Monthly Book Review by Ajarn Scott
January 2009


Schulz and Peanuts

by David Michaelis, Harper, 2007, 566 pages (text, 654 pages including notes and index)

It seems to me that there are three “types” of biographies available these days.  There are academic biographies; dull as they are long, in which every moment of the person’s life is rendered in mind-numbing detail.  I mean, really, if I’m interested in the life of the poet William Carlos Williams, do I really need to know that when he met Ezra Pound in Paris for lunch in 1923 that he had sardines with mustard and red wine and that his wife Flossie had some other kind of fish which left her with a stomachache for two days?  These books are good for reference and, one supposes, are not meant to be read cover to cover.  Then there is the hagiography: a biography written by someone who worships the subject of the book to the point of over-praising them.  Finally, there is the solid, objective biography with just the right amount of details and a style and presentation more novel-like and readable than the prose of the dense academic style or the gushy hagiography.  In the hands of a good biographer, someone’s life can take on a very interesting, even suspenseful, quality.  It’s hard to find a good, readable biography, but, once you do, it’s as hard to put down as any good page-turner.  David Michaelis, in his biography of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz – creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip featuring Charlie Brown and Snoopy – has achieved the perfect mix.  Schulz’s family, however, was expecting a hagiography.  Instead, they seem to claim, Michaelis has written an exposé.

One could say the exposé, which seeks to paint the subject in an extremely bad light, is the exact opposite of the hagiography.  I normally think of exposés more in terms of magazine articles rather than entire books, but there are some biographies out there that slant their prose and facts to show a rather unjust or scandalous portrait of the subject (e.g., any bio by Kitty Kelley).  Michaelis’ book does not veer in that direction at all.  I found his handling of the life of Charles Schulz to be objective and fair, though the Schulz family might disagree. 

One reason Michaelis has been able to write such a detailed and seemingly accurate book about Schulz is that he had unlimited access to Schulz’s papers and, at first, complete cooperation from surviving family members.  Monte Schulz, one of Schulz’s children and himself a writer, convinced the family to cooperate with Michaelis and to allow him access into the family sphere.  Michaelis does not abuse the privilege.  His reporting is objective and clear; the facts of Schulz’s life speak for themselves. 

Charles Schulz was a complex man and Peanuts is not a cartoon strip for children, nor is the strip sentimental in any way.  Schulz used his characters – Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Violet, Schroder, even the dog Snoopy – to portray the psychological complexities of adult life.  He did this in a non-threatening way that most people could instantly relate to by using children – odd looking children with small bodies and large heads – who acted like adults.  Michaelis includes much information and background about how Schulz worked and how the strip was part of him.  Michaelis proves that Schulz, a quiet and reticent man, worked out the emotions and problems of his life in the daily creation of Peanuts.  Many times in the book Schulz is quoted as saying he probably was depressed and/or should perhaps have gone into therapy but was afraid to because it might rob Peanuts of its humor, edge and source material.  Schulz identified himself completely with the strip.  From an early age, Schulz had no other goal other than to be a cartoonist and he spent years fighting against the initial lack of support offered by family and friends to hone his craft and develop his ideas into the comic strip that became Peanuts.  Michaelis is able to show not just a portrait of Charles Schulz the man, but Charles Schulz the cartoonist as well.  One imagines that this was not an easy task, yet Michaelis’ prose belies the effort he must have put into his research and writing.  The text flows nicely and is an easy read.

So if the book is so seemingly objective and accurate, why do the surviving members of the Schulz family have such a problem with it?  As noted above, it is quite difficult to separate Schulz from Peanuts or Peanuts from Schulz.  Though the strip itself is actually quite psychologically complex, the figures have morphed over the years into cute cuddly plush little things that have been merchandised – by Schulz’s collaborators and business partners but with his support and final approval – into a business that has earned (and continues to earn) millions of dollars per year for everyone involved.  A series of sentimental books beginning with Happiness is a Warm Puppy in 1962 turned Schulz’s complex and often biting strip into a cuddly Hallmark subsidiary and this is the Peanuts that most Americans growing up in the 1960s related to and identified with – the sentimental side.  We often sweep aside the masochism Charlie Brown exhibits each autumn when he runs to kick the football knowing full well that Lucy will always snatch it out of the way at the last moment so that he lands painfully on his back.  We forget also that Lucy is a selfish, loud, obnoxious and petty person as portrayed in the strip.  What we remember is growing up with our stuffed Snoopy dolls sleeping next to us in our beds.  We think of Peanuts as something eternally sweet and soft.  If Peanuts is sweet and soft, then Schulz, the creator of it, must also be a sweet, nice and gentle man.  This is certainly the way the family has mythologized him and expected Michaelis to portray him.  But Michaelis is more concerned, as any good writer should be, with the objective truth. 

One side of Peanuts is cute and cuddly – but the strip itself up until the moment Schulz died (the final strip appeared on the day of his death) was deeper and more complex.  Schulz himself had similar sides and was himself a deep and complex man.  It was certainly interesting for me as someone who grew up with Peanuts – the strip itself as well as television programs and movies and toys featuring characters from the strip – to find out about the man behind this cultural phenomenon.  Reading the original reviews of the book in Time Magazine as well online at Amazon and the New York Times website whet my appetite.  But I have to admit it was the controversy with the family – the SCANDAL – that made me curious enough to actually buy the book and read it.  Without the controversy, the book would not have been as noticed by as many people as it has.  I actually expected a “kiss and tell” type memoir in which Schulz would be portrayed as mean, nasty and evil.  All his bad habits and indiscretions would be revealed!  At least that’s what the family seemed to be complaining about: that Schulz was portrayed as cold and uncaring; that his first wife is portrayed as a shrew.  That they both, oh my goodness, had an affair each!

After reading the book I can honestly say it is not as sensational as the controversy surrounding it makes it appear to be.  The reporting is even-handed and honest.  Yes, Schulz was often cold and uncaring – but he was also funny, generous and involved very much in the lives of family and friends.  Yes, his first wife was often testy and terrible but the strong bond between the two partners is also quite evident in the way Michaelis writes about their relationship.  Okay, they both had an affair each toward the end of their rocky marriage.  They weren’t perfect – but they were perfectly human and I find it laughable that the family has a problem with Michaelis portraying Schulz with all his good and bad points as the human being that he was.  Any bad points are minor and necessary to see in order to understand the full complexity of the man.  By any standard Schulz is a tame and conservative fellow.  That he was a bit repressed and perhaps suffered from undiagnosed and untreated depression seems to be something that could have happened to any young adult in the 1950s in America.  There are elements of Cheever or Updike in the Schulz story, to be sure, but the fictional characters in Cheever and Updike – as well as the personal lives of those two authors – were certainly more salacious than the tame and balanced life of Charles M. Schulz.

Since this book is a biography and a true story it contains a certain amount of history, including a glance at the popular culture and lifestyle in America in the latter half of the 20th century.  An American reading this book will be reminded not only of growing up with Peanuts but will also be transported back to that era.  A non-American will get a glimpse into that time and into the American psyche at that time, whether they’ve grown up with the strip or not.  Anyone who enjoys reading about and relating to the lives of others will embrace this well done biography.  There are also many reproductions of various Peanuts comic strips in the book.  Those are fun to see again on their own and are also invaluable as illustrations of various points that the author wishes to make.  Available in large paperback edition at Kinokuniya and Asia Books.    

 

Scott Humphries, 15 January 2009 Bangkok