Books In Brief // Biography

December 30, 2007

SCHULZ AND PEANUTS -- David Michaelis HarperCollins / 672 pages / $34.95

For all the joy Charlie Brown and the gang gave readers over half a century, their creator, Charles M. Schulz, was a profoundly unhappy man. It's widely known that he hated the name Peanuts, which was foisted on the strip by his syndicate. But Michaelis, given access to family, friends and personal papers, reveals the full extent of Schulz's depression, tracing its origins in his Minnesota childhood, with parents reluctant to encourage his artistic dreams and yearbook editors who scrapped his illustrations without explanation. Nearly 250 Peanuts strips are woven into the biography, demonstrating just how much of his life story Schulz poured into the cartoon. In one sequence, Snoopy's crush on a girl dog is revealed as a barely disguised retelling of the artist's extramarital affair. Michaelis is especially strong in recounting Schulz's artistic development, teasing out the influences on his unique characterization of children. And Michaelis makes plain the full impact of Peanuts' first decades and how much it puzzled and unnerved other cartoonists. This is a fascinating account of an artist who devoted his life to his work in the painful belief that it was all he had.

RALPH ELLISON

Arnold Rampersad

Knopf / 672 pages / $35

Arnold Rampersad, professor of English and humanities at Stanford, makes the most of his access to the papers of Ralph Ellison. He sifted through mountains of previously unexamined documents for the details that give readers a glimpse - warts and all - of the man behind Invisible Man. Rampersad's experience with biography runs deep, which explains his ability to give us an honest account of Ellison's life. Ralph Ellison is engaging and far-reaching, if long. It also balances revealing anecdotes about Ellison's views on black militancy and his relationships, for example, with an examination of the author's place in American letters and his lasting influence on generations of writers. Readers may not think as highly of Ellison when they're done, but they will come to know the man.

THE ORDEAL OF ELIZABETH MARSH: A WOMAN IN WORLD HISTORY

Linda Colley Pantheon / 363 pages / $27.50

This is a book about a world in a life. An individual lost to history, Elizabeth Marsh (1735-85) traveled farther, and was more intimately affected by developments across the globe, than the vast majority of men. Conceived in Jamaica and possibly of mixed race, she was the first woman to publish in English on Morocco, and the first to carry out extensive overland explorations in eastern and southern India, journeying in each case in close companionship with an unmarried man. She spent time in some of the world's biggest ports and naval bases: Portsmouth, Minorca, Gibraltar, London, Rio de Janeiro, Calcutta and the Cape. She was damaged by the Seven Years War and the American Revolutionary War; linked through her own migrations with voyages of circumnavigation, and as victim and owner, she was involved in three different systems of slavery. Many modern biographies remain constrained by a national framework, while global histories are generally impersonal. By contrast, in this dazzling and original book, Linda Colley moves repeatedly and questioningly between vast geopolitical transformations and the intricate detail of individual lives. This is a global biography for our globalizing times.

A LIFE OF PICASSO: THE TRIUMPHANT YEARS, 1917-1932

John Richardson

Knopf / 608 pages / $40

This third volume in Richardson's magisterial biography takes us through Picasso's middle years, as he establishes his mastery over craft, other artists and the women in his life. The story begins the year Picasso falls in love with Olga Kokhlova, a Russian dancer he met while working on the avant-garde ballet Parade for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. By the end of the volume, Olga - his first wife - becomes the victim of some of Picasso's most harrowing images. The book elaborates on the details of Picasso's inspirations, with Richardson providing a balance of fact, salacious detail and art-historical critique. He is particularly skilled at evoking the humor and sexuality that imbues Picasso's portraits of Marie-Therese, who became his mistress when he was 45 and she 17. The artist's entire circle is also here, from Georges Braque to Henri Matisse, from Andre Breton to Ernest Hemingway. They are jealous collaborators, competitive geniuses, excessive bohemians, dear friends, frustrated homosexuals - while a handful of women come across as essential yet entirely replaceable.

Source: Publishers Weekly, Bookmarks, HarperCollins

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