A famous person dies, and it’s sad, and everyone mourns, and then some time goes by and a big biography of the famous person appears, and everyone gathers around to see if the person should remain famous or whether he should be forgotten. Often he’s forgotten, but sometimes the biography stimulates what’s called a “reappraisal.”
And that’s what David Michaelis does in Schulz and Peanuts. Charles Schulz, who drew Peanuts for more than 50 years, turns out to be a fascinating, demented mass of contradictions. He wasn’t just a grandfatherly, kindly, smiley person who wore expensive checkerboard sweaters on Charlie Rose—although he was that. He was also a brilliant self-hating near-genius who was consumed with the desire to be in everyone’s consciousness simultaneously. “I’m torn,” he said, “between being the best artistically and being the Number One strip commercially.”
Even after he had made a huge fortune by using his characters to promote Ford Falcons, Brownie Cameras, sheets, towels, lunchboxes and plush toys, he craved wider coverage. During the Vietnam War, he gave the military permission to use Snoopy on sidewinder missiles. He was intensely jealous of any cartoonist who syndication numbers began to rival his own—Garfield’s Jim Davis, for example. He needed all of humanity to be sitting there with him at the drawing board every day, musing over the adventures of Snoopy and his group of tiny-bodied children with big round heads. He was willing to draw these same minimalist, round-headed people thousands of times—tens of thousands of times—decade after decade. If he didn’t draw them, he once said, he would be dead. He was more than a little crazy.
As Mr. Michaelis’ biography brilliantly shows, Schulz sometimes used Peanuts to allegorize and make sense of his secret life. After an affair in his 50’s with a woman of 25, Schulz had Snoopy say, “Can a person really be in love with two different snowflakes at the same time?” Schulz’s wife, Joyce, was, by many accounts, a difficult woman—belittling and bossy in ways that resembled Lucy in the comic strip. She built an ice arena, and managed the Peanuts Visitor’s Center. She and Schulz squabbled a lot.
The affair happened this way: One day a young businesswoman named Tracey came to visit. Tracey was flirtatiously admiring of the crew-cutted, professorial Schulz, and Schulz was very taken with her gold-green eyes and her perfect little nose. They skated together and had a snack at the Warm Puppy, the restaurant at the Peanuts ice rink, and eventually they had an affair. Schulz was a “red-blooded American man,” she said later. He wrote her letters extolling the greenness of her eyes and the perfect shape of her nose. But he didn’t leave Joyce.
Eventually Tracey got tired of waiting. She had other suitors. Schulz wrote her more letters about her eyes and her nose, but Tracey, by then, knew that Schulz wasn’t the people-loving Will Rogers she had thought he was—that he was in fact massively egocentric and impossible to make happy and that she really couldn’t spend her life with him. He proposed to her as they sat in a restaurant by the water. She didn’t answer. His eye flitted to a large sailboat sliding by, and he said, “If you married me, you could have anything you want. I make four thousand dollars a day.” Her heart fell, and that was the end of the affair.
It might seem as if this sort of thing would diminish Schulz—but oddly enough, it doesn’t. After reading Mr. Michaelis’ rich, appreciative, closely researched biography, your brain makes room again for the remembered greatness of Snoopy, hero of childhood, dancing in the floating, nose-up, chin-stretched way he danced, and for the kind voice of Peppermint Patty in the TV shows, and for Linus’ disorderly hair curving around his ear. Everything that was good in Schulz went into what he drew, and what he drew was worth the daily devotion he lavished on it. As a draftsman he did not have the artistry of Don Martin, Dr. Seuss or Rowland Emett, but he was able to chisel his own personality into fragments and turn those fragments into characters that become our life companions. And that’s very difficult to do.
A reporter for The New York Times called up Schulz’s ex-wife Joyce recently to ask her what she thought of the biography. “I’m not talking to anybody about anything,” she said. Which is a line you can almost see in bold capitals coming from a loud, irritable Lucy in the last panel of one of Schulz’s strips from the 1970’s.
Nicholson Baker is the author of seven novels; with Margaret Brentano he wrote The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911).