It's Your Life, Charlie Brown!

Reviewed by Julie Phillips
Sunday, November 11, 2007


A Biography

By David Michaelis

HarperCollins. 655 pp. $34.95

Upward mobility and fear of failure, family warmth and the shadow of loneliness: In Schulz and Peanuts, David Michaelis shows us how generic postwar anxiety and personal grief combined to create the most popular comic strip ever written. The strip that Charles Schulz drew for nearly 50 years was more autobiographical than anyone ever knew, and it came from someone who was just bland, worried, ambitious and wise enough to become the voice of his time.

Schulz was not Charlie Brown, although he sometimes let people think so. He was a short kid who was teased, but also the leader of the neighborhood ballplayers. He was awkward and couldn't talk to girls, yet he never dropped the cheerful nickname Sparky (after Spark Plug, the horse in "Barney Google"). It's true, though, that no one expected much of him. He was born in St. Paul, Minn., in 1922, to second-generation immigrants: Germans on his father's side, pessimistic, hard-drinking Norwegians on his mother's. (Schulz, in response, was a lifelong teetotaler.) His parents left the family farms for the city as soon as they could, and Carl Schulz became a barber whose proudest achievement was his family. His ambition for his son was that he would one day own a semi-detached house with a garage.

Then in 1943, when Schulz was 20 and about to leave St. Paul for basic training, his beloved mother, Dena, died of cancer after a long illness. Her death left him with a sorrow he never got over. According to Michaelis, Schulz may always have been afraid she didn't love him, her only child.

The twin dreads of poverty and lovelessness gave him a fierce ambition. A bright but unhappy student, he finished high school but never went to college; his art education consisted of a correspondence course in drawing from a school in Minneapolis. He served in the army in World War II and afterward worked as a teacher for the same correspondence school. He joined the evangelical Church of God and became a devout Christian.

After a few years of struggling to break into comics, in 1950, at age 27, he finally sold a strip to United Features Syndicate. (They came up with the name, apparently a reference to the peanut gallery on "The Howdy Doody Show.") In it he broke with the class clich¿s of earlier cartoons, such as "Maggie and Jiggs" and "L'il Abner," by letting the action take place in a featureless postwar world. Then he used that blank suburban canvas to sketch an incredible range of themes. He kept up with the times through the doubting '50s, the philosophical '60s, the fun, materialistic '70s. By then he had moved, with his wife and five children, to Northern California and was having an affair.

The man who emerges from this sensitive and satisfying, if overlong, biography is both sincere and commercial, licensing his characters to an endless array of advertisers and merchandisers. (Michaelis says Schulz was too much a small businessman's son not to make money.) He was both a competitor of and a mentor to younger colleagues, especially the pioneering women cartoonists Lynn Johnston and Cathy Guisewite. He read and reread the Bible but eventually stopped seeing himself as "an orthodox believer" -- and said he was alarmed by "people who regard Christianity and Americanism as being virtually the same thing." He was subject to terrors, including a fear of travel, and lamented that no one loved him. Yet if you caught him on the right day, he could be "a remarkably sincere and shy man with a quiet magnetic charm and wit."

Michaelis, also the author of a biography of artist N.C. Wyeth, uses strips as illustrations, a clever way of showing just how very adult these children were in their concerns -- and how brilliant it was to endow children with real, adult struggles and anxieties that could be explored without becoming threatening. If Schulz seemed wise, it's because he could tease out profound human concerns without taking sides.

Whether Michaelis's portrayal is too dark, as some of the Schulz children have claimed, is hard to say. It seems clear that Schulz was often anxious and difficult, but he also clung to his melancholy as an artistic tool: He feared that without it, he couldn't draw. (His anxieties may also have helped him remain himself while earning millions a year.) Really, he was all his characters: philosophical, gentle Linus; remote, artistic Schroeder; stubborn, grandiose Lucy; irrepressible, sexy Snoopy. One thing that might be missing from this otherwise fascinating book -- and maybe this is what the children feel -- is an explanation for the joy and pleasure that shine through his work. Where, in his lonely Minnesota upbringing, did Charles Schulz learn to let Snoopy dance? *

Julie Phillips is the author of "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon."

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