Good grief: The life of Charles M. Schulz
A biography sheds new light on the uneasy genius of the creator of "Peanuts"
Peanuts is one of the most popular and important comic strips of the last century. Children and adults alike chuckled over good ol' Charlie Brown's desire to kick a football just once, Snoopy's battles with the Red Baron, Linus's crusade to see the Great Pumpkin, and Lucy's questionable psychiatric advice for 5 cents a pop.
Yet for all that was known about Peanuts, surprisingly little was known about the strip's creator, Charles M. Schulz. While some books, including Rheta Grimsley Johnson's "Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz," attempted to shed some light, large gaps remained unfilled. The man who let his comic strip do the talking remained a public enigma, even after his death in February 2000.
But with the arrival of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, David Michaelis's impressive new biography of the troubled genius behind Peanuts, this is no longer the case.
Michaelis, who was granted full access to Schulz's papers by his children, begins with the growth and development of Schulz, a bright, young child from St. Paul, Minn., affectionately nicknamed "Sparky." His parents were caring, but had some unusual views; his father, Carl, actually "equated achievement with egotistical display." Thus, Schulz was taught to keep his head down and not draw attention to himself. As a friend once said, "Sparky was a genius at becoming invisible."
In spite of this, Schulz loved to read, learn, and draw. The purchase of Clare Briggs's "How to Draw Cartoons" on his 11th birthday enabled him to master the styles of cartoonists like Winsor McCay and Frank King. "From that point on," Schulz said, "I was totally fascinated by the style[s] of drawing that different people had." In defiance of the Oscar Wilde axiom that, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life," Michaelis shows that Schulz's life and art often imitated each other. Like Charlie Brown's dad, Schulz's father was a barber. The family dog, Spike, was a model for Snoopy – and became the name of Snoopy's brother. One colleague at Minneapolis's Art Instruction Inc. was named Linus Maurer, another was named Frieda Rich, and a third, believe it or not, was Charles Francis "Charlie" Brown.
But Michaelis goes deeper. "Schulz and Peanuts" offers great detail on Schulz's metamorphosis into a complex and multifaceted individual.
For example, Schulz found solace in religion and became a "firm believer in Jesus Christ" as a young adult, but later drifted away from the church saying, "I'm not an orthodox believer, and I'm becoming less of one all the time." His two marriages were far from perfect, and he cheated on his first wife. Schulz was not a warm individual and Michaelis says he rarely showed affection, even to his children. Fellow cartoonists say he was competitive. He disliked appearing in public and, despite incredible success, suffered greatly from self-doubt. Through it all, Schulz yearned to be liked. The burning question of his life, says Michaelis, was, "Will I be – was I ever – truly loved?"
Hence, it was through his comic strip – an environment he controlled – that Schulz truly lived. Michaelis writes, "Charlie Brown allowed Schulz to speak ever less as himself in real life." Schulz's characters became muses, creating life for themselves – and Schulz – in the process.
To his credit, Michaelis presents a man with both good qualities and bad; who wasn't perfect, but was a perfectionist in his craft; and who desired to be left alone, yet also longed to fit in and be loved.
In the end, the Charles M. Schulz of "Schulz and Peanuts" no longer seems the enigma we once imagined. Good grief, he turns out to be a lot like you and me!
• Michael Taube is a Canadian-based public affairs analyst, commentator, and long-time Peanuts fan.