What keeps generations of fans returning to “Peanuts” so faithfully? If the reruns were mere doses of shallow nostalgia for a comic strip launched almost 70 years ago in a handful of newspapers, the spirit of these specials — and the depth of the characters — would begin to dim like low-ink photocopies of original art.
Why the “Peanuts” gang still compels revisitation from page to stage to screen — nearly two decades after creator Charles Schulz died — is one question central to the often-engaging new anthology “The Peanuts Papers” (with the wink of a heavy subtitle, “Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life”), as edited by veteran anthologist Andrew Blauner.
The book collects essays from 33 contributors, including acclaimed novelists, editors and critics, and each has the task of trying to mine something fresh from a cartoon treasure that has been as examined and dissected and interpreted as much as nearly any great popular American artwork of the past century. A parade of experts has analyzed these balloon-headed li’l folks for their psychology and spirituality, their capacity for romantic love and longing, since before Snoopy could walk upright.
The unspoken game afoot here, when assembling so many assessments, is: How many facets can be found in a single gem, created daily across 50 years, sprung from the inspired mind of one man?
Inevitably, some of these contributors cover the same terrain, but “The Peanuts Papers” is not edited with worries of overlap in mind. Blauner organizes the essays (a couple are in comics form) under five broad headings, but each work is permitted to breathe in full, giving the authors room to reminisce.
Which is another way of saying: You often must indulge writers telling their origin stories — how they came to love “Peanuts.” Sometimes, that means hearing how they identify most with one character, while perhaps aspiring to be another. Ira Glass of “This American Life,” who grew up fond of the comic’s “mood,” identified most with the strip’s hard-luck Everyman, Charlie Brown, while author-editor Elissa Schappell comes straight to the point with her essay title: “Je Suis Sally Brown,” referring to the little blond sister known for math worries and malapropisms.
Author-activist Kevin Powell tells one of the most poignant stories, writing about how this heartfelt little strip provided a powerful escape from the poverty surrounding him. Charlie Brown’s persistent attempts to kick the football became a metaphor for “Will we ever be able to leave this ghetto life?”
At their best, these origin stories remind us that part of the genius of “Peanuts” is how such soulful characters also function as warmly identifiable archetypes: “Which Peanuts character are you?” has become a timeworn test of personality.
A kind of consensus emerges from the essays taken together. “Peanuts” was at its peak in the 1960s and ’70s, readers tend to agree, and part of its lasting allure was how Schulz imbued his cute-looking kid characters with intellect, bittersweet observations and philosophical curiosity. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik joins a large chorus when he writes that Charlie Brown’s melancholy became “the tonic note of the strip.”
Some contributors marvel at the creator’s ability to tease out texture within a tiny canvas on a daily deadline. Schulz could evoke “complicated moral feelings under such tight constraints,” author George Saunders notes, and cartoonist Ivan Brunetti points to how Schulz was able “to communicate so much, to so many, with so little.”
To place Schulz within an artistic pantheon, the contributors toss out not only other strips (“Krazy Kat,” “Skippy”) for comparison, but also such towering names as Beckett and Brando, Chekhov and Nabokov. Taking on a work like “Peanuts” seems to require honoring the monument while also chipping away at what makes it great.
In that regard, two of the more fascinating reads are by author-academic Gerald Early, who zeros in on the power of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz within the animated television specials, and graphic novelist Chris Ware, who brings an encyclopedic “Peanuts” knowledge to illuminating the mini-eras within the strip’s evolution.
“The Peanuts Papers” is perhaps best read piecemeal, lest absorbing the whir of thoughtful observations becomes like trying to appreciate a spinning diamond. (On the other hand, it’s occasionally humorous to note the collision of opinions, such as when writer Clifford Thompson says he found “Peanuts” to be “uproariously funny,” while Glass says he doesn’t recall ever finding “Peanuts” funny.)
“Peanuts,” as a product of Schulz’s daily obsession, contains multitudes within a limited cast of characters. As Nicole Rudick writes, “The thoughtfulness with which Schulz examines humanity does not expire and does not cease to provoke astonishment.”
This anthology supports the idea that we return to “Peanuts” for the depth and the recognition and the truth — and sometimes simply because, as Powell writes in reference to his own depression, Schulz and “Peanuts” still have the capacity to bring us “tremendous happiness to this very day.”
THE PEANUTS PAPERS
Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life
Edited by Andrew Blauner
Library of America.
352 pp. $24.95