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COMMENTARY

Grief

[You can read extended excerpts from my 1988 interview with Charles M. Schulz and listen to an audio clip from the interview by clicking on this link, and you can read my Essay on a 2003 visit to the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa by clicking on this one. The photos accompanying this review were taken on the grounds and in the lobby of the museum.]

Schulz and PeanutsOn the morning of Sunday, May 8, 1988, two gunmen wearing ski masks entered the Santa Rosa, California, home of Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the comic strip Peanuts, through an unlocked door. They intended to kidnap his wife Jean and hold her for ransom, but they fled before carrying out their plan.

The Sonoma County sheriff's office released no information on the kidnap attempt for several days, until the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat got a tip about it. When I interviewed Schulz almost six months later, he said this about that incident:

I didn't do any inteviews, and I got into a terrible mess, I understand, with the local paper, simply because I thought it would be insane, the very next day after the incident, to get on the phone with a reporter and tell him or her everything that happened when the people were still running loose. That's ridiculous. It was on the advice of the sheriff that we don't have to talk; maybe some day when it's all over, but not at this point. The local paper went and printed it anyway; they interviewed a neighbor and got all the wrong information. ... So now I've said okay, that's it, don't ever call me again, I don't want anything to do with you guys, don't ever ask me for any more favors. It was very scary. But we were saved by the fact that my daughter Jill came home. She pulled up in the driveway and she looked through the window and saw us in there; she took off down the driveway, and that scared them. She very brightly stopped at a neighbor's house and call in an alarm. Who knows what would have happened otherwise; there's just no way of knowing. ... Ski masks themselves are so awesome. ...We had no idea what was going to happen. But it all worked out. Some day I'll use it in a story.

He didn't use it in a story, as far as I know, but that's hardly surprising. A kidnaping would have been hard to integrate into Charlie Brown's placid world. What's much more surprising is that there's no mention of the kidnap attempt in David Michaelis's biography, Schulz and Peanuts.

Like many other biographies of similar bulk (655 pages), Michaelis's book is loaded with superfluous details. It lays out family histories at numbing and confusing length, and it describes Schulz's colleagues at Art Instruction, Inc., in words that read like newspaper death notices (Jim Sasseville was "witty, literary, a lover of poetry and comic strips, with long-lashed dark eyes and a full head of dark hair"). Sometimes the detail verges on the prurient. In Michaelis's account of Schulz's love affair with Tracey Claudius, we learn when and where they first had sex, and how much Schulz enjoyed it (but, surprisingly, nothing about the position he preferred). His first wife, Joyce, uncovered the affair through long-distance charges on their phone bill; but how was he explaining the apparently extended absences that his affair required, the days and nights away from home? That is, alas, the kind of pertinent detail that Michaelis too often skips over.

But it's his failure to mention the kidnap attempt that puzzles me most, if only because that crime illuminated so clearly one of the drawbacks of the celebrity and wealth that Schulz had achieved through his comic strip. Schulz was rich and famous—he was the fourth richest entertainer on Forbes magazine's list—and as a result he had become a target.

Charlie Brown statueOn a purely personal level, the kidnap attempt must have been traumatic for the Schulzes. How did it change their lives? What precautions did they start taking? What does Jean Schulz say about the kidnap attempt now? Was it deliberately not mentioned in the book, out of fear that someone might get ideas? Schulz and Peanuts is, after all, an authorized biography, a book whose author benefited enormously from his access to Schulz's family and, through them, to many of his friends. (It also has attracted extensive complaints from some of those friends and family members, who have found in the book a multitude of errors and distortions.)

The first obligation of a biography is to place its subject before us squarely enough that we can test the author's conclusions against our own, but Michaelis, like Neal Gabler in his Walt Disney biography, constantly interposes himself between the reader and all the important characters in his story. Here he is on page 90, for example, writing about Schulz's father, Carl:

The barbershop was Carl's rock, and he clung to it. Even when there was money for a real vacation, he refused to go farther than the lakes north of the city. The expedition to Needles [in California, where the Schulz family lived briefly] had been more than enough. Perhaps western space had permanently overloaded Carl. So long as contact with his customers kept him hedged against his fears, he was content, if not eager, to put work first, even if this meant spending less time with wife and son. Carl Schulz, citizen of St. Paul, needed to be anchored to his corner, fortified by a daily dose of barbershop routine.

There is, to be generous, nothing in this paragraph after the first three sentences that adds anything to it, except the sound of the author's self-important voice. The whole book is like that. That's one reason it's so long.

Lucy's hatAt least Michaelis seems to be struggling to make sense of his subject (unlike Gabler, who is almost audibly shuffling his note cards). But Schulz and Peanuts diminishes Charles Schulz by depicting him as stranger than he really was. Schulz was in many ways a typical product of the middle of the country in the middle of the century, in his reserve, his religious observance, even in his reluctance to travel (he reminds me of my own mother, who hated spending a night away from her own bed), and especially in his determination to achieve a certain kind of success. But Michaelis wants him to be a man haunted and driven by the early death of an emotionally remote mother.

Was Schulz affected deeply by his mother's death? Of course; as anyone whose parents have died can testify, only a very cold person can experience such loss without a great deal of pain. But Michaelis works much too hard, throughout his book, to give Dena Schulz's death special motivational significance, as on page 217:

But of course it was Dena Schulz, his own idealized mother, whom he could never have the satisfaction of proving wrong. Moreover, the success that Charles Schulz eventually attained was on a scale so vast—an "amount" so much in excess even of the wealth imaginable by people in the world from which he sprang—that it required an endlessly retold tale of early defeat and hope deferred to give full dramatic context to his mother's dismaying inability to recognize her son's extraordinariness.

Schulz impressed me in my two hours with him as one of the most secure and self-possessed people I'd ever met, but that Schulz is visible just occasionally through Michaelis's curtain of words. He is, however, present in Schulz and Peanuts often enough that he steadily undermines Michaelis's thesis. I wasn't persuaded for an instant that Schulz would have pursued success as a cartoonist any differently if his mother had lived to be a hundred years old.

Museum entranceSchulz and Peanuts diminishes Peanuts, too, by making the comic strip seem more crudely autobiographical than it really was. The book reproduces hundreds of Peanuts strips that supposedly have autobiographical content, but many of the strips were published far apart in time, even when they're shown on the same page, and rarely is a strip linked directly to events contemporaneous with it. Yes, of course Schulz used elements of his own life in Peanuts—things he remembered from before he was drawing it, things he experienced while he was drawing it. Only a totally formulaic cartoonist, a hack, could separate life and art so thoroughly as to eliminate any traces of autobiography. But what made Schulz so impressive a cartoonist from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s was not the way he incorporated pieces of his history in his comic strip, but the way he transcended a materially and emotionally pinched life that would seem to have pointed him toward a career as a much more ordinary sort of cartoonist.

Peanuts was, in its best years, a strange and wonderful comic strip, quite unlike anything before it and superior to anything since, with the possible exception of Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. Pogo, the other great comic strip of the '50s, invites comparisons with Shakespeare and Dickens because, like those writers, Walt Kelly filled his stage with dozens of extravagant characters, each of them distinct and fully realized. Peanuts is by comparison a much more introspective strip, its characters more like Schulz's dramatizations not just of "his own traits and characteristics," as Michaelis would have it on page 258, but of the constantly fluctuating mental and emotional states he shared with all of his readers.

It was the harsher emotions, especially, that he put to work in Peanuts, but other cartoonists had done that before, in strips from early in the century. Schulz's real genius—what separated Peanuts from The Katzenjammer Kids—was perhaps most clearly visible in how he made cruelty funny. We (or most of us, anyway) laughed not because we enjoyed seeing a boy humiliated, but because Charlie Brown's anguished response to the petty cruelties inflicted on him was so ridiculously outsized. Schulz was exceptionally shrewd, too, in his understanding of the importance of restricting his cast to children. With no adults as distractions, there was much less risk of uncomfortable awareness that his children, as children, were really very odd.

Museum lobbyWe care about Schulz because of his comic strip, but Michaelis isn't of much help in explaining what was so unique and appealing about Peanuts in its best years, or in tracing how the strip evolved. He occasionally picks up an interesting thread, like the peculiar nature of the comic strip as an artistic medium—its continuous, never-ending story, and the challenges that open end poses—but then plunges ahead into the lamest sort of psychologizing.

To some extent, Schulz may have invited such a response, since he seems to have enjoyed thinking out loud in interviews, exploring different states of mind, as opposed to offering up the canned patter that spills out of so many famous people. Perhaps that is what encouraged Michaelis to believe that Schulz was filled with doubt about what he had accomplished, especially toward the end of his life. I think the remarks Michaelis quotes are better understood as Schulz's recognition of the costs that success of any kind, including the pursuit of artistic excellence, can impose. For him to have achieved excellence in one area, the comic strip, necessarily entailed sacrifices in others, not least, perhaps, in his family life.

Schulz's case was complicated by his acceptance of a growing number—ultimately a staggeringly large number—of commercial tie-ins. All those commercial obligations eventually foreclosed the possibility of further artistic growth in the strip. Such growth, if it had changed the nature of Peanuts and diminished the public's affection for its characters, could have jeopardized the livelihoods of many other people. By the time Snoopy ceased to be anything like a real dog and became the all-too-lovable star of the strip, displacing Charlie Brown, the game was over, and Schulz was doomed to endless small variations on a limited number of themes. Fewer people might read Peanuts, but no one would recoil from it, either, and so the Snoopy dolls would still fill store shelves.

In 1988, after my interview with Schulz, I went to Snoopy's Gallery, his ice arena's gift shop, and bought a recent paperback collection of Peanuts, made up of strips from 1983 and 1984. I was shocked by how slack and listless those strips seemed, compared with those I had read and re-read twenty years earlier. But Charles Schulz had drawn those 1980s strips, all of them, without an assistant; that was his way of refusing the complete surrender to commercialism that was the usual fate of successful cartoonists.

Schulz and Peanuts, in addition to its uncertain grasp of its subject, suffers from multiple failings of craft, ranging from a slipperiness about dates to clumsily separated references to the Apollo 10 moon mission to anecdotes cast as impossible eyewitness accounts (the book opens with a credulity-straining you-are-there version of Schulz's departure on a World War II troop train). Michaelis can't resist stuff like this nonsensical paragraph on page 162:

Veterans coming home to any midland city found the principal Christian denominations clearly marked: the Episcopalian parish church evoked Anglican tradition in its lavish half-timbering; the Catholic cathedral’s domed basilica proclaimed its place in a universal order; Lutheranism showed its stolid presence in brick churches quietly displaying modest, useful banners announcing bingo and bake sales, their pinnacled bell towers culminating in tall Gothic spires; the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, the one built of stone, the other of wood, each thrust a tall white steeple over opposite corners of a well-tended thoroughfare, invariably Church Street.

Why would Michaelis, or anyone else, for that matter, believe that Christian denominations in the Midwest ever adhered to any such "clearly marked" architectural divisions? Where did this paragraph come from? Was the author trying to sound like Anthony Trollope or some other nineteenth-century British novelist who took the clergy as a subject? Wherever it originated, such writing is merely "literary," without any connection with reality. "Invariably Church Street" indeed.

And yet, incredibly, it was this silly paragraph that John Updike singled out for praise in his admiring review of Schulz and Peanuts in The New Yorker. Schulz and Peanuts attracted many other admiring reviews, like one by Bill Watterson in the Wall Street Journal, which listed the book as one of the ten best of the year. Watterson himself, who never met Schulz, bought fully into Michaelis's warped version of the man, saying of him:

Once he finally achieved his childhood dream of drawing a comic strip ... he was able to expose and confront his inner torments through his creative work, making insecurity, failure and rejection the central themes of his humor. Knowing that his miseries fueled his work, he resisted help or change, apparently preferring professional success over personal happiness. Desperately lonely and sad throughout his life, he saw himself as "a nothing," yet he was also convinced that his artistic ability made him special. An odd combination of prickly pride and utter self-abnegation characterizes many of his public comments.

Good grief, to coin a phrase.

I suppose we're in a period when biographies are supposed to reveal "inner torments," and if they do, they're good, and if they don't—because the inner torments aren't there, or didn't dominate a life—they're not good. What a pity that the lives of good men like Charles Schulz and Walt Disney should fall into the hands of biographers who are only too eager to bend to the prevailing winds.

[Posted April 10, 2008]

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