Friday, February 01, 2008

Book review: Schulz and Peanuts

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis is a good but not great portrayal of the life of "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz. In some ways, especially in its depiction of how Schulz's daily strips reflected his personal life with often startling clarity, the book is excellent. It also performs well enough the task of showing us the facts of Schulz's life: his childhood in Minnesota, his youthful ambition to be a professional cartoonist, the dog that inspired his creation of Snoopy, his education and military service, his loves, marriages, affairs, divorce, and so on. It properly places "Peanuts" in artistic context, making it clear that the comic strip is much more the antecedent of comics like "Calvin and Hobbes" and "The Far Side" than of, say, "Garfield." Ultimately, though, the book falls short of helping us to really understand Schulz.

In his introduction to Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card wrote,

...I grew dissatisfied with the way that we use our funerals to revise the life of the dead, to give the dead a story so different from their actual life.... ...We erase them, we edit them, we make them into a person much easier to live with than the person who actually lived.

I rejected that idea. I thought a more appropriate funeral would be to say, honestly, what that person was and what that person did. But to me, "honestly" doesn't mean saying all the unpleasant things instead of saying only the nice ones. It didn't even consist of averaging them out. No, to understand what a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story -- what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That's... the only story truly worth telling.

Card was talking about eulogies, but what he said holds true for biography as well. Most truly great biographies take us inside the subject's life in exactly that way. Great biographies don't excuse their subjects, but they empathize with them. We understand what the subjects "meant to do" as well as what they actually did. We at least glimpse their "self-story." Perhaps this is all just another way of saying "To understand all is to forgive all."

And this is where Schulz and Peanuts falls short. It has an oddly unsympathetic tone to it. I found myself wondering sometimes if Michaelis simply disliked the Schulz that he discovered through his research, but that's probably too simplistic. I think it's more that Michaelis didn't "forgive" Schulz. Instead, he judged him and found him wanting.

In one strip reproduced in the book, Charlie Brown tells Lucy, "I'm really depressed. What can I do about this?" Lucy's "psychiatric advice" is, "Snap out of it! Five cents please." At times, I sensed that that's what Michaelis would have liked to say to Schulz about the cartoonist's somewhat neurotic worldview. What Schulz and Peanuts finally gives us, therefore, is not Charles Schulz's "self-story," but Charles Schulz's story as told by an unsympathetic outsider. Thus, although the book is certainly worth reading, we do not truly know Schulz by the end of it.

2 comments:

  1. I have the book and plan on reading it this Spring. Living in Minneapolis, the book has a local flavor I'm looking forward to. I'll filter the unsympathetic narrator, because to my mind, Schulz was revolutionary in what uncomfortable boundaries the funny pages could cross.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My review might be a little too negative, since I focused much more on why it's not a great book instead of why it's a good one. It's well worth reading.

    ReplyDelete

What do you think?