Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography review
Charles Schulz‘s life is already turning into a legend, in large part because he did the one thing a man can rarely control: he died perfectly, at the precise right time and place. Late in the night before his final Peanuts strip would appear in newspapers, on February 12, 2000, Schulz slipped into immortality.
On the other hand, he was close to immortal already; Peanuts was one of the biggest comic strips in this history of the medium, one of the largest licensing empires in the world, and one of the most beloved set of characters in the USA. And, since Schulz famously wrote every word and drew every line of the 17,897 strips from 1950 through 2000, it was purely his own achievement. Snoopy sheets would never have been big business if kids hadn’t already loved Snoopy, and they never would have loved Snoopy without Schulz. It’s difficult to overestimate what Schulz meant to cartooning over the past fifty years: he reshaped the newspaper strip in his image, brought a new tone and style to public discourse, and was hugely influential far beyond the bounds of the newspaper page.
And now, seven years after Schulz died, comes the first full-scale biography of the man who changed the face of newspaper comics forever.
David Michaelis, author of a previous biography of N.C. Wyeth, had an amazing degree of access to write this book; the family was behind the project from the beginning, as was Schulz’s syndicate, United Media. The result is a solid and very readable book, which only occasionally loses track of chronology and events. It’s not the final word on Schulz, and it certainly has some flaws, but it’s an impressively researched and written look at a complicated, fascinating man. It also “quotes” directly from Peanuts, with nearly 250 strips included in the book – exactly as a biography of a prose writer would quote from his work along the way. Michaelis is occasionally clunky in leading up to a strip, but, generally, this combination works very well, and the strips counterpoint the text excellently.
Schulz’s family did support the book originally, but they’re not very happy with it now that it’s complete; Schulz’s older son Monte in particular has been very vocal on the Internet about his detest for Schulz and Peanuts. Monte Schulz is clearly the point person for the family’s anger, though he may not be speaking equally for all of them. (This recent NY Times article quotes several family members agreeing with Monte Schulz’s complaints, in different degrees.) I am surprised that Jeannie Schulz, Schulz’s widow, hasn’t been more prominent in the public response to Michaelis; from all I’ve heard about her, she is not one to take an insult quietly.
It’s difficult to tell how seriously to take these complaints. The family of any biography subject is not usually happy to see any book that is less than hagiographical; every serious biography of an artist or writer comes accompanied by news reports of friends and family who insist that the book got it all wrong. And every biography necessarily has a point of view, a vision of the subject’s life. Biographies of creative types – artist and writers, whose biggest excitement takes place inside their own heads – are particularly subject to psychoanalyzing, simply because the external details of their lives are only very rarely exciting. Michaelis does muster a lot of support for his view – that’s not the same as saying that it must be true, but he has a lot of quotes, a lot of details, and lot of back-up. And his conclusions are really not that far away from what others have said for years: that Schulz had trouble, all his life, finding and keeping happiness. What Michaelis does is document this; his choice of material might be somewhat slanted, but it’s pretty clear that the side of Charles Schulz that he describes was real.
Monte Schulz’s complaints (a good selection is at Cartoon Brew) say repeatedly that the book is wrong from beginning to end, but that is clearly an exaggeration. His two major factual complaints are that a black maid the Schulz family had in the ‘60s is not mentioned in the appropriate place (making it seem as if Monte Schulz’s mother, Schulz’s first wife, Joyce, spent more time taking care of the five children than she actually did), and that a pond was not constructed until a few years after Michaelis says it was. These are minor points, and I suspect that Monte Schulz is attempting to correct what he sees as Michaelis’s bias towards his mother Joyce. Joyce married the contractor who created that pool soon after Schulz moved out of the house; Michaelis’s account says that Charles had an affair but Joyce did not, though there were rumors that Joyce’s involvement with the contractor predated the break-up of her marriage. Further, Michaelis mentions that the Schulzes’ five children – even though the ones younger than eighteen were officially in Joyce’s custody – all quickly sided with Charles and came to live with him and his new second wife. There’s a tangled family history here, and I think Monte Schulz is trying to defend his father without specifically slinging mud at his mother – even though he believes his mother was at fault.
Monte Schulz claims that all of Schulz’s friends and family agree with him, which is just barely possible – though that would imply that Michaelis has twisted or fabricated literally hundreds of quotes throughout the book. Every characterization Michaelis makes about Schulz is backed up by quotes from the strip, from Schulz himself, and by friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and others. In particular, Schulz’s oldest daughter Meredith is quoted quite a bit. I believe Monte Schulz is somewhat exaggerating the scope of his complaints, because he is pained by the tone of Michaelis’s biography, and because that biography seems to him to be likely to diminish his father’s image. But he’s mistaken; no great artist is without flaws, and Schulz’s flaws are really very mild, as such things go. By the standards of mid-twentieth century artists and writers, having one extramarital affair and then ending a marriage peacefully a year later is ridiculously tame. If this is “warts and all,” Charles Schulz had one very small wart in an unobtrusive place.
Further, Monte Schulz seems to have missed Michaelis’s point completely when he complains that Michaelis depicted his father as a depressive; Michaelis says repeatedly that Schulz was not clinically depressed, and compares Schulz’s behavior to that of depressives several times. What Michaelis does is to pull out a long string of quotes from Schulz himself, from Peanuts strips, from family and friends, all of which show that Schulz was a man who found it extremely hard to be happy. Michaelis’s thesis, which is a strong one, is that Schulz’s unhappiness – an existential, Minnesota style of unhappiness, which could not be assuaged by money or time or the love of others — was the wellspring and source of his best work. For someone who isn’t Schulz’s son, this is hard to argue with: the first two decades of Peanuts were saturated with misery, and the later years had more than their share of sadness as well. The great recurrent scenes of Peanuts – Lucy pulling away the football, Snoopy shot down by the Red Baron, the kite-eating tree, Linus waiting in vain for the Great Pumpkin, the baseball team losing, and many others – are all moments of deep sadness, times when the world itself seems to be stacked against the characters. Surely we don’t believe that the man who created those scenes, over and over for fifty years, was a smiling, glad-handing Sunny Jim?
Schulz clearly was a driven man, one who set high standards for himself and who had immense ambition. He did hide that drive under a Midwestern diffidence, true, but no one could have achieved a success on the level of Peanuts – or worked as hard, for as long, on it as Schulz did – without being much more than the “nothing boy from St. Paul” that Schulz dismissively referred to himself as so often. Schulz’s achievement is impressive, and needs to be explained as well as celebrated. Michaelis’s explanation might not be to everyone’s tastes – plenty of people seem to prefer the common image of Schulz as a happy, avuncular figure – but it fits the facts and it explains a lot of the strengths of the first two decades or so of Peanuts. It also helps to explain why Peanuts slowly dwindled from its peak starting in the mid-‘70s; if Schulz’s best work was driven by his own unhappiness, and his second marriage was a much more happy one, then obviously the fires that kept the strip hot would start to burn down at that point.
Before the controversy hit, Michaelis was interviewed by Peanuts Collector Club about his book and the art of biography. At one point, he says, "I had what I thought was a ‘Eureka!’ moment: I woke one morning and realized it would have to be two books. Volume one would be Charles M. Schulz and the age of Peanuts, 1922-72; and volume two would be Charles M. Schulz and the age of Snoopy, 1973-2000.” He eventually realized that wasn’t what his contract allowed, and wrote one book – though, in some ways, he wrote that first book with only a short section standing in for the unwritten second one.
Michaelis does have the usual biographer’s pattern of concentrating mostly on his subject’s younger years, and devoting fewer and fewer pages to each year once he reaches adulthood. This becomes a bit unfortunate past the divorce, when some more space and time devoted to Schulz’s new life would have been welcome. The reader infers that Schulz is happier than he was, but Michaelis doesn’t really make this clear, and he skips very quickly over the last twenty-five years of Schulz’s life. Forty or fifty more pages on the second half of Peanuts’s life would have been very welcome.
But the book we did get is quite large, and full of detail. Michaelis is particularly good at examining Schulz’s youth in St. Paul. Some may frown at the clearly psychological depiction of his parents – quiet, workaholic Carl and demanding, negative Dena – but Michaelis has done his homework here. Obviously, there’s no straight line between parents like that and a genius like Schulz’s – if there were, Minnesota would have launched a thousand great cartoonists into the world – but their personalities clearly influenced their son. Michaelis does rely a bit too much on the telling detail – biographers always love to find moments in their subject’s young lives that prefigure important successes later on – but his general approach is sound.
The interview with Michaelis mentions that he cut the book’s first draft by half to get it down to a publishable length, which may explain some of the elisions and dropped references. (Whatever rewriting he did early this year to address the family’s objections to the first draft they saw may also have affected this.) One glaring example is when Michaelis drops all mention of Schulz’s church life – clearly important in his Minneapolis/St. Paul years – after the move to California in 1958. Before that point, Schulz was tithing 10% to his Minneapolis church, the Church of God, which was more than the rest of the church’s annual income. That connection is never mentioned again; did Schulz cut them off entirely when he moved? Did he ever again regularly attend a church?
Similarly, during the rehearsals of "You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown," Michaelis prominently mentions that there was no script. But then the musical was a hit on opening night – who wrote the book? (Presumably Schulz, but Michaelis doesn’t say so.) And was it really done at the last minute? Was that purely due to the time-pressures of the daily strip, or was Schulz replacing someone else’s unsatisfactory work?
There are several other aspects of Schulz’s life that are treated similarly: they suddenly drop out of the book entirely, to either re-emerge fourteen years later (as on p.481, when Art Instruction – Schulz’s first employer and a major influence on his life – is mentioned suddenly after a silence of two hundred pages or so) or just not be heard from again. This may be an artifact of the editing Michaelis did for length, but it was done clumsily in spots, and it damages the flow of the narrative.
There are other portions of the book that I wish Michaelis had spent more time on. He characterizes most of the major characters in the early strip as partially based on particular people – most notably, that Lucy was based on Schulz’s first wife, Joyce. (Schulz himself was the basis, in different ways, for Linus, Schroeder, and Charlie Brown.) But he doesn’t account for one of the most interesting characters in the early strip, Sally. She was one of the first major additions to the strip, has a personality that never changed radically (unlike Lucy, who became much less dominating after Schulz’s divorce), is the only example in the early strip of a female character who isn’t dominant, rude, or overbearing, and stayed important in the strip to the end. Who is she and what function did she play in Schulz’s fiction? An extended textual explication of Peanuts characters isn’t precisely the book Michaelis was writing, and Schulz and Peanuts is already a long book…but it made me want more, and it made me continue along Michaelis’s path in my own head.
I have just a few more notes and quibbles:
- p.454, Michaelis writes about Schulz’s affair with Tracey Claudius, and could have sharpened his point quite a bit if he’d kept track of the fact that strips are done about eight weeks ahead. The strips Michaelis reprints and describes – which appeared in early July – were completed in late April or early May, right in the middle of the affair. When did Schulz send those strips to the syndicate? Was he drawing them in between visits to Tracey?
- Michaelis, oddly, never actually gives us the date that Schulz left his first wife, Joyce. Is this not known, or did he just leave it out?
- There are thirty-two pages of photos, and those are very nice. But Michaelis talks about some other photos in some detail in his text, and those are not included in the book, which is unfortunate.
All in all, Schulz and Peanuts is not the masterpiece that Peanuts is, but it’s a fine biography of a fascinating man, digging more deeply than previous works to paint a full, robust picture of a great cartoonist and his immortal creation.
Schulz and Peanuts
Harper, 2007, $34.95
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.