Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography: a Review

It’s been a couple weeks now since I finished reading the uncorrected proofs for Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, this October’s major new look at the life of Charles Schulz; I’ve held off on posting because I wanted to get the review right. This is a significant book. If you want to add to you knowledge and understanding of the man behind Peanuts, you need to read this book.
It adds richly to the detail known about his life, how that built his personality, and how that is reflected in the strip. This is not a surface “he took the name of Charlie Brown from a friend but the personality is all and exactly Schulz”, nor is it the glib “he was a staid and depressed man, but that’s what made his work great” take one will find in shorter biographies (although both of those have elements of truth in them, but fall short of the whole truth.) Rather, from digging deep in the history from before Schulz’s birth on through to his death, author David Michaelis not only fills in the details, but also builds an image of the man himself.
If you’re the sort of person who wants all great work to be the product of heroic men, this book is not for you. The depiction of Schulz is not consistently flattering; one might argue that it is not positive overall. You see a man whose need to have the best comic strip on the page lead not just to him putting all of his effort into the strip, but to him being snide or even cruel about anything that challenged his position. You see a man who was constantly in need of affirmations and statements of love and respect that he could trust (a trust he could almost never give), but who had great problems stating his love for others. You’ll find a man who could be a very imperfect husband, although there is probably no way to be a perfect husband in an imperfect marriage. You’ll find the dichotomy of a man who was never quite sure if he was giving something of value to the world, yet at times seemed to feel that the world owed him much more than he got. So if you don’t like seeing that a man has feet of clay, then this isn’t a book for you. If you want to understand, this is.
Michaelis research was all one could hope for. He interviewed people from the full span of Sparky’s life. Schulz’s family supported the project, giving apparently frank interviews. His first wife was interviewed for the first time since gaining that appellation. Records were unearthed, resources studied closely. This is a serious work by a serious biographer.
Having said this, this is not he absolutely perfect book that you might want it to be. 688 pages is a long book, yes, but Schulz lead a long life, and if you’re looking for every detail of fan interest, you’re expecting a bit much. If you want to know who the artist was on the later Peanuts comic books, or when it was that Sparky did the samples for the “Hagemeyer” strip, you won’t find answers here. There are events that may seem of interest from the outside that are not covered.
The format of the book is largely linear, yet it is not a strict timeline. When a subtopic arises, Michaelis can then zoom backward to add some background information, and might then zoom forward toward the outcome and effect of the situation before getting back to a more linear sensibility. That seems a wise way to handle things (and I’ll confess here that I’m not that experienced at reading in-depth biographies but I assume it’s largely standard), but there are times that this can create a muddy picture of when things happened in relation to one another. Often I would have appreciated an actual simple timeline to reference, so I could quickly tell how old Schulz’s kids were when a certain event happened, or how long it was between related events. (There were also times when having a photo would have helped in building a mental image, which would have been particularly useful in keeping the early relatives straight in my mind. However, this is likely a result of reading the uncorrected proof, which does not include the 32 pages of photos slated for the final issued book. There are certainly a range of things I hope to see pictured in that section, ranging from Schulz’s early family pictures to shots of Sparky’s 1960s home The Coffee Grounds on to some of the Peanuts-decorated love letters he wrote.) A timeline could also quickly touch on details that were never quite carried in the text; for example, while the start of Schulz’s newspaper feature “It’s Only a Game” is covered, it is never explicitly noted that the series ended.
The other problem I have with this book is that as solid as his facts are and as convincing as his emotional portrait of Schulz is, there are times that it feels like Michaelis is overstating his argument. This shows up in differing ways in various parts of the book. When covering Sparky’s young years, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect Michaelis to have every detail – the life of a kid is not that well chronicled, and his contemporaries are dead or are relying on memories that are most of a century old. However, given that it sometimes feels as though the author is vesting undue importance in some of the incidents that have been told to him, simply because it’s the only thing there he has to vest importance in. And then there are times that it seems the author is being more clever than actually relevant. For example, one passage states:
By 1968, six years after Happiness Is a Warm Puppy, John Lennon would retort with a song on the Beatles’ White Album, ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’, and two years after Schulz wrote the scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas in which Linus decides that Charlie Brown’s wretched little tree is ‘not a bad little tree-–all it needs is a little love,’ the Beatles hammered the same message around the world: ‘All You Need Is Love.’
There, the author has transitioned from an understandable claim that Lennon was responding to Schulz (although Lennon supposedly took the “warm gun” phrase from a magazine cover, he may well have recognized it as a response to the “warm puppy” phrasing) to a very different case. Not only is it doubtful that the simple Beatles phrase was a response to the different Peanuts phrase (particularly since it’s a thematic concept Lennon used before A Charlie Brown Christmas ever aired), but the contextual meanings are much different. The tree needs to receive love to be beautiful, just as we all might need love coming in to be our best; the Fab Four seem to be saying that love is a lever with which we can move the world.
But the style of overreaching that bothered me the most was when Michaelis would use Peanuts strips in building his arguments. He presents a very effective base line for this, establishing convincingly that the strips (240 of which are included in the text) often reflected what was going on in Schulz’s life, and that Schulz would put some fairly specific situations into the strip. However, having done this Michaelis seems to make the leap that anything done in the strip must be a statement (deliberate or subconscious) on what was going on in real life. If Lucy’s traits reflected some of the harshness of Sparky’s first wife Joyce, that does not mean that everything he does with the Lucy character reflects Joyce, even if it can be phrased and position in such a way that some relevance appears. (Try this some day: pick up the Sunday funnies, and pretend that you wrote them all. Read through them and see where you actually see your own life reflected, either directly or allegorically. You are apt to find those reference, not because you wrote the strips – obviously, you didn’t – but because your life is rich enough and the comics are rich enough that you’re going to find parallels and themes, particularly since one of the key tools of the comics creator is commenting on general topics we can all relate to. Similarly, I can read a book on Schulz and find that many of the insights on him apply to me, but that doesn’t mean that the author is writing about me.) Michaelis’s view seems to leave little room for actual creativity, for the characters to be characters in their own right, for Sparky to have been simply making a gag that reflects the world in a much more general way than just humorously transcribing his life of the moment. (And if he’s looking for real life folks in the characters, I think he missed a strong opportunity to find Schulz himself in Rerun of the later years, the character with simple-but-unfulfilled desires who wants to be a cartoonist.)
But these imperfections are actually good, in a way. What it means is that despite the fact that this is by far the best and the fullest biography of Schulz to date (and may well be the best and fullest biography of Schulz we’ll ever see), it is not definitive. It is well-researched argument, but it is not the last word. There is opportunity for other valid ways of looking at Schulz and his legacy, of looking at Peanuts (in fact, I think there’s a good book to be had built around looking at Peanuts from the outside in, looking not at how and why Schulz transmitted the strip but how and why the culture received it as it did). There is still more understanding to be had – and in some ways, the quest for understanding is better than understanding itself. But if you want to get on that road to understanding, this book is where you should start. I strongly, strongly recommend this for anyone interested in the man behind the work.

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography is slated for an October release, both as a 688 page hardcover and as an audiobook recorded by Holter Graham.


Added 10/13/2007: With this review getting some major links, I thought I’d better add the caveat I posted two weeks later to the post with the review:

Given the attention that my review of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography is now getting and the degree of Schulz expertise people ascribe to me at times, I thought I should clarify that.

The book does add a richness of fact, but don’t take my review to attest to the accuracy of every fact presented. I am far more knowledgeable about Schulz’s work than I am about the history of the man himself; most of what I know of the man comes simply from reading earlier biographies. While I know enough to catch errors in other biographies like apparently melding Schulz’s two wives (sequential!) into one, far more subtle details would easily elude me. However, the book did well in the category of facts with which I’m familiar.
Perhaps more significantly, I cannot attest to the accuracy of the emotional portrait of Schulz the book paints. I never met the man, only saw him in the flesh once. And I suspect that with any human being, there are many different perspectives through which one can view the person inside.

I just don’t want people using my supposed expertise to validate this single portrait. Thanks!


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