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All You Need Is Love

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I grew up in the 1960s, so I know this: All you need is love.

I also grew up immersed in the lives and loves of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Lucy and Linus, Schroeder, Violet, Pig Pen, and the rest of the Peanuts gang.  It was the great comic strip of my childhood, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  The daily strips, the published collections, the special books, the television shows, I didn’t miss any of it.  I copied the panels onto paper with silly putty until I could hold a pencil, and then I drew them over and over until I could draw decent facsimiles of the originals. 

My most memorable Christmas present arrived when I was eleven years old, a beautiful, soft stuffed Snoopy, a perfect replica of early 1970s Snoopy, with his round belly and cheerful disposition.  This was the Snoopy of sweetness and light, stripped of sarcasm and ingenuity.  We played a lot of make-believe games, that Snoopy and I.

But that doesn’t mean we children couldn’t see the whole picture, the scorn and self-centeredness, the yearnings and foibles, the cruelties and disappointments.  We caught the anxiety full force, and recognized it.  Our Peanuts characters were complete “L’il Folks” capturing our experiences and presaging what was to come.  Peanuts reflected our childhood while letting us in on the big secrets of being grown up, none of it sugar-coated.

Now it seems you can’t spit these days without hitting someone who will speak with solemn authority about the melancholy and loneliness of Charles M. Schulz.  The new biography by David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts, is like the Snoopy doll of biographies, but on the dark side, stripped of sweetness and light.  This book, and the American Masters episode, “Good Ol’ Charles Schulz,” written by David Van Taylor (original air date October 29, 2007, PBS), seem to be leaving their mark on America’s perception of its most beloved cartoonist.

Without ever using the D-word, the American Masters episode paints a depressing portrait of a man afflicted by panic attacks, insecurity, and isolation.  While the episode is visually interesting, thought-provoking, and downright profound at some points, it isolates the creator of Peanuts from his readers.  It paints a picture of a man so sad that no one could want to relate to him.

The biography by Michaelis does much the same.  Before reading his biography of Schulz, I read an interview with Michaelis in the Wall Street Journal in which he stated a need for further in-depth biographies of other beloved American writers, such as James Thurber.  At the time I thought it seemed like a good idea, but after reading Schulz and Peanuts, I don’t think I want to see any more biographies of this sort. 

To implicate us all, a story of a man must be given sense in its context.  Michaelis’s formidably researched and written book freezes us out.  A biographer assesses a life, draws conclusions about its meaning, and presents the story to us in such a way as to tell us what that life means.  It’s all in the emphasis.  And Michaelis’s story of Schulz doesn’t gather us in.  It doesn’t tell us our story.

Take as an example what was possibly the pivotal experience in Schulz’s life.  In the American Masters episode and in his biography, Michaelis talks about the dramatic break with his childhood that defined Schulz’s life.  In what was surely a traumatic bundling of events, Schulz’s mother died of cancer just as he was deployed to fight in the Second World War, making him at once soldier, and motherless child.  Michaelis tells the television audience that Schulz was a man who seemed obligated to ask, “Am I loved?  Was I really loved?  Was there love there at all in the first place?  To then have the impossibility of ever knowing, because she’s [his mother] taken away from you when you yourself are taken away from your own childhood.” 

Compare Michaelis’s emphasis on the departing boy with Ben Schwartz’s emphasis on the returning vet in “I Hold a Grudge, Boy: Charles Schulz in Postwar America, 1946-1950” (Comic Art 4, Fall 2003).  Here we see a picture of a grown man, embodying the problems of postwar America and the deep frustrations of the returning vets.  He had something to say about it, and he said it in cartoons, “giving back what he picked up every day.” Charlie Brown found an audience, and Schulz became “a key cultural voice in postwar America.”  Schwartz’s image of the powerfully proactive cartoonist contrasts decisively with Michaelis’s painful portrait of an isolated and lonely man.

By placing Schulz’s experience in the context of the experience of his generation, Schwartz universalizes it.  Schulz’s story, a part of the story of postwar America, becomes a part of our shared story.  And this is how it should be, since for so many readers, Peanuts is a part of our story too. 

Michaelis’s biography and Van Taylor’s television documentary present the details of Schulz’s life with dedication and commitment, and with an excellence of craft, yet still seem to miss all the charm, all the magic, all the salvific radiance that characterizes Peanuts. 

I think we have to recall how it was to read Peanuts as a kid.  The melancholy didn’t stand out from the other elements, like the anxiety, the music, the conversation, or the hope.  There was so much more there than just the image of Charlie Brown walking with his head hanging, a black cloud over his head.  Those moments moved me powerfully as a little girl.  Of course they did.  But I always knew Charlie Brown would be okay.  I knew it because I loved him, and every child knows that as long as you have someone to love you, you will be okay.

If Charlie Brown was like anyone, it was that famous little tree.  Linus spoke for all of us: “I never thought it was such a bad little tree.  It’s not bad at all, really.  Maybe it just needs a little love.”

And every child knows that.  All you need is love.

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