'Peanuts' worth their salt

In all honesty, I was never a huge "Peanuts" fan, but not having it around will be like coming home one day and finding out the gregarious family in the ramshackle house down the block has left town. Charlie Brown would surely be amused to hear pundits describing the strip as "postmodern," and comparing him to downtrodden literary figures such as Willie Loman.

Good grief, people, you're making this way too complicated.

Charles Schulz found success the old-fashioned way, by having the right idea at the right time. The "Peanuts" gang lived somewhere in suburbia, which provided an immediate connection to a postwar audience that was spreading out to new housing developments all over the country. And unlike the teenage hijinks of "Archie" or the silly slapstick of "Life With Father," "Peanuts" presented simple wisdom and laconic humor in everyday situations.

One of my favorite strips shows several of the kids standing outside at night, having some disagreement about the stars. Linus finally starts walking away. When someone asks where he's going he stops, tilts his head skyward, and says, "I'm stepping over here for a closer look."

So it went with kite flying, homework, baseball, Halloween, and the playground. If I were writing a sociology paper, it would be easy to show that "Peanuts" was an obvious precursor of "Seinfeld." It was the first comic strip about nothing.

But it was actually about finding insight, a process that doesn't require complicated plots or mentioning current events. To me, the crucial premise was that everybody felt accepted by the group, regardless of their personal foibles or failings. Lucy had a bad temper, but no one ever suggested anger-management counseling. They just learned to deal with it.

In the real world, growing up is stressful because there's no way to prepare. It's like on-the-job training. And one of the biggest ironies in life is that kids often want childhood to speed along so they can get to the exciting stuff like buying cars and staying up late. But as grownups, we wish the early years hadn't ended so soon. Childhood would be more enjoyable if we could go back and relive it using the maturity and experience gathered on the first trip.

Schulz used "Peanuts" as a window for observing this idea by giving his characters the intellect and emotional complexity of adults. I only wish he had pursued some of the setups more rigorously. Schroeder, with his piano and obsession with Beethoven, was much more compelling to me than Snoopy and that long Red Baron phase. And whatever happened to Frieda's cat?

I went to a local bookstore to see if they had any Peanuts collections, but everything was sold out.

"They just sat there for the longest time," a clerk told me, "and suddenly there was a buying spree."

More have been ordered, so I'm not worried. Those "Peanuts" books will be like old photo albums, reminders of the nice people who finally decided to move away. The neighborhood won't be quite the same without them.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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