In an interview with television anchor Al Roker towards the end of his life, Charles Schulz, creator of the phenomenally popular Peanuts comic strip, broke down into tears. “You know, that poor kid (Charlie Brown), he never got to kick the football. What a dirty trick to play, he never got to kick the football,” he said through sobs.
The display of emotion was uncharacteristic for Schulz. Especially, since, unlike Charlie Brown, Schulz kicked the ball out of the park several times with his comic strip’s success. Despite being the consummate loser and underachiever in a nation that values success above everything else, Charlie Brown (and a quirky cast of characters) dominated America’s cultural landscape for more than four decades.
In popular imagination and public appearances, Schulz resembled Charlie Brown. He was an underachiever, who had, by dint of his hard work and imagination, achieved success. By old age, he had even become a beloved avuncular figure of wisdom.
But, there were many sides to Schulz’s personality.
He was intensely competitive. He was disdainful of colleagues without talent and sparing with words of encouragement as a mentor to upcoming cartoonists. He was also needy for affection. During a 1987 interview with Good Morning America, he quipped that he was an “authority on unrequited love.” This, after marrying twice, having an affair with a girl roughly half his age during his first marriage, and fathering five kids.
David Michaelis’ biography tackles the disconnect between the private and public personas of Charles Schulz. It mines his personal life to find out how they inspired his cartoon strips. Michaelis , quite literally, illustrates his theories about Schulz’s motivations by placing relevant cartoon strips immediately below descriptions of significant events in his life.
Good Grief, Charles Schulz
Charles Schulz was born in 1922 to a mother of Norwegian stock and a first-generation German immigrant in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father was a barber and his mother a housewife. Schulz was deeply attached to his mother and always craved her approval, according to Michaelis. “His mother occupied the central place in his heart,” he writes. “The intensity of that bond would remain alive to the day he died; she was a presence in everything he did; her looks and most distinctive qualities reappeared in the women in his life and his art.”
His childhood was split between city life and visits to cousins from his mother’s side in rural Minnesota. The latter were a cause of great discomfort to him because the sensitive Schulz had little in common with his country cousins. The bullying he suffered there were illustrated in his cartoon strips.
Schulz was a mediocre student but had talent for penmanship. Unfortunately, none of his teachers encouraged this talent.
Cartooning was just about coming of age as a form of popular entertainment, when Schulz graduated from high school. (But, it would be some time before cartoonists became superstars). Given his performance at school, Schulz’s parents did not expect much from him and, after drifting about for a bit, Schulz enrolled in a correspondence course for Art Instruction.
Subsequently, he joined the army.
Up until then, Schulz had been an unassuming young man, a kind of wallflower. The army stint instilled confidence in him. After coming back from the army he found employment as an instructor for a correspondence course in Art. A string of romances (one of which almost culminated in an engagement) followed and, finally, Schulz married Joyce Halverson, sister of a work colleague.
Theirs was a marriage of contrasts.
Joyce had married and divorced at the age of 19. She also had a daughter from her first marriage. Despite the setbacks, Joyce was a fighter and had a sunny disposition. She loved the outdoors and adventure. There was no time for the past in Joyce’s life and she hurtled towards the future.
Even as Charles Schulz became rich and famous, Joyce took care of the kids and home. She was behind the family’s shifts to Colorado and California and established a ranch in their home at Coffee Lane in Sebastopol. Later, she was also responsible for the Redwood Ice Arena.
Schulz was the opposite in temperament. He feared travel and had an artiste’s neuroses about dislocating himself from familiar surroundings. The past was always a constant presence with him.
Towards the end of his marriage with Joyce, Schulz had an affair with Tracey Claudius, a 25-year-old. It could be said that the affair sealed the deal on their already tumultuous marriage. After his divorce, Schulz married Jeanne Forsyth, a 33-year-old woman he met when she brought her daughter to the ice arena for skating lessons. They cuddled each night until the day he died.
An Unassuming Success
Peanuts started life as Li’l Folks in 1947, when Sparky (as Schulz was known for much of his life) drew a “hypertrophied head, shortened the arms and immediately knew that he was on the right track.” It was published in the Saturday Evening Post the following week and became a regular fixture in local press subsequently. A lawsuit in 1950 forced the strip’s syndication agency to change its name to Peanuts. Schulz hated the name and considered it to mean “little things of insignificant value.”
He borrowed Charlie Brown’s name from a colleague, who was also a bon vivant. But, the character and his quirks were reflections of Schulz’s personality and cogitations. (Later, the same colleague, who was a closeted homosexual, died of cancer after battling an off-and-on addiction to alcohol).
In a sense, the Peanuts characters went against existing tropes in cartooning at that point of time. In an era of action comic figures such as Dick Tracy and Johnny Hazard, their quiet humor and almost plebian concerns stood apart. From the very first, Schulz created strips filled with white space, instead of “busy” cartoons with action in the background as well as foreground. They also did not depend on physical comedy or gags for laughs. Instead, they pondered deep existential questions and society through the prism of everyday life. The denouement in each strip was also unsatisfactory because Charlie Brown always lost.
Although he started drawing the cartoon strip a couple of years prior to the 1950s, Schulz’s characters gathered steam during this decade. Subsequently, they became cultural touchstones, articulating the anxiety and concerns of mainstream society. They set happiness apart from material prosperity. At the same time, they also reflected the nation’s mood and moral stand on important matters, such as Vietnam. The Peanuts strip also grew into an astounding business empire that evolved from a simple three panel cartoon strip to encompass musicals, television shows, merchandising, and syndication deals across countries.
But, for Charles Schulz, the routine always remained the same. Through the shifts in location, the construction of an ice arena, five kids (including an unwed daughter who became pregnant at eighteen), he drew the strip almost on a daily basis. He mined the drama in his personal life to illustrate the strip.
For example, parts of Joyce’s personality found echoes in Lucy Van Pelt, who is more intelligent than the men around her. According to Michaelis, this was a role reversal of sorts, especially during the 1950s when men were the traditional heads of their homes. But, Van Pelt is also aggressive. She shouts, needles, and goads the men around her. The disagreements between Schulz and his wife’s temperament were illustrated in the comic strips.
Similarly, during his affair with Tracey Claudius, the strip took a turn for the romantic. In one of the strips, Charlie Brown asks if it is possible to be with two people at the same time. Snoopy, ever the dreamy dog, replies with the memory of a time, when he loved a peanut butter cookie and chocolate chip cookie at the same time.
Much like most artistes (and, indeed, human beings), Schulz embodied contrasts. He longed for the security of home but shirked from the attendant responsibility. He said he wanted to “go back to the years with my mother and father – the times when I could have them bear out my worries.” At the same time, he was intensely competitive and wanted to win at all costs. He blamed his teachers in Minnesota all his life for not identifying his special talent at cartooning. During the beginning of his business career in cartooning, he agreed to almost all the terms. Later, he negotiated for a fat share of the profits and “became greedy just like a kid becomes greedy.”
The book is also a study in the crafting of a celebrity. Schulz came of age when the modern media apparatus for celebrity culture was still imperfect. By the time Peanuts took off, celebrity culture was already on its way to becoming an integral part of American existence.
In that respect, the book’s omissions are as important as its inclusions. None of these omissions is more important than that of Schulz’s voice. He did not keep a diary; nor did he leave behind a written record of any kind. Which is a pity, really, because we know that he had a rich and complicated interior life from his cartoons. They are an indication of his thought processes at that time, yes. But, minus context, we can only speculate on his thinking.
For example, Schulz apparently “maimed” one of his sons during an ice hockey game after his divorce with Joyce. His motives for doing so are not discussed. Instead, all we get is the son’s quote. Similarly, Joyce’s motivations for staying on with Schulz after discovering of his affair with Tracey and her own marriage to a building contractor later are not discussed. But, then such is the nature of celebrity culture, which hews complicated individuals into familiar stereotypes for public consumption.
The book also does not discuss the influence of 1950s on the development of Peanuts. The country was emerging from the chaos and penury of the Second World War and the Great Depression. The Vietnam war was a distant speck. The economy and the stock market were booming. Modern management theory transformed the workplace and the government encouraged its citizens to buy and acquire material prosperity. The American Dream, a term first coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, acquired physical contours in the form of a suburban home with a yard, a car, and significant leisure time.
How did the existential angst of Peanuts become a success during this time of apparent prosperity?
That said, the biography is a tribute to the complicated simplicity of Peanuts. Schulz’s cartoons brought joy and a sense of wonder to numerous readers; this biography goes a long way in decoding the fraught source of that joy.