that their lives might take on new moral crispness.
But Wolfe understands that these two educational “deliverables are now necessarily problematical. A Man in Full, Wolfes last novel, examined the real diversity of the city of Atlanta, almost as if he had taken up a dare. Could any one man plausibly represent these very different lives? By and large, Wolfe won the dare, and in the process he demonstrates that the new diversity puts paid to the “moral code Brooks would have us reconstruct.
If A Man in Full documented the ethnographic diversity of one American city, I am Charlotte Simmons documents the moral diversity of one American campus. Let us take one crude measure of this diversity. Every Charlotte must define her sexual relationships. There are many options to choose from: “I will not have sex before marriage, I will have sex before marriage but only with a boyfriend, I will have sex only with someone I have dated at least x times, I will have sex with anyone who will buy me dinner. Of course, Charlotte must then decide what kind of person she is looking for, what kind of person she will be in the relationship, what kind of sex she is looking for, and what she wants for dinner.
Models of moral conduct are various in American culture and they will remain so. This has always been one of the things we spend our time at college doing. Making choices, trying them on, and deciding which of them “fit, observing how each choice shapes the self, and choosing finally which of them might serve us as we leave college and finally and irretrievably enter adulthood. (I remind the reader of that famous 90s designation “LUG, [lesbian until graduation], that marked one of the postures with which some students experimented.) The contemporary culture merely has a wider range of options, and this is surely and precisely what we would expect of the most experimental place of an experimental culture. (Perhaps this is one so many undergraduates take refuge in the post modernist’s delirium.)
College might not be the best place to get an education, but it is a pretty good place to scrutinize and experiment with what its like to live in a morally various world where characters are not so much built as formed through a process of trial and error. Wolfes illuminates what it is to live in a world of plentitude. To hanker after codes and courage is to miss a good deal of what it has to teach us here.
Brooks, David. 2000. Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there. New York: Simon & Schuster.
_______. 2004. ‘Moral Suicide,’ à la Wolfe. New York Times. Subscription required here.
McCracken, Grant. A Star is Born. here
Wolfe, Tom. 1987. The bonfire of the vanities. New York: Farrar, Straus.
. 1968. The electric kool-aid acid test. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
. 1998. A man in full. 1st trade ed ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
. 1976. The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening. New York. August 23, 1976: 26-40.
. 1979. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
______. 2004. I am Charlotte Simmons. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.