“One night, all of a sudden about two in the morning, the lights came on and that’s what really shocked me. You don’t really realize how big a fraternity party is when the lights are dim – a guy came running through saying ‘everybody out, everybody out! They’re coming!’ “
Sounds like a typical Saturday night on Washtenaw Avenue. But in this case, renowned author Tom Wolfe was the one fleeing what he presumed was “a crackdown on illegal drinking.” While conducting research for his latest novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” Wolfe approached the college experience with the open and innocent mindset of an incoming freshman. When Wolfe decided he wanted his fictional Dupont University to be both an intellectual and an athletic powerhouse, the University of Michigan was an obvious choice for his research. Other schools he visited included University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and University of Florida-Gainesville.
Many of the incidents in his book were taken from real life events that occurred in actual universities. Wolfe said his experience at a frat party at Michigan served as valuable material for his depictions of the nightlife at Dupont. “Everybody was great – I think people were just kind of interested to have this man from Mars in their midst. I just came out and said, I don’t know a thing about what you’re doing, but I’m really interested,” Wolfe said.
His new book continues his tradition of social commentary by focusing on the seedy side of the American undergraduate experience. Charlotte Simmons, his naA_ve freshman protagonist, is shocked when she gets to Dupont and finds it steeped in debauchery. Through this story of one girl’s coming of age, Wolfe focuses the reader’s attention on his combined experiences at the schools he visited.
Wolfe said the motivation behind “Charlotte Simmons” was fascination with co-ed dormitories, which he felt made the modern undergraduate experience unique for a new generation. He also wanted to explore the role that colleges were playing in promoting universal tolerance. “To my amazement,” Wolfe said, “no one had written anything that described how people felt living this particular life. There are only two countries in the world that do this, the U.S. and Sweden.”
Many people have interpreted Dupont to be a representation of Duke University in Durham, N.C. Wolfe vehemently refuted this idea. “That (notion) has been the bane of my existence ever since this book came out,” Wolfe said, adding that he never even went to Duke to do research because his daughter was there at the time. Wolfe said if he had known the school in the novel would be interpreted that way “I would have never called the place Dupont – (a name) so close to Duke.”
Wolfe exposes a seldom-explored facet of American culture: “Charlotte Simmons” is a culmination of his experiences observing and participating in college and campus life across the country. “The University of Michigan turned out to be a great source for me because I wanted a university – that had both strong academic standing and a high-powered sports complex. I think that fits U of M pretty well.”