Schulz and Peanuts: a biography

Schulz and Peanuts: a biography by David Michaelis.  Occasionally, I will ruminate on the parlor game, “What American, living or dead, would you like to have dinner with?”  At my table for six, the last chair has been filled by various people over the years, but the other four seats have remained occupied by my dad, Jonathan Winters, John Wooden, and Charles Schulz.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three celebrities were all Midwestern born and raised, just like my father.  Schulz would be seated to my dad’s right and I think they would find much to discuss in their remarkably similar early lives: both were only children raised in the 1920s and 30s, both suffered the loss of their mothers while serving in WWII (CMS at age 20, my dad at age 18), though given their shared German backgrounds, I imagine this topic would not be discussed, and both settled in Northern California (CMS in 1958, my dad in 1959).  More likely, they would share their love of classical music, baseball, golf and tennis.

That dinner will never happen, but I certainly feel I know Schulz a great deal better after reading Michaelis’ exhaustively-researched biography.  I’ve read other books by and about the prolific Peanuts creator, including It’s Only a Game and A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, and the name of this blog can be traced back to Happiness is a Warm Puppy.  Michaelis includes both the creator and his cartoon in the title, concluding that although Schulz led a relatively private lifestyle, his entire life was displayed for all to see in the strip itself.  Everything in Peanuts from how Charlie Brown’s dog got its name, how the strip characters were often named for real Minnesotans (including one of three Charlie Browns that Schulz knew), and how snowmen were a theme throughout the years is connected back to Schulz.  Michaelis painstakingly connects events and people in Schulz’s life to depictions in the strip and one of the best parts of the book is that hundreds of actual strips are reproduced, but, like any biographer, decides which events to include and which to edit out.  Michaelis describes Schulz’s generosity, his competitiveness and his faith, but chooses to stress the cartoonist’s depression, shyness, and anxieties, which lasted throughout his life and spends several chapters on the dissolution of Schulz’s first marriage and his extramarital affair.  This dark portrayal of Schulz caused a nasty response from his family, which gave the biographer unprecedented access to letters, papers and interviews over the seven years he spent researching this book, and has led to much commentary online.  Readers will have to make their own conclusions about Michaelis’ assessment of Schulz once they open the yellow book jacket with the familiar black zigzag stripe. 

In conjunction with the release of the book this past October, PBS, as part of its American Masters series, aired a documentary on Schulz that, given its tone, could be considered a condensed version of the biography.  Michaelis served as a consultant on the show and is interviewed extensively along with many of the other family members and friends.  Although the entire broadcast episode is not available, the show’s web page has several clips from interviews that were not part of the episode.

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