On Charles Schulz and “Peanuts”

I cop to this without embarrassment because I was a kid at the time: when it was announced that Ronald Reagan was replacing Alexander Haig with George Schultz as Secretary of State, I thought, “They’re making the guy who draws Peanuts Secretary of State?” Well, naturally the name of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000) meant more to me than that of some career statesman, even if I did get the Christian name wrong. The Peanuts Pantheon of characters seemed up there with those of Disney, Warner Brothers cartoons and the Muppets in terms of cultural reach, a multimillion dollar franchise with a comic strip at its center. There were Peanuts books, tv specials, movies, toys, tee shirts, mugs,  calendars, a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloon, and the Peanuts characters were in turn used to hawk other products (MetLife insurance, Dolly Madison Cakes etc).

Though Schulz was a basically shy man, you did see him on television from time to time, profiled on magazine shows, or bantering on talk shows. He looked a little to me like Allen Ludden from Password. 

Peanuts ran from 1950 through 2000, coinciding almost perfectly with the second half of the 20th century. Schulz originally wanted to call it “Li’l Folks”, but the syndicate which distributed it insisted on the more whimsical name, and for once the Man had a better idea than the Artist. But otherwise, the strip was an incredibly personal creation. It was unthinkable to both Schulz  and his fans that anyone but he would draw it after Schulz ceased to turn them out, and no one did. Schulz’s cultural influence was much greater than most people are aware of, I think. Half Scandinavian (the culture that gave us Kierkegaard, Strindberg, Ibsen, Bergman, and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark), Schulz created characters who were openly anxious, brooding, unhappy, reflective, contemplative, full of worry, and depressed. Freud and psychoanalysis were not just alluded to, but (thanks to Lucy’s five cent services) fully integrated into the strip. This was before Woody Allen and Jules Feiffer — Schultz’s pathbreaking success made widespread public acceptance of both of those artists possible, I think. Schultz’s German side is most visibly represented by the character of Schroeder, obsessed with the music of the Romantic composer Beethoven (although Schulz himself preferred Brahms). He was raised a Lutheran and remained an active, involved Christian for a good chunk of his adult life, although he finally succumbed to secular humanism. His characters are either always worried about doing the right thing, or heedlessly doing the wrong thing only to regret it later. Schulz’s ethic of “asking questions” was particularly well-suited to a post-nuclear America. Optimism? Moral certitude? Confidence? Those were best fitted to an America that couldn’t blow up the entire world at the press of a button.

Schulz’s imaginary universe, as presented to us, was also inclusive. Charlie Brown and Linus, at the center of the strip, are intellectual kibbitzers, talkers rather than doers, and terrible athletes who lose every game. The most dominant (“Alpha”) personality in their set is Lucy, a female, as is the best athlete, Peppermint Patty. Franklin, an African American friend, was added in 1968, and though he was never central to the goings on, his inclusion was a sensitive response to changing times, and a deliberate public gesture intended to bring the public along with a society in transition. Such quiet gestures, I think, can often be the most transformational. At the outer extreme was Pig Pen, who like Philoctetes, literally stank, the kind of kid who would literally be on the outermost fringes of socialization. A member of the Grateful Dead later took that name for his own. The ostracized characters of Peanuts were heroes to those who related to them.

The fact that the strip had all these properties yet was at the center of the American mainstream is precisely what made it so pivotal.  While Schulz represented a new phase in comic strip artistry, he was definitely working within a tradition. His childhood nickname “Sparky” was a variant on Barney Google’s horse Spark Plug. When he was a teenager he had a drawing accepted by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. As a kid he sought to emulate E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre (which gave us Popeye), and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. But the minimalism of the strip feels revolutionary, and not unlike that other bellwether of his times, Samuel Beckett.

I grew up during the Joe Cool era, the 1970s, when Snoopy was given to donning black sunglasses and transforming into some other finger-snapping, sidewalk-strutting persona who moved, one imagines, to the jazz rhythms of Vince Guaraldi. While I did read the daily strip, thanks to old paperback books I came to know the early strips from the 1950s best. I am astonished to see that there have been at least 45 Peanuts TV specials! To the best of my knowledge I have only seen at best a half dozen of them, the ones created for holidays. I’m not sure if I have seen any of the ones created after 1976 (It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown!). Of the five movies, I have seen one or two. I distinctly remember seeing Snoopy, Come Home (1972), one of my first times seeing a movie in a cinema. I listened to the Royal Guardsmen’s 1967 “Snoopy and the Red Baron” on this record. And my friends were in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, so I came to know it all too well. (Did you know that that’s how M*A*S*H’s Gary Burghoff got his start? Playing Charlie Brown in the musical off-Broadway in the ’60s? And Bob Balaban was Linus!)

Recently someone asked me rhetorically whether kids knew about Peanuts nowadays. The last TV special was in 2011; there was a feature film in 2015. The older you get, the more that seems “current”, but to kids, things are already old after six months. But if the strip and its characters are less well known by kids today, I can’t say for sure, but Schulz’s influence on subsequent strips certainly still lives and breathes. And when comic strips and the newspapers that carry them die, his influence on the culture at large will live. Personally? I can’t even begin to know how to deal with someone who isn’t both alienated and conflicted.