"Soul" and the American Imagination

I Am Charlotte Simmons

"Soul" and the American Imagination

I Am Charlotte Simmons

"Soul" and the American Imagination
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 18 2004 8:09 AM

I Am Charlotte Simmons


Steve! Maître Steve! The Stevedore!—

On reading that you're married to "a Charlotte Simmons," something perhaps ludicrous occurred to me: Do you think it's possible that Charlotte has a shot at joining the real top sorority, the literary answer to the University of Virginia's Thursday Club, that triple-elite girls' drinking club comprised of sorority all-stars from the top three, Kappa, Theta, and Tri-Delt? You know the analog clique I mean—the one with Scarlett O'Hara, Becky Sharp, and Blanche Dubois?


Is Charlotte, in other words, a character hearty enough to survive being abstracted from her natural habitat, Wolfe's indifferent prose, and turned into a figure in movies, metaphors, television, conversational idiom—"exploitation in other media"? (That which every virgin fears and seeks?)

I ask not out of concern for the "Charlotte Simmons" movie (Scarlett Johansson? Lindsay Lohan?), but because somewhere, maybe 10 years ago, I came across a winning essay arguing that Henry James' characters' shortcoming is that they cannot break out of his symbolic order and live freely in our imaginations; they're like helpless preemies and unviable without James' thick prose to keep them breathing (and even then, they're hyperventilating). It's true you rarely think, That guy is such a Lambert Strether. The argument was further made—as I recall it—that something about Margaret Mitchell's visual, anticerebral style was bracing to her characters, toughening them up, and allowing them to form real edges. Thus they could be lifted out. And resold. But what is good for characters—the repetition of their names, the physical descriptions, the tedious shorings up of what each one means ("male low on the masculine pecking order," etc.)—may not be good for an author's reputation. James gets to be first-rate because his characters are subordinated to his style. Wolfe gets pushed around by critics because he lets his characters take center stage, and thus seems weak.

I love it, and you're right, that entropy will work on the cafeteria tables, too—that old age often just is the convergence of cool people and losers, brought together in mutual bewilderment over where the time has gone. Getting the most out of life, as I see it, may require resistance to this dangerous cool-mixing, and for that reason I will now confess that some part of me looks forward to starting all over again, with cliques and status and infighting, at an old folks' home one day … I hope to go down loftily snubbing someone for the wrong jeans or at least being snubbed.

But it's time to admit that we, we with our unsullied and merely mimetic relationship to the stuff of this embarrassing and likable novel, are not the only ones talking about it. The reviewers are out in force, and most of them are wrong. A recent Times op-ed about I Am Charlotte Simmons makes much of Charlotte's moral abandonment at a university where, among other affronts, Professor Victor Ransome Starling (the "sublime" neuroscience dude, with the Nobel Prize; is he not our maître penseur?) can use the word "soul" only in quotation marks.

I disagree with the many bad reviews the book has gotten, because I consider this book a glorious beating, but at this defense of it I really gnash my teeth. Granting that the Starling "soul" moment is significant in Wolfe's novel—and it isn't, since what's actually significant about Starling is that he's religious, anti-atheist, and sympathetic even to Charlotte's wholesale critique of Darwin; Starling also dwells on Darwin's piety as well as his own faith in the self, which at my much more conservative college I was taught was a construct, Q.E.D.—I wonder where the moral utopia is in which "soul" is used straight. Sports writing? Jewel songs? As you and I know from graduate school, intellectuals perpetually rediscover the soul—a recent MLA panel on the subject was packed—and, furthermore, chastise themselves for their detachment from it. This reformation is, in fact, among everyone's favorites, in the academy and out: it's like a musical in which the lovers are witty at the top, and then come to Believe in Love and cast off those mean, defensive quotation marks.

That moral operation, the stripping of quotation marks, which is regularly foisted on us, is mighty pretty—but it's shallow, and it's meant only to be repeated and repeated. Who wants to hear the story after the damn musical? Or, to bring it back around, the denuded soul is very cute—but who wants it? Are the neocon men of letters, the ones who keep foisting the soul on us, prepared, for real, to entertain real questions about the soul—about immortal life and beatitude and purgatory and how we recognize our friends in the hereafter and what happens to the body and are we points of light or whatever?

No. That stuff is creepy. Let's face it: No one wants to hear a Charlotte Simmons yammer on for one minute after she's remembered Jesus died for our sins; they just want to see her get the irony raped out of her.

Superficially, in fact, the "soul" issue reminds me of Wolfe's annoying and commonplace tic, when rendering dialect, of phoneticizing haphazardly. Take "everybuddy," which one of Charlotte's dad's Sparta cronies says, near the beginning of the book. Why spell it that way? Everybody says everybuddy! In fact, "everybuddy" is spelled "everybody." Likewise, children of America, no matter what the neo-soulful people try to tell you, nobody uses "soul" without some kind of quotation marks. (Even if they're there to reprove you for even thinking quotation marks.) Not even in good, wholesome places like Sparta or the exurbs or the places where they know that Kerry was faking his faith. "Soul" takes quotation marks! Get it right!


Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.