CHARLES M. SCHULZ: Life and Times

January 5, 2001    

By David Michaelis

On October 2, 1950, at the height of the American postwar celebration — an era when being unhappy was an antisocial rather than a personal emotion — a 27-year-old Minnesota cartoonist named Charles M. Schulz introduced to the funny papers a group of children who told one another the truth:

“I have deep feelings of depression,” a round-faced kid named Charlie Brown said to an imperious girl named Lucy in an early strip. “What can I do about it?”

“Snap out if it,” advised Lucy.

This was something new in the newspaper comic strip. At mid-century the comics were dominated by action and adventure, vaudeville and melodrama, slapstick and gags. Schulz dared to use his own quirks — a lifelong sense of alienation, insecurity and inferiority — to draw the real feelings of his life and time. He brought a spare pen line, Jack Benny timing and a subtle sense of humor to taboo themes such as faith, intolerance, depression, loneliness, cruelty and despair. His characters were contemplative. They spoke with simplicity and force. They made smart observations about literature, art, classical music, theology, medicine, psychiatry, sports and the law.

They explained America the way Huckleberry Finn does: Americans believe in friendship, in community, in fairness, but in the end, we are dominated by our apartness, our individual isolation — an isolation that went very deep, both in Schulz and in his characters.

A lifelong student of the American comic strip, Schulz knew the universal power of varying a few basic themes. He said things clearly. He distilled human emotion to its essence. In a few tiny lines — a circle, a dash, a loop, and two black spots — he could tell anyone in the world what a character was feeling. He was a master at portraying emotion, and took a simple approach to character development, assigning to each figure in the strip one or two memorable traits and problems, often highly comic, which he reprised whenever the character reappeared.

Charlie Brown was something new in comics: a real person, with a real psyche and real problems. The reader knew him, knew his fears, sympathized with his sense of inferiority and alienation. When Charlie Brown first confessed, “I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel,” he was speaking for people everywhere in Eisenhower’s America, especially for a generation of solemn, precociously cynical college students, who “inhabited a shadow area within the culture,” the writer Frank Conroy recalled. They were the last generation to grow up, as Schulz had, without television, and they read Charlie Brown’s utterances as existential statements — comic strip koans about the human condition.

For the first time in panel cartoons, characters spoke, as novelist and semiotics professor Umberto Eco noted, “in two different keys.” The “Peanuts” characters conversed in plain language and at the same time questioned the meaning of life itself. “Peanuts” depicted genuine pain and loss but somehow, as the cartoonist Art Spiegelman observed, “still kept everything warm and fuzzy.” By fusing adult ideas with a world of small children, Schulz reminded us that although childhood wounds remain fresh, we have the power as adults to heal ourselves with humor. If we can laugh at the daily struggles of a bunch of funny-looking kids and in their worries recognize the adults we’ve become, we can free ourselves. This alchemy was the magic in Schulz’s work, the alloy that fused the Before and After elements of his own life, and it remains the singular achievement of his strip, the source of its universal power, without which “Peanuts” would have come and gone in a flash.

It’s hard to remember now, when Snoopy and Charlie Brown dominate the blimps at golf tournaments instead of the comics in Sunday papers, that once upon a time Schulz’s strip was the fault-line of a cultural earthquake. Garry Trudeau, creator of “Doonesbury,” who came of age as a comic strip artist under Schulz’s influence, thought of it as “the first Beat strip.” Edgy, unpredictable, ahead of its time, “Peanuts” “vibrated with ’50s alienation,” Trudeau recalled. “Everything about it was different.”

The “Peanuts” gang was appealing but also strange. Were they children or adults? Or some kind of hybrid? In their early years, the characters were volatile, combustible. They were angry. “How I hate him!” was the very first punch line in “Peanuts.” Charlie Brown and his friends could be, as the cartoonist Al Capp said, “mean little bastards, eager to hurt each other.” In “Peanuts,” there was always the chance that the rage of one character would suddenly bowl over another, literally spinning the victim backward and out of frame. Coming home to relax, Charlie Brown sits down to a radio broadcast whose suave announcer is saying, “And what, in all this world, is more delightful than the gay wonderful laughter of little children?” Charlie Brown stands, sets his jaw, and kicks the radio set clear out of the room. Here was a comic strip hero, who, unlike his predecessors Li’l Abner, Dick Tracy, Joe Palooka or Beetle Bailey, could take the restrained fury of the ’50s and translate it into a harbinger of ’60s activism.

On the one hand, the action in “Peanuts” conveyed a very American sense that things could be changed, or at least modified, by sudden violence. By getting good and mad you could resolve things. But, at the same time, Charlie Brown reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be human.

He was even, for a time in the 1950s, called the “youngest existentialist,” a term that literally sent his determinedly unsophisticated creator to the dictionary.

The experience of being an Everyman — a decent, caring person in a hostile world — was essential to Charlie Brown’s character, as it was to Charles Schulz’s. We recognized ourselves in him — in his doomed ballgames, his deep awareness of death, his stoicism in the face of life’s disasters — because he was willing to admit that just to keep on being Charlie Brown was an exhausting and painful process. “You don’t know what it’s like to be a barber’s son,” Charlie Brown tells Schroeder. He remembers how it felt to see tears running down his father’s cheeks when his dad read letters in the newspaper attacking barbers for raising the price of a haircut. He recalls how hard his father worked to give his family a respectable life. By the fourth panel, Charlie Brown is so upset by his memories that he grabs Schroeder’s shirt with both hands and screams, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE!!”

SCHULZ DID. A SHY, TIMID BOY, a barber’s son, born on November 26, 1922, “Sparky” Schulz — nicknamed for the horse in “Barney Google”— had grown up from modest beginnings in St Paul, Minnesota, to realize his earliest dream of creating a newspaper comic strip. The only child of devoted parents, neither of whom had gone further in school than the third grade, Schulz linked the happy unsophistication of his childhood home with the ideal of a dignified, ordinary life that he forever after tried to return to. “There are times,” he wrote at 58, “when I would like to go back to the years with my mother and father. It would be great to be able to go into the house where my mother was in the kitchen and my comic books were in the other room, and I could lie down on the couch and read the comics and then have dinner with my parents.”

But growing up was a dismaying process for Schulz. He felt chronically unsupported. “He always felt that no one really loved him,” a relative recalled. “He knew his mom and dad loved him but he wasn’t too sure other people loved him.”

His intelligence revealed itself at St. Paul’s Richard Gordon Elementary School, where he was singled out in the second grade as the outstanding boy student and did well enough in the third and fifth grades to be twice skipped ahead by half-grades. By the time he reached junior high school, he was the youngest, smallest boy in the class. He felt lost, unsure of himself. With no one to turn to, he made loneliness, insecurity and a stoic acceptance of life’s defeats his earliest personal themes. At the same time, he possessed a strong independent streak and grew increasingly stubborn and competitive as life and its injustices, real and imagined, piled up.

As a slight, 136-pound teenager, with pimples, big ears and a face he thought of as so bland it amounted to invisibility, he had few friends at school. In practically every thing he did at St. Paul Central High, he felt underestimated by teachers, coaches and peers. No one ever gave him credit for his drawing, or for playing a superior game of golf. “It took me a long time to become a human being,” he once said. “I never regarded myself as being much and I never regarded myself as being good-looking and I never had a date in high school, because I thought, who’d want to date me?”

Sensitive to slights, he never forgot the rejections of Central High. To the end of his life he remained baffled that the editors of the “Cehisean,” the Central High yearbook, had rejected a batch of his drawings. At the age of 53, he made sure that a high school report card was printed in facsimile in a collection of his work “to show my own children that I was not as dumb as everyone has said I was.” He sustained the traumas of his adolescence far into adulthood — far enough, in the end, to see them become a crucial element in the universal popularity of his art.

Chronic rejection and unrequited love are the twin plinths of Schulz’s early life and later work. Even when he had become the one cartoonist known and loved by people around the world, he could still say, with conviction, “My whole life has been one of rejection.”

As a young man he suffered deep loss. His mother’s wrenching early death from colon cancer shaped the rest of his life. He was 20 when she died in February 1943 at the age of 48. Three days later, a private in the Army, he boarded a train for Camp Campbell, Kentucky, and the war in Europe. The sense of shock and separation never left him. He survived World War II, as he had survived the Depression and the alienation of his youth, but the only world that had ever mattered to him — the secure home his parents had vouchsafed him — was gone, and for a time he had no hope for the future. His mother’s death came to stand not only for her removal from his life, which would have been a cataclysm by itself, but also, because of the war, for Schulz’s total separation from childhood and home. He would refer to it as a “loss from which I sometimes believe I never recovered.”

Melancholy would dog him all his life, as would feelings of worthlessness, panic, high anxiety and frustration. It wouldn’t matter that he married twice, raised five children, and became the most widely syndicated and beloved cartoonist of all time, attaining success on a scale no individual comic strip artist had ever known. Success fell off him. He was unable to take refuge in its rewards. With his first wife and five children, he moved in 1958 to a paradise among the redwoods of Northern California, where he briefly found happiness during a decade in which the work of his pen and the peaks of his professional achievements coincided with the nation’s upheavals. But Schulz knew better than anyone that he could never really become a sunny citizen of the Golden State. He found little comfort in fame or prosperity or the California sun. Pain gave him his core. “I think that one of the things that afforded Sparky his greatness,” a friend would say after his death, “was his unwillingness to turn his back on the pain.”

The private, quiet, depressed, Scandinavian part of Schulz’s character was both the quality that made him completely different from any other comic strip artist and the trait that led him to struggle with himself and his creation like the tormented artist in a Henry James novel.

UNTIL 1965, SCHULZ PROVIDED unconventional commentary in the national margins. He set out consciously never to settle issues raised by the strip and never to bring in issues from outside. He never made overt political statements through “Peanuts.” He remained apart from specific social and political causes, never joining the battle of ideas. Having established an idiom and a mode that commented on modern ills such as commercialization, real estate development, generational distrust, Schulz extended the area of doubt in modern life only insofar as he made it funny to doubt. But, as the ’60s intensified, as the Vietnam War failed and nothing quite worked out, as the triumphal quality of American life modulated, “Peanuts” became a refuge. Schulz became the patron saint of people who were putting up with all they could take. Reading the strip was a peculiar mixture of utter forgetfulness and at the same time, tremendous consciousness. “Peanuts” was proof that you were not alone when you woke in the middle of the night marooned with your failures, staring into the dark, worrying that the world had gone mad.

From 1965 onward, the strip skyrocketed. When Schulz’s “bunch of funny-looking kids” appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in April, “Peanuts” was embraced as the embodiment of the fundamental wisdom of the day. The strip and its characters had gone from being a campus phenomenon in the late 1950s to a mainstream cultural powerhouse. Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, the visual and verbal vocabulary of the strip was one of the only languages that kept both the younger and older generation fluent with each other. Schulz’s phrase “security blanket,” and his ideas about that most American of concepts, happiness, found their way into Webster’s dictionary and “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” The names and subversive attributes of his characters filtered into the counterculture of the ’60s; the Grateful Dead’s defiantly grubby organist, Ron McKernan, was nicknamed Pig Pen; another San Francisco rock band that formed in 1966 called itself Sopwith Camel. As American soldiers stenciled Snoopy onto their helmets and the Apollo 10 astronauts christened their command module Charlie Brown and their lunar landing vehicle Snoopy, Schulz left his imprimatur on the Cold War’s highest and lowest moments — the race to put a man on the moon and the war in Vietnam.

In 1969, as the nation teetered, Schulz soared to previously unknown heights of popular culture. One snowy night that December, when Schulz was 47 years old, some 55 million viewers, more than half the nation’s television audience, tuned in to the fourth airing of the Emmy award–winning animated television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the popularity of which confounded network executives who had predicted that its cartoon format, melancholy jazz score by Vincent Guaraldi and simple retelling of the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke would alienate the public. That same night, a musical, “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” was playing to sold-out houses in its second season on Broadway; and a feature-length animated film, “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” was setting attendance records at Radio City Music Hall; every few hours, 6,000 more parents and children would form a vast line outside the “showplace of the nation.” More than 150 million readers were following the daily and Sunday “Peanuts” strips, while in bookstores “Peanuts” collections swamped the best-seller lists, eventually selling more than 300 million copies in 26 languages.

Long-suffering Charlie Brown, exuberant Snoopy, philosophical Linus, domineering Lucy, talented Schroeder, narcoleptic Peppermint Patty, became revered figures in Japan, beloved in England, France, Germany, Norway, Italy, and known by sight in 75 countries throughout Europe, South America, Africa, Australia and Asia. The Times of London called them “international icons of good faith” — perhaps not surprising for a cartoonist with a Dickensian gift for characterization. At all levels of society “Peanuts” had a profound and lasting influence on the way people saw themselves and the world in the second half of the 20th century.

Schulz’s achievement was singular and planetary. An artist, a storyteller, he was now a worldwide industry, too. This had never happened to a newspaper cartoonist before. The new markets that “Peanuts” was dominating in stage, television, film, book, record and subsidiary forms, simply hadn’t been open to newspaper comic strip artists in 1950, when United Features Syndicate had given Schulz the chance to dream his dream. On that one night in 1969, he reached a larger, more diverse audience than any other single popular artist in American history. What was more, “Peanuts” was single-handedly expanding an industry that would revolutionize worldwide entertainment into the next century. In the late ’60s, for the first time in the book trade, booksellers started to sell not just “Peanuts” books but also sweatshirts, dolls and an increasing array of paraphernalia that bore the image and form of the characters in the books — an old idea called “licensing” that “Peanuts” products would turn into a global phenomenon, bringing in $1 billion a year to United Features and making Schulz richer than any popular artist in the world.

USING A CROW-QUILL PEN DIPPED in ink, Schulz drew every day through the next three decades. He always worked alone, without a team of assistants. For a self-doubting perfectionist — Schulz referred to himself as a fanatic — the strip cartoon was an ideal form: the cartoonist’s relationship to the world is self-limiting. The strip cartoonist can get up, go to work, draw his daily panels, and go to bed at night feeling he’s done his bit. At the same time, Schulz had a conflicted sense of duty. The unprecedented obligations of his new role as world-famous cartoonist kept him in a state of constant anxiety and dread. He loved to be asked to go places and do good things and receive prestigious honors, but he hated to leave home and routine. He felt he should meet people and see the world, but he was increasingly phobic about travel. He panicked on airplanes, broke out in a cold sweat at the very idea of a hotel lobby. At home in his studio, he loved receiving fan letters by the hundreds but resented the demands on his time. Perhaps because he refused so many requests for public appearances, he was unfailingly openhanded in his correspondence, answering scores of letters and special requests from strangers each day.

The condolences that flooded Schulz’s office after news of his retirement from “Peanuts” and then crested over into his household after his death are dominated by a single refrain: The handwritten response I received from Charles Schulz at a critical moment in my development changed forever the course of my life. He influenced two generations of comic strip artists, standup comedians and readers everywhere. But unlike other seminal figures of American mass culture in the 1960s and ’70s — Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Andy Warhol — Schulz had no itch to be a teacher, a guru, a manufacturer of lesser artists. “I don’t know the meaning of life,” he once said. “I don’t know why we are here. I think life is full of anxieties and fears and tears. It has a lot of grief in it, and it can be very grim. And I do not want to be the one who tries to tell somebody else what life is all about. To me it’s a complete mystery.”

He wanted only to exist in the extreme bottom right-hand corner of his own panels — where it said “Schulz.” He wanted to limit himself to being that little scribble. If he could draw his four panels a day, sign himself “Schulz,” close up shop and go home, all would be well.

Charles M. Schulz became the highest paid, most widely read cartoonist ever. The only modern American comic strip artist to be given a retrospective at the Louvre, he was now in a class by himself. His characters cut a broad path across commerce and culture; Charlie Brown and Snoopy could go from being cartoon pitchmen for cars and life insurance, their huge heads and tiny bodies stretched across blimps at golf tournaments, to being the inspiration for a “Peanuts” concerto by contemporary composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, premiering at Carnegie Hall. At the peak of Schulz’s popularity, “Peanuts” captured 355 million readers, and he was earning from $30 to $40 million a year.

He kept on drawing as he always had. He often said, “My main job is to draw funny comic strips for the newspapers.” He didn’t set himself up as a chaplain or philosopher or therapist to the millions. He made no statements about important issues. He sat on no commissions. He went straight on with his work, even though the world begged him to change from being a commentator for a minor constituency in the 1950s to a national observer who had a great deal to say to the world at large. He wanted to be no different than anyone else.

As part of his morning routine, he ate an English muffin with grape jelly and drank coffee from a Styrofoam cup, then sat down to his drawing table and the long, white Strathmore board with the five-inch-by-five-inch panels in which he drew the daily strip. “He attempted to be ordinary,” recalls Clark Gesner, author of the musical “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” He wanted to be what he thought he had always been — a regular person.

In later life, Schulz joked that he looked like a druggist. Genial, smiling, with straight white teeth and a head of silver hair, he dressed modestly in muted slacks and pastel golf sweaters. He stood a trim five feet eleven and a half inches (”I never quite got to six feet”) and liked to sprawl after work in a big blue leather easy chair, his long legs pointing straight at the TV set. “People say ‘Where do you get your ideas?’” he once recalled, “because they look at me and they think, Surely this man could never think of anything funny.” But smiling silver-haired druggists know the town pretty well. They have the common touch, they dispense daily doses of medicine to the melancholy people of Mudville, and they are the last to have illusions about what’s really happening in people’s lives.

He dreaded becoming a prisoner of success, perhaps because it meant he would lose control. “I don’t want to attract attention,” he said in 1981. “I’ve always had the fear of being ostentatious of people thinking that these things have gone to my head.” He didn’t have any experience being a millionaire or a celebrity. He wanted to be free. When reporters came around asking questions about his success, he would reply, “Have I had enormous success? Do you think so?” He hated to talk about it. In 1967, he hotly told a writer, “Life magazine said I was a multimillionaire — heck, no cartoonist can become a millionaire.”

Into the 1980s and 1990s, his fortune mushroomed. Forbes magazine regularly listed Schulz among the top 10 highest-paid entertainers in the United States, along with Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson. He took little interest in accumulating money, gave millions away to charities, insisting always that he was the same old Sparky Schulz. At his drawing table in his studio at One Snoopy Place in Santa Rosa, he drew with the same old pens, the same old nibs. He liked to say that he would stay at the desk until he wore a hole clean through it.

Schulz took professional pride in the achievements of the strip. But pride in one’s work does not automatically override years of early disappointments to create pride in one’s self, and Schulz struggled to the end of his life to believe that he himself was worthy of the respect and love his admirers showered on him. “It is amazing that they think that what I do was that good,” he said on the “Today” show in 1999. His voice quavered and he seemed as if he might break down when he said: “I just did the best I could.”

In November 1999, after a stroke put him into the hospital, doctors discovered that colon cancer had metastasized to his stomach. He had an operation to remove the cancer, and the doctors got most of it, but the stroke and the surgery robbed Schulz of the will to go on drawing. He couldn’t see clearly, he couldn’t read. He struggled to recall the words he needed. But all that might have been tolerable except that chemotherapy had begun to make him sick to his stomach, and the statistics for Stage-4 colon cancer gave him a 20 percent chance to live.

On December 14, 1999, at the age of 77, Schulz announced his retirement. “I never dreamed that this would happen to me,” he said. “I always had the feeling that I would stay with the strip until I was in my early 80s, or something like that. But all of sudden it’s gone. It’s been taken away from me. I did not take it away,” he emphasized. “This was taken away from me.”

After nearly 50 years of drawing “Peanuts,” the world-famous cartoonist put down his pen in January, his hand gone shaky, his vision blurred. Being a comic strip artist was all he had ever wanted. On February 12, 2000, a dark night of pouring rain in Santa Rosa, California, Schulz got into bed a little after nine o’clock. He pulled up the covers. At 9:45 p.m., just hours before the final “Peanuts” strip appeared in Sunday newspapers around the world, Charles Schulz died — his life entwined to the very end with his art. As soon as he ceased to be a cartoonist, he ceased to be.