Schulz and Peanuts

I just finished reading Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis. I picked up the book knowing that the Schulz family is unhappy with the finished product, and it wasn’t until the last third of the book that I realized why.

Initially, I was immensely impressed with Charles Schulz. He seemed that rarest of rarities – a creative genius who was still able to live a life of integrity. A faithful, tithe-paying, chaste Christian, a devoted family man, a war hero, and a complete teetotaler, he seemed like he would have been perfectly at home in an LDS bishopric. (In fact, one of his daughters, Amy, is, in fact, a member of the LDS Church who lives in Provo.)

Then the affairs started.

Nothing can run down a man’s integrity faster than sexual infidelity. The level of dishonesty necessary to hide a dalliance from a spouse is considerable, and Schulz undoubtedly damaged his own character by pursuing other women. It’s clear that children would find news of their father’s unfaithfulness more than a little distasteful, but the author’s evidence is clearly documented, and no attempt is made to either demonize or sugarcoat the subject.

It was a well-written-yet-ultimately-depressing book.

Certainly it was fascinating. The Peanuts strip reflects Schulz’s life so remarkably that it’s surprising that no one had ever really documented it before. Schulz himself is equal parts Charlie Brown – morose, melancholy, misunderstood – and Schroeder – single-mindedly devoted to his art to the exclusion of all else. Lucy, on the other hand, is Schulz’s strong-minded first wife, and quarrels in the marriage found their echoes in Lucy’s increasingly domineering manner. After the divorce and Schulz’s later remarriage, Lucy loses all of her potency and becomes something of a cipher.

It’s also eerie to see Schulz writing code messages to his mistress in the strip, using Snoopy’s romance with a cute female beagle with “soft paws” as stand-in for his own ill-advised trysts.

Schulz the man, though, ends up ultimately as a disappointment, as he is never able to see any corollary between his own misery and his bad behavior. He remains willfully unhappy throughout his life, largely due to his insistence that “happiness isn’t funny.” He was always afraid that if he allowed himself to be happy, the strip would cease to be entertaining.

The depressing thing about the book, therefore, is not that Schulz is human and flawed; it’s the nagging suspicion that he may be right.

I keep hoping to find evidence of a great artist who is also a great person, someone who can reconcile tremendous talent with the demands of a Christ-like life. Since nobody, artist or not, can live as Christ lived perfectly, every single one of the examples I look to will fall short of the mark. The sad thing, though, is that Schulz at his most depressed was Schulz at his funniest. When he achieved a modicum of peace with his relatively untroubled second marriage, the strip became aimless and obtuse. It took Schulz’s darkest moments to fuel the biggest laughs. He paid for the strip’s success with decades of unhappiness. Isn’t that too high a cost? And yet aren’t we grateful that we, blithely ignorant of that cost, had the benefit of the Peanuts gang to help us get through our own misfortune?

I have no easy answers, but I find the very questions depressing in a very Charlie Brown sort of way.

Super Tuesday Pessimism

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