A Million Little Peanuts?
Charles Schulz died in 2000, but his creations have lived on and remain as ubiquitous as ever. You probably enjoyed the annual airing of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown a few weeks back, and soon, you'll probably sit happily down for the requisite viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. The Peanuts gang is still being used to sell life insurance; Camp Snoopy is still going strong over at Knott's Berry Farm; and in September, Schulz's comics even inspired MetLife Snoopy in Fashion, a New York City runway show featuring outfits by Isaac Mizrahi, Betsey Johnson and other big-name designers. (Are we the only ones who find something really creepy about a hot girl wearing a skintight minidress that's patterned to look like the Charlie Brown yellow shirt with the black zigzag?)
We grew up with Peanuts, laughing at Snoopy's antics battling the Red Baron and sympathizing with Linus' neurotic fixation on his security blanket. We grew wiser with Peanuts, realizing as the years go by that Lucy is really kind of a bitch and Charlie Brown will probably never get to kick that damn football. And we grew old with Peanuts, eventually taking a certain grim comfort in lines like "I only dread one day at a time."
Peanuts was, at its heart, a rather dark strip, so it's of little surprise to learn that Schulz was actually a much more morose fellow than the buttoned-down, avuncular character he appeared to be in TV interviews. But David Michaelis' new book, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, introduces us to a man who was, to be blunt, a cold, self-pitying, grudge-holding jerk, a philandering husband and a callous father. Schulz's family granted Michaelis unprecedented access to the artist's personal archives, and the resulting book is an exhaustive (688 pages!) look at Schulz's tortured life and the blackly funny cartoons that sprang from it. Michaelis reveals how specific incidents in the strip had their origins in Schulz's own life—such as an affair Schulz had that directly inspired a story in which Snoopy falls giddily in love with a girl dog.
Schulz's family knew that Michaelis would be writing about the affair and other troubling aspects of Schulz's personality, and they gave the writer a free hand. The book is being praised widely, and it seems likely this will be regarded as the definitive book on Schulz in our lifetime.
Sadly, it doesn't really deserve to be.
Schulz's family has denounced the book, claiming Michaelis dwells obsessively on Schulz's flaws (such as his occasional bitterness toward other established cartoonists), while neglecting his good side (such as his tireless support of younger artists). On the website cartoonbrew.com, Schulz's son Monte described the book as "simply untruthful, and deliberately so," arguing that Michaelis threw out a lot of information that didn't jibe with his "thesis" that Schulz was profoundly damaged by the early death of his mother and spent his life demanding love from others, but was unwilling or unable to supply it in return. Schulz's daughter Amy agreed, telling TheNew York Times, "The whole thing is completely wrong. I think [Michaelis] wanted to write a book a certain way, and so he used our family."
Over and over again, the family insists Michaelis twists the facts to cast Schulz in the worst possible light. Michaelis devotes a page and a half to Schulz's "writer's conference girl-friend," but according to Monte, the "girl-friend" was a married woman who was a harmless flirt. Michaelis quotes Amy as saying her father was so unaffectionate she had to learn to hug from the Mormon church. Amy has refuted this, saying she was herself uncomfortable with being hugged, and when she joined the Mormons, she learned to accept the frequent hugs of her fellow parishioners. Her father had nothing to do with it, but Michaelis drew a connection because it supported his agenda. Michaelis makes much of Charles Schulz never seeking help for his depression or panic, but his widow Jean describes Schulz seeing two different psychologists. According to Monte, he even had to persuade Michaelis to remove a bizarre and apparently baseless passage that had Schulz eyeing one of his daughter's 14-year-old friends.
Monte has called Michaelis "arrogant," a conclusion more than born out by Michaelis' own comments on the controversy. "To their children, fathers are always heroes, and very few families can see beyond that paterfamilias," Michaelis told the Times. "Did I get the story right? Absolutely. No question." In essence, Michaelis has depicted Schulz as a sorry excuse for a dad, and then defended this conclusion by declaring that he has greater insight into Schulz's skills as a parent than Schulz's own kids do.
This is a book that falls prey to Michael Moore Syndrome, mixing some genuinely revelatory info with far too much dicey supposition and so many easily disprovable untruths that the entire enterprise becomes suspect. But as with Moore, the good stuff is good enough that it's worth digging for in all the inconsistencies. Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography is fascinating stuff, even for casual fans of Schulz's work. Here's hoping that someday a competing volume will come along, penned by an author dedicated to expanding on the facts Michaelis uncovered and correcting everything that Michaelis got wrong.
But on the matter of this book, perhaps we should let Charlie Brown himself have the last word: "Good grief!"
Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis; Harper. Hardcover, 688 pages, $35.
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