Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

The Peanuts Papers: An Appreciation of the World Charles Schulz Created

Charles Schulz works on a strip in his studio. (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)
The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life, edited by Andrew Blauner (Library of America, 352 pp., $24.95)

If you obsessed over the comic strip Peanuts as a child — I mean: You lived and died with those characters, devoured the strips retroactively in anthologies and contemporaneously in newspapers, collected the merchandise, watched the cartoons, wondered whether your personality was more Charlie Brown or Linus, mapped the interior of Snoopy’s doghouse, yearned to meet, even be, their creator, melancholy Minnesotan Charles M. Schulz — hark, the herald angels sing: You are not alone!

The Peanuts Papers, edited by Andrew Blauner, collects three dozen essays by prominent writers and cartoonists — including Maxine Hong Kingston, Gerald Early, Chuck Klosterman, Ann Patchett, Chris Ware, the Canadian cartoonist Seth, and Rick Moody — who are just like you: so touched by Schulz’s 50-year sprint through art and life, love and loss, religion and music, suburbs and schools, baseball and war, psychiatry and philosophy, that they, too, turned from consumption to contemplation.

It is altogether fitting, if belated, that Peanuts should be the subject of a rich anthology of top-tier literary criticism, including a few comic strips. Writing from diverse perspectives, demographic profiles, and disciplines, the contributors establish new boundaries for discourse about Peanuts, scholarly and popular, while paying tribute to favorite strips and lovingly exploring the most obscure tributaries of Schulziana. (I, for one, had forgotten the politically inconvenient fact that in 1980 a brief romance arose between Peppermint Patty, hailed here and elsewhere as a pioneering, if undeclared, lesbian character, and the unmistakably male Pig-Pen.)

A few entries the hard-core fans will recognize. In this category is Umberto Eco’s essay comparing Peanuts with the comic strip Krazy Kat, first published in Arriva Charlie Brown! (an Italian collection) in 1963; then, translated into English, in The New York Review of Books in 1985; then again introducing the coffee-table volume Charles M. Schulz: 40 Years Life and Art (1990). Likewise Jonathan Franzen’s autobiographical “Two Ponies” — with its provocative declaration, “Peanuts wasn’t a portal on the Gospel. It was my gospel” — which was originally published, under a different title, in The New Yorker in 2004 and then, in abridged form the following year, as the foreword to The Complete Peanuts: Dailies & Sundays, 1957 to 1958.

For the many millions around the world who still love Peanuts, nearly two decades after the strip, and Charles Schulz, left us, The Peanuts Papers brims with fascinating insights into why the genius from St. Paul affected us so deeply. With admirable industry, Blauner, a literary agent and anthologist, commissioned more than two-thirds of the contributions especially for this volume. Only one, a long poem by the novelist Jonathan Lethem patterned after Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” — brandishing the harshest street profanity and intended, presumably, to syncopate Schulz to the Beats — felt out of sync with the strip’s spirit (though Garry Trudeau, writing in the Washington Post in 1999, is quoted elsewhere in these pages labeling Peanuts “the first Beat strip,” work that “vibrated with ’50s alienation”).

Common themes abound: The Peanuts gang inhabited what The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik establishes, in the lead essay, was a “uniquely bleak world,” its absence of adult figures “credible” because “kids so often were [alone] in the postwar period that Schulz’s strip immortalizes.” Sarah Boxer, a contributor to The Atlantic, notes that despite Schulz’s evolutions over the years — as writer, pen-and-ink man, entrepreneur — his “Hobbesian ideas about society” appeared at the outset and never changed. As summarized by Boxer:

People, especially children, are selfish and cruel to one another; social life is perpetual conflict; solitude is the only peaceful harbor; one’s deepest wishes will invariably be derailed and one’s comforts whisked away; and an unbridgeable gulf yawns between one’s fantasies about oneself and what others see.

Leavening Schulz’s imbalanced interplay between hope and hopelessness was the artist’s gentle humor, patient pacing, and supple line work. Only with such sweeteners could so many legions of people, beset by their own adversities, choose to immerse themselves so regularly and enduringly in Schulz’s cuddly dystopia, the setting for what Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, once called the “casual cruelty and offhanded humiliations at the heart of the strip.”

One advantage the strip enjoyed, as Joe Queenan contends, was that every reader of Peanuts was always, by definition, at least a bit older than the children depicted, making Schulz’s audience “nostalgic for childhood . . . the childhood Lucy and Charlie and Linus were having.” This raises an important question for future scholars: How old were Schulz’s youngest comprehending readers?

If different readers necessarily found different meanings in the strip, several contributors affirm here how passionately they wished literally to become a member of the Peanuts gang. “The ‘Peanuts’ world was where I longed to be,” Janice Shapiro writes in a charming multi-panel comic recounting her intense bond with the characters in their ’60s heyday. “It was like they were my friends. I was just as curious as to what they were going to do . . . as I was about the real kids who lived on my block.”

A decade later, growing up on Staten Island, I felt the same way: Why can’t my friends and I go trick-or-treating by ourselves at night, like the Peanuts gang, safe from the hooliganism of older kids out egging? It is a short step, and one giant leap, from such a sentiment to Why can’t I go trick-or-treating with Charlie Brown? And as a cartoonist myself, I recognized intimately the frustration expressed by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell, a Brooklyn-based artist and filmmaker, who confesses to the quixotic quest for parity with the master: “I was extremely concerned with my ability to draw Snoopy and Charlie Brown just like Schulz did. No tracing, I needed to be able to do it myself. Get all the strokes and shapes just right.”

Surprisingly, none of the essayists write, as I would have, about how the animated TV cartoons, while brilliant in their own right and undeniably central to the Peanuts–industrial complex, nonetheless seemed, as they did to me, somehow illegitimate, extra-canonical. Was no one else bothered by the complete blackening of Snoopy’s ears and nose, ignoring the white trimming that lined them during the strip’s peak run? It actually disappointed me that the cover of A Charlie Brown Dictionary (1973), a cherished reference volume, featured only images taken from the animated cartoons.

In The Peanuts Papers, however, essayists treat the TV cartoons reverentially, with paeans to Vince Guaraldi, the jazz virtuoso whose scores are synonymous with Peanuts, and excavations of forgotten fare, such as Mayflower Voyagers (1988), in which Schulz’s animated youngsters and Snoopy, clad as Pilgrims, related the origins of Thanksgiving.

None of the contributors undertake to adjudicate the historiographical disputes between the Schulz family and author David Michaelis. For his monumental Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (2007), Michaelis received unprecedented access to the Schulz archives — and, after publication, a slew of complaints from the artist’s survivors, alleging the portrait he had drawn was skewed toward Schulz’s darker impulses and factually inaccurate in several details. No comparably ambitious account of Schulz’s life has been attempted since.

While Jennifer Finney Boylan writes movingly about her transgender journey, and the inspiration she took from the Zen-like self-acceptance demonstrated by the perennially marginalized Pig-Pen, the politics of inclusivism in The Peanuts Papers extends only so far. A number of essayists dutifully note the introduction of the first black character, Franklin, as an overture by Schulz, in 1968, to the African-American community, and that of Woodstock, two years later, as a nod to the counterculture; similarly, the vague sexuality of Peppermint Patty and Marcie is also addressed. But I am still left wondering whether any other Jews, or Muslims, felt excluded by Schulz’s excursions into Christian theology — sporadically and then twice a year, without fail, Easter and Christmas — in temporary but stinging banishment from a universe they, and I, identified with so strongly, loved so deeply, every other day of the year.

If one element of Schulz’s genius was his ability to draw the same thing every day without repeating himself — his own definition of a comic-strip artist — another was his discipline: He never succumbed to the temptation to cut his characters a break. Charlie Brown never successfully flies a kite; Lucy never seduces Schroeder away from Beethoven; Linus, the best-educated member of the gang, never catches a glimpse of the Great Pumpkin, in whom he alone believes; and Sally never wins the affections of Linus, her thumb-sucking, blankie-toting “sweet babboo.” Even Snoopy, whose flights of imagination vault him into realms terrifying (World War I aerial duels) and soothing (Joe Cool), never escapes his animal dependence on the round-headed kid who feeds him.

Perhaps the chief lesson of The Peanuts Papers, not voiced explicitly by any of the essayists but hinted at in their collected wisdom, is that Charles Schulz’s final cruelty transcended the boxes inside which he penciled and inked, leapt from the pages of the books and newspapers that reproduced his benign malevolence, to engulf his readers directly. In the end, all of us who pored over Peanuts, invested wholly in its cosmology, were the ones from whom the football was constantly being pulled at the last second, a painful reminder, each time we looked up from Peanutsshouldn’t we know better by now, with so many disappointments under our belt? — that however intense our longing to live in Schulz’s world, we never would.

Five cents, please.

This article appears as “Charlie Brown’s World” in the March 9, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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James Rosen — Mr. Rosen is a reporter for Sinclair Broadcast Group and the editor of A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century (2016), an anthology of essays by William F. Buckley Jr.

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