Peanuts and the Quiet Pain of Childhood: How Charles M. Schulz Made an Art of Difficult Emotions
“[Charlie Brown] reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human — both little and big at the same time.”
By Maria Popova
J.R.R. Tolkien adamantly asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Neil Gaiman has repeatedly championed the notion that children shouldn’t be protected from dark emotions, and yet such voices remain rare radicals in a culture that continues to treat the child’s inner world as desperately fragile and childhood itself as a one-dimensional idyll. What made Charles M. Schulz’s iconic Peanuts series so beloved was precisely its dimensional and complex view of childhood — something Schulz achieved by thrusting his characters into such unpopular yet essential circumstances of the soul as boredom and uncertainty. In Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (public library), writer David Michaelis traces how this singular creative genius originated in the complex experience of Schulz’s own early life.
Unlike classic cartoon masters who made distraction their medium, Schulz filled his comic strips with suspended action and deliberate empty spaces, in which the characters — as well as the reader — confront the uncertainties and protracted desperations of life. Michaelis writes:
Peanuts] was about people working out the interior problems of their daily lives without ever actually solving them. The absence of a solution was the center of the story.
The American assumption was that children were happy, and childhood was a golden time; it was adults who had problems with which they wrestled and pains that they sought to smooth. Schulz reversed the natural order of [assumptions] by showing that a child’s pain is more intensely felt than an adult’s, a child’s defeats the more acutely experienced and remembered. Charlie Brown takes repeated insults from Violet and Patty about the size of his head, which they compare with a beach ball, a globe, a pie tin, the moon, a balloon; and though Charlie Brown may feel sorry for himself, he gets over it fast. But he does not get visibly angry.
Such emotional resilience is perhaps what Schulz would have wished for himself had he had a chance to rewrite his own story — a story driven by quite the opposite disposition. Sparky, as he was known, had just started high school when his kindly and loving mother became ill with the cancer that would eventually take her life. On Monday, March 1, 1943, Dena Schulz called her son into her bedroom, said a calm goodbye, and died. That Saturday, young Charles was drafted into the army.
For the remainder of his life, whenever he was asked to recount his biographical timeline, he would begin not with his birth but with the day his mother died, which he always held as his “greatest tragedy” — a tragedy compounded by the deep dissatisfaction that even though he far surpassed his wildest childhood dreams of success and became the highest-paid cartoonist in the world, his mother never lived to see him publish anything.
This quiet grief permeated his Peanuts. Embedded in Charlie Brown’s chronic blend of desperation and optimism is the rather adult realization that “being yourself is a very difficult game” — something illustrated by an exchange Michaelis cites:
“Would you like to have been Abraham Lincoln?” Patty asks Charlie Brown. “I doubt it,” he answers. “I have a hard enough time being just plain Charlie Brown.”
Being Schulz wasn’t easy, either. Friends, Michaelis found, felt that he “didn’t want to get too close to anybody” and described him as “hard to know, hard to understand.” But to Schulz himself — as to nearly all creators who suffuse their work with their whole selves — the best way to know him was to know his Peanuts characters. Michaelis quotes the cartoonist himself:
A cartoon is really a picture demonstrating one thought in the guise of another. If somebody reads my strip every day, they’ll know me for sure — they’ll know exactly what I am.
One of Schulz’s friends told Michaelis: “He liked to think of himself as a simple man, but he was not simple — he was enigmatic and complex.” To the dedicated reader, this was the charm of Peanuts — that from the simplicity of ordinary situations and mundane events springs the enormous complexity of life, and from the osmosis of the two comes the comforting assurance that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for satisfaction in our own mundane and manic lives.
For his part, Schulz was aware that his inner gloom was also the source of his outward light. Michaelis writes:
A more gregarious, more balanced person could not have created the long-suffering but unsinkable Charlie Brown; crabby, often venomous Lucy; philosophical Linus; tomboyish Peppermint Patty; single-minded Schroeder; and grandiose, self-involved Snoopy. “A normal person couldn’t do it,” [Schulz] had himself contended.
But to this I offer an important aside: It is essential that Schulz’s sentiment not be misinterpreted or warped by our era’s perilous “tortured genius” myth of creativity. Too often we infer a false causality in the ongoing cultural narrative on the relationship between creativity and inner demons — Schulz was able to create his cartoon universe not because of his deep unhappiness but despite it. Undoubtedly a great many people suffer daily the untimely and traumatic death of a beloved parent, and yet there is no other Peanuts; there are, however, countless people for whom such trauma turns into a lifetime of self-destructive anguish rather than one of tireless creation. That, perhaps, is the true gift of genius — to bring something meaningful to life despite how meaningless one’s own life may seem; to give some warmth to the world despite what the world may have coldly taken away.
Michaelis returns to Schulz’s genius of granting childhood its due dignity and, in doing so, offering a consolation for adulthood:
Children are not supposed to be radically dissatisfied. When they are unhappy, children protest — they wail, they whine, they scream, they cry — then they move on. Schulz gave these children lifelong dissatisfactions, the stuff of which adulthood is made.
Readers recognized themselves in “poor moon-faced, unloved, misunderstood” Charlie Brown — in his dignity in the face of whole seasons of doomed baseball games, his endurance and stoicism in the face of insults. He … reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human — both little and big at the same time.
Complement Schulz and Peanuts with Ray Bradbury on what Snoopy taught him about facing rejection, then revisit the best biographies of last year.
Published January 20, 2015