The Duke scandal: life imitating Wolfean art?

Perhaps life does imitate art.

Indulge me for a moment: doesn't the ongoing Duke lacrosse scandal seem lifted directly from a Tom Wolfe novel? The setting, themes, characters, and perhaps, when the criminal justice system produces a verdict, the denouement of this shabby, sordid and distinctly American controversy–where two white, upper-middle class Duke lacrosse players stand accused of sexually assaulting an African-American exotic dancer at a team party–are amazingly Wolfe-like.

As a novelist, Wolfe has tackled questions of sex, race, class, ambition and American justice without worrying about political correctness or offending the sensitive. He has brought a reporter's eye for detail and a satirist's uncompromising wit to his chronicling of contemporary life.

So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Wolfe's three novels convincingly capture much of the Duke mess. Open his books, it's all there.

Take the collegiate setting. It's been widely noted that the fictional Dupont University in Wolfe's latest novel, I am Charlotte Simmons, appears to be closely modeled on Durham's Greatest University, although Wolfe cites visits to Stanford, Michigan, North Carolina, Alabama, and the University of Florida in the opening to the book. Wherever he went, he apparently took great notes. The colorful portrait Charlotte Simmons paints of entitled athletes, balding Woodstock Generation faculty members, out-of-control frat boys and lacrosse-player-chasing preppie girls–attacked as gross exaggeration when the novel was first published–suddenly seems a more realistic reflection of campus life (especially as more details surface about the Duke imbroglio).

Then there is Dupont's fictional president, Frederick Cutler III, caught between a jock-hating lefty professoriate and his wealthy alumni and their beloved big-time sports; Cutler struggles to keep the lid on an explosive scandal that could harm his school's U.S. News & World Report college ranking. Sound familiar? When Duke's president, Richard Brodhead, announced his response to the rape allegations–the suspension of the lacrosse team's season and the appointment of five investigatory committees–you could imagine Wolfe's treatment of the move: "I'll give them a response, the President thought, I'll shut down the season, broadcast statements of grave concern and appoint FIVE DIFFERENT COMMITTEES. FIVE! Can't accuse me of looking the other way." (To be fair, Brodhead does seem to recognize the troubling issues surrounding the case.)

Taken as a whole, Wolfe's fiction also touches on other aspects of the Duke scandal. Athletes and rape charges with a racial twist? Look no further than A Man in Full, where Georgia Tech running back Fareek "the Cannon" Fanon, an African-American, is falsely accused of date raping the daughter of a powerful white Atlanta businessman. Wolfe employs the situation to explore not only racial stereotypes about black men and white women, but also changing attitudes about female sexuality.

How about an ambitious white prosecutor looking for black votes? In Bonfire of the Vanities, it's District Attorney Abe Weiss who sees a trumped-up conviction of the privileged white bond trader Sherman McCoy as the key to his re-election. Does life imitate art? In Durham it's DA Mike Nifong whose rushed DNA-less indictments of the two players (based on photo identifications by the alleged victim) in the middle of his re-election campaign have an unsavory political tang to them.

Media overkill? A rush to judgment? Trial by newspaper? All three of Wolfe's novels mock breathless pack journalism and the shallow reportage of the American media when confronted with a juicy scandal. In Bonfire, a British expat, journalist Peter Fallow, is the poster child for journalistic wrong-doing; in A Man in Full Wolfe considers how unsourced Internet postings can shape media coverage; in Charlotte Simmons, the national media finds its way to campus to report revelations about the sexual hi-jinks of a conservative California governor.

The Duke case has spotlighted many of the same journalistic failings. CNN's Nancy Grace, discarding any presumption of innocence, apparently wants the accused players to enjoy a fair trial before being hung; the New York Times has offered some "rush to judgement" columns and op-ed pieces (earning well-deserved criticism by Slate's Jack Shafer); and Newsweek's hyped-up cover story this week, entitled "Sex, Lies & Duke," carries mug shots of the two indicted lacrosse players and trumpets: "Inside the mystery that has roiled a campus and riveted the country." Wolfe couldn't have plotted it any better.

And note well the high-priced defense attorneys, political hustlers, private investigators and self-proclaimed "community leaders" who turn up in the pages of Wolfe's novels, often in devastatingly comic portrayals, as they seek to capitalize on crisis. Their real life counterparts are already making appearances in Durham, from Bill Clinton's one-time defense attorney to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

One Wolfean character is missing from the Duke case. Where is the tragi-comic hero, persecuted and abused, left to confront financial ruin or criminal prosecution, but, in the end, redeemed by a Stoic willingness to embrace the truth, accept the consequences, and persevere through hardship? Where is the Sherman McCoy, the Conrad Hensley or the Charles Croker of this story?

Their real-life equivalent may be one of the accused lacrosse players, Reade Seligmann, a 20-year from an upscale New Jersey suburb whose privileged world has been turned upside down in the space of days. Seligmann's attorney has argued that it's a case of mistaken identity and has presented evidence supporting his client's alibi. What's clear is that Seligmann's inner resolve will be tested–in a Wolfean way–as he deals with his suspension from Duke, the psychic consequences of being publicly identified as a rapist, and his eventual fate at the hands of the criminal justice system.

Tom Wolfe's fictional world is unsettling to some; there are few truly likeable characters in his novels (with the exception of Conrad Hensley and Charlotte Simmons), and it's clear that he doesn't care for the drift into raunchy sexuality on American college campuses (and elsewhere). Yet, whether you share Wolfe's social conservatism or not, it's hard to quarrel with his cultural radar: he gets the gritty details right.

Moreover, the public fascination with the Duke mess may stem from an uneasy sense that there is something amiss in the moral climate of our institutions of higher education. Does Wolfe have that right? Has even-handed neutrality and "tolerance" in the face of raunch culture created a moral vacuum where awful things are more likely to happen? In the wake of the Duke scandal, these are some of the questions that will linger.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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4 thoughts on “The Duke scandal: life imitating Wolfean art?

  1. Great piece.You really captured the essence of this current mounting story with a brilliant analogy to Wolfe novels…

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