Schulz and `Peanuts'
By David Michaelis
Harper / 655 pages / $34.95
"Peanuts" was a powerhouse. When its 50-year run ended in 2000 with the death of Charles M. Schulz, the comic strip appeared each week in 2,500 newspapers. Billions of people had watched a "Peanuts" animated television special - and hundreds of millions more had read a "Peanuts" book. Annual merchandising sales around the world exceeded $1 billion. The "Peanuts" gang - Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder and Snoopy - had become icons of American popular culture.
Nevertheless, according to David Michaelis, Schulz remained anxious, unhappy and unfulfilled. Drawing on Schulz's studio and personal archives, the business records of the company that syndicates and licenses "Peanuts" and 200 interviews, Michaelis provides an engrossing - and unrelenting - portrait of the nation's most beloved cartoonist. His Schulz is a genius who extracted inspiration from his own inner turmoil. A cliche of modern biography, which, like all generalizations, distorts as well as illuminates, this trope seems appropriate for Schulz. To be sure, he did not cut off his ear. But Schulz often expressed a "deep-down, black, bottom-of-the-well, end of the world, what's-the-use loneliness." And he refused to consult a psychiatrist for fear he'd lose his talent along with his insecurities.
Born in Minnesota in 1922, "Sparky" Schulz was a small, bespectacled kid, shy around girls and sensitive to slights, real and imagined. His parents, a German immigrant barber and a Norwegian-American farm girl, kept their feelings to themselves. From the Schulzes, he inherited a need to be in control. From his mother's family, the Halversons, he acquired a mordant comic sensibility. Sparky lived at home after he graduated from high school, working at an art instruction company. The day after he reported to boot camp at Fort Snelling in 1943, his mother died from cervical cancer. He never got over the loss. "Security is knowing there's some more pie left," he would write. "Security is hearing your mother in the kitchen when you come home from school."
For the rest of his life, Michaelis indicates, Schulz asked himself "Will I ever be, was I ever, truly loved?" Baptized in 1948, he became a tithing member of the Church of God, only to drift away from organized religion in the 1960s. In 1951, he married Joyce Lewis, a young single mother. On their honeymoon in Colorado Springs, he announced, "I don't think I can ever be happy." He was forecasting, Michaelis writes, an existence in which "unhappiness would be a legitimate choice."
Through 20 years of marriage, a station wagon full of kids, an affair, a divorce, a second marriage, 17,897 strips, fame and acclaim, love and security eluded the inventor of the security blanket. If he weren't doing the strip, he told the cast of the San Francisco production of You're A Good Man Charlie Brown, he'd be dead.
Michaelis intersperses 130 comic strip panels with his narrative to show how Schulz's actual experiences entered his art. The "little red-haired girl," he indicates, was Donna Mae Johnson, who turned down Sparky's proposal of marriage to wed Al Wold, who worked in the parts department at International Harvester. And Schulz explored his troubled marriage through the relationship between the passive Charlie Brown and the aggressive Lucy Van Pelt.
This approach is not without costs. Strips taken directly from incidents in Schulz's life are over-represented in this book. They do not necessarily constitute his best work. "Peanuts" fans at the time didn't know - and most of us don't really care - that when Snoopy said "Ice skating is a good way to meet girls!" or opined that being called adorable was "a good beginning," he was referring to his creator's infatuation with Tracey Claudius.
Preoccupied with Schulz' stunted emotions, Michaelis does not devote sufficient attention to the ways in which he transcended that self in the strips. Or how he connected to - and challenged - the cultural zeitgeist of the 1950s and '60s. Sorrow and stoicism certainly are at center stage in Schulz's kids-only community, where Lucy tells Snoopy to "Live in fear and dread. ... Be sensible." But, as Michaelis acknowledges, a bit too fleetingly, other qualities were in evidence, too.
In the 1960s, "the age of Snoopy," he writes, Peanuts staked out a quiet claim to "joy, pleasure, naturalness." Tired of depending on people, Snoopy wished to be a wolf. He imagined himself a World War I flying ace. He kept a guitar and a paperback copy of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha in his doghouse. And he was the mascot for the Apollo 10 astronauts, "imparting messages and meanings to the hurtling moment."
Snoopy's dreaming self was often deflated. But his restless spirit and "spontaneous, soul-satisfying dances" made him a hippie hero.
We can only hope that like Snoopy, his creator, at least for a moment, "kept time to bliss itself" and "hardly seemed to notice that he was leaving reality - and petty old Lucy - in the dust."
Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.