‘The Peanuts Papers’: How a comic strip shaped the lives of writers and artists

“Peanuts” was one of the most influential American comics. A new collection of meditative, charming essays explores the strip’s cultural impact.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life,” edited by Andrew Blauner, Library of America, 352 pp.

The best thing about this excellent and pleasing anthology of 33 tributes to “Peanuts” is that it will probably evoke your own memories of newspaper comic-strip reading and reawaken your appreciation of Charles M. Schulz’s round-headed, adult-sounding children and the imaginative dog Snoopy. 

“An isolated four-panel comic strip of Charlie Brown and Linus debating a philosophical point can be appreciated just as it is, humorous, insightful, compact, and perfect; one strip a day documenting one man’s thoughts for half a century has the weight of a full life,” writes the cartoonist Ivan Brunetti. 

As a collective eulogy to a cultural phenomenon, “The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life” testifies to the inspiration and importance of Schulz’s work at critical times in the authors’ (usually) younger lives. Satirist and critic Joe Queenan reflects: “Unlike so many other venerated objects in U.S. pop culture, it was sweet without being stupid, reassuring without being infantile.”

Schulz (1922-2000) was the quiet creator of the strip that eventually, over its 49 years of seven-days a week appearances, made him a millionaire and a popular figure in America pop culture. His characters became advertising spokes-figures for everything from life insurance to cupcakes, and the animated specials and dramatizations turned his characters into icons. The contributors, some of them well-known writers and cartoonists, wince at the commercialization of Schulz’s creations, but all of them appreciate his devotion to the actual strips and the drawing.

The Canadian cartoonist Seth writes that Schulz “was the most unpretentious of artists. He probably would have winced over the term. He saw himself as a cartoonist, a craftsman. I always admired the fact that no matter how rich he became – and God knows, he was rich – he never hired assistants to take over the drawing. For him, the joy was in the doing.” The daily comic strip was all Schulz’s, all the time. He wrote and drew almost to the end, the last strip appearing the day after he died.

Some of the writers point to what they think of as his best days or decades, others focus on particular favorite characters: from Charlie Brown, Linus van Pelt, Lucy van Pelt, and Snoopy, of course, to Sally Brown and Franklin Armstrong. Cartoonist Leslie Stein learned as a bartender that “Who’s your favorite Peanuts character?” was a good way to divert misty, maudlin conversations to something reflective and amusing.

Almost every contributor has something smart to say, and editor Andrew Blauner has managed the anthology so that there is remarkably little repetition. There is nostalgia, which Schulz wouldn’t have minded, and criticism (e.g. the commercialization of his characters, the latter-day reduction of Lucy’s volcanic fussiness, the odd addition in the 1970s of Snoopy’s relatives), which Schulz would’ve minded a lot.  As generous and modest as he was, he was also thin-skinned about any second-guessing of his experiments or habits, and he became downright ornery when receiving suggestions about possible future episodes. But appreciation is the bedrock of “The Peanuts Papers.”

Several writers attempt to convey Peanuts’ extraordinary fame and Schulz’s intellectual stature. “A couple of ground rules for this essay,” declares writer Bruce Handy. “One, I am assuming Schulz’s genius and also assuming that you and I agree on its worth; I am here only nibbling around the edges of a monumental body of work that at its best is as funny as anything humankind has produced and that also defies summation in a single essay and probably even a single book. Any cavils are proportionately petty.”

Author and essayist Chuck Klosterman is brilliant about Charlie Brown’s complicated psychology: “The joke is not that Charlie Brown is hopeless. The joke is that Charlie Brown knows he’s hopeless, but he doesn’t trust the infallibility of his own insecurity. If he’s always wrong about everything, perhaps he’s wrong about this, too.” Author Ann Patchett insists that the writing advice and inspiration she got from Snoopy and his dogged pursuit of publication for his “It was a Dark and Stormy Night” novel was more valuable than her two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Janice Shapiro’s and Leslie Stein’s cartoons made me wish that everybody had drawn their tributes. But just try to copy Schulz’s characters! Brunetti writes of his attempted copyings: “I quickly realized that I was going to fall far short, because I could only scratch the surface of his inimitable drawings – as natural as handwriting but even harder to forge – much less the emotional content he could pack into every molecule of ink.”

That daily dose of taking in Schulz’s “not arty” work allowed us to identify with hopefulness despite all the evidence in the newspaper and in our lives that hopelessness is more reasonable. Discussing the annual depiction of Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown as he runs up to kick it, the psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer explains, “Charlie Brown is trusting to a fault – or a virtue. He prefers to trust, however often his faith is betrayed. Giving fellow humans the benefit of the doubt is a fine if painful way to live. ‘Don’t! Don’t!’ we cry to Charlie Brown, and then we’re glad he does.”

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