The Library of America, 338 pages, $24.95
“I don’t remember ever thinking they were funny,” Ira Glass writes in a new anthology of writing about the quintessential American comic strip. “Who ever laughed at Peanuts?”
But Glass writes this in the context of his deep love for Charlie Brown and company. It’s just that instead of finding much humor in their stories, he enjoyed the comfort they provided to a “sulky little kid” who thought of himself as “a loser and a loner.”
The Peanuts Papers hammers home that fully appreciating Charles M. Schulz’s juggernaut, which ran in newspapers from 1950 to 2000, requires looking aslant at its genre. It is, as John Updike once described it, a “comic strip at bottom tragic.” This collection of deeply personal essays will help you see it clearly, if you don’t already, as a psychologically complex epic about stoicism, faith, and other approaches to existential struggles.
Unsurprisingly, some of the keenest insight comes from Chris Ware, another chronicler of cartoon melancholy, who trains his expert eye on Schulz’s craft, the spatial and rhythmic decisions that create his effects. Ware also quotes Art Spiegelman, who once described Peanuts to him as “Schulz breaking himself into child-sized pieces and letting them all go at each other for the next half-century.”
It’s this splintered emotional drama that draws the attention of many others, including George Saunders, who sees the different segments of the self in Peanuts. “Charlie Brown as the tender loss-dreading part of me, Linus as the part that tried to address the loss-dreading part via intellect or religion or wit, Lucy as the part that addressed the loss-dreading part via aggression, Snoopy via joyful absurdist sagery.”
The book’s most inspired match of writer to subject is psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer’s entry on Lucy’s work as a psychoanalyst, which to my mind is like having Clayton Kershaw write about Charlie Brown’s pitching career.
Kramer takes Lucy’s practice (and her insistence on her 5-cent fee) just seriously enough, playfully but profoundly drawing lines between her methods and those of influential 20th-century American therapists like Harry Stack Sullivan. He even finds value in her go-to advice: “Snap out of it!” “We are free to imagine that Charlie Brown gains something from Lucy’s brusque response,” Kramer writes. “He is being thrown back on his own resources, with the message that they may be more substantial than he believes. Lucy as therapist, I am suggesting, does not go entirely against the grain.” (An opposite and equally convincing line comes from Adam Gopnik: “Lucy is the least fit person to offer psychiatric advice in the history of fiction.”)
Many of the admirers gathered here were creative and probably wistful American kids in the Schulz vein: the Jonathans Franzen and Lethem, Chuck Klosterman, Rick Moody. One might be a little — or a ton — more surprised to find Umberto Eco in the table of contents. (He writes of Charlie Brown’s attempts to kick the football: “What weapons can arrest impeccable bad faith when one has the misfortune to be pure of heart?”) Most of the pieces in this book are original, though Eco’s appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1985. Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Duck Boy,” a brief essay that first appeared in The New York Times in 1977, is about her experience teaching a troubled teenager. It’s a bracing but not very Peanuts-centric bit of work, jarring among the others.
Some writers shine their light on one particular character: Ann Patchett on Snoopy; Mona Simpson on Schroeder; Elissa Schappell on Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally. Numerous contributors mention the running psychological portrait of Charlie Brown’s unrequited crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl — who, like Norm’s wife, Vera, in Cheers, never actually appears.
The roster of writers skews quite noticeably to the older and whiter side, and the book doesn’t reproduce any of Schulz’s strips , but there are original illustrations (though not of Schulz’s copyrighted kids) by some of the cartoonist contributors.
This is a collection full of Peanuts adorers, which is how it should be, but it might have been entertaining to see some dissent. I hadn’t realized, but I should have guessed, that there have been Snoopy wars. Sarah Boxer, a champion of the beagle, summarizes the opposition, which believes that Snoopy’s increasingly baroque antics hijacked the franchise about halfway through its existence. She quotes a piece by Christopher Caldwell, in which he judged that the centering of Snoopy was a “calamitous artistic misjudgment” that “went from being the strip’s besetting artistic weakness to ruining it altogether.”
The “meaning of life” makes it into this book’s subtitle, and close-reading projects like this one often have prescriptive angles (“How Proust Can Change Your Life,” etc.). But blessedly, if there is a lesson in Peanuts and in this anthology, it is, as Nicole Rudick writes, that “there are no answers to the big questions.”
There is nothing overthought about these pieces, even when they reach toward what Joe Queenan calls a tendency to “find more in Peanuts than was really there.” Deep warmth courses through even the most eggheaded appraisal. And the eggheadedness that is present always feels fully backed up by the source material, as when Gopnik describes Linus as a “Pascalian intellectual — one whose learning has only increased his inner panic, and made him readier than not to make the gamble of irrational faith, on a blanket or a pumpkin-patch idol.”
Speaking of that faith, The Peanuts Papers is one of the more spiritual books I’ve read in years. Schulz was a devoted Christian (eventually calling himself a “secular humanist”), and Peanuts, Gopnik writes, like the work of Schulz’s contemporary Updike, illuminated “the same push and pull of faith and doubt, belief and self-mockery for believing.”
Perhaps the most moving piece, by Rich Cohen, delineates Linus’ faith as portrayed in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” the classic 1966 television special in which Linus is left “chattering in the cold, waiting for what will never arrive.”
Several contributors go out of their way to establish their own faithless bona fides, perhaps as a way of legitimizing their metaphysical reactions to the strip. (“I was born an atheist,” Ware writes; Handy was a kid “congenitally impervious to religion.”) Similarly, I should note at this late point that I’m not a Peanuts enthusiast. I have a deep well of affection for it, especially the TV shows that flickered against my youth, but I’ve certainly never considered myself a fanatic. But this charming, searching book made me wonder if I’m right about that after all.