Schulz and Peanuts Revisited

Charles Schulz is worth fighting over. Like all great artists, he speaks to personal concerns in such an intimate way that he becomes part of your mental furniture. We grew up, if we were lucky, reading Peanuts. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Snoopy: these were our childhood friends, especially if we were sensitive and lonely. For many of us, it was the first work of art we encountered that spoke to our inner selves, our fears and trepidations. Even if we stopped reading the strip after a while, it always retained a spot in our memory, a small clearing of remembered warmth and fellowship. So if someone else describes Schulz in a manner that clashes with your own private sense of him, the urge is to struggle, resist, and talk back.

David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography is a provoking book, both a triumph and an irritant. A triumph: it’s beautifully written, deeply-researched, and full of insights into how Schulz’s life informed his work. An irritant: Michaelis isn’t the type of writer that just accumulates facts, he has a strong point of view which guides every word in the biography, and if you disagree with his perspective there is much in the book that will grate and annoy.

I reviewed Schulz and Peanuts with great enthusiasm when it came out. I wouldn’t take back a word I wrote. But I did register a sense in my review that the book had its faults and wouldn’t be the last word on Schulz. Since writing that review a few weeks ago, I’ve found myself constantly thinking about Michaelis’s book, conducting a one-man debate about it in my head, puzzling over what was convincing in the book and what was patently half-baked. It’s a mark of the books strength that it won’t leave you alone after you’ve read it; this is a book that needs to be revisited and re-read carefully. In that spirit, here are some second and third thoughts about Michaelis.

A strong story: Charles Schulz as Charles Foster Kane and Jay Gatsby. What drives the book forward and keeps it interesting over the course of more than 500 pages is a strong basic plot: a young boy from the provinces overcomes obstacles to achieve great success but never finds happiness and dies feeling unloved. This elementary plotline can describe Schulz’s favorite movie (Citizen Kane) and one of his favorite books (The Great Gatsby). Michaelis uses the archetypical framework of these classic tales as the backbone of his biography. By his account, Schulz was both a rags-to-riches success (transforming himself through dint of sheer effort from being the son of middling barber into one of the most popular entertainers in the world) and also a tragic figure (his global fame never brought him emotional security or a feeling of being loved).

The Grievance Collector. The success and the tragedy go hand in hand: the emotional wounds Schulz suffered were the very source of his art. He didn’t leave his traumas alone or move on from them, he cultivated misery as a source of inspiration. Schulz nursed every grievance as if it were a foundling pet that needed to be kept alive, he collected every slight as if it were a rare stamp worth preserving in mint condition. This made him a great and beloved artist but also a melancholy, prickly man. Narcissistically focused on his own problems, Michaelis argues, Schulz could never have an open and full relationship with anyone, not his parents, his lovers, his wives, or his kids. Instead, his whole emotional life flourished in his comic strip. This is a compelling story which links life and art in a nice tight knot. Is it true?

Drawing in Prose. Before judging the accuracy of Michaelis’s story, his real virtues are worth calling attention to. Michaelis is a lively writer; more than that, he’s a very visual writer: he uses photographs and cartoons not just as “illustration” (that is to say as secondary material to enliven the text) but rather as primary evidence in their own right. His own prose is a form of cartooning, limning out characters and places in well-executed brush strokes. Nothing is fuzzy in this book. Everything has the firm and definite grace of a good comic strip pen-line. In his review in The New Yorker, John Updike rightly praised a paragraph where Michaelis describes the 12 year old Schulz visited an art exhibit and saw, for the first time, original comic strip pages. “Here hung several hundred lengths of layered illustration board stroked in dense ink more purely black and warmly alive than the engraving process allowed for. . . . Outside the panels, cryptic instructions had been penciled in the margin; sky-blue arrows aimed to catch an editor’s eye. Inside the panels, there were unexpected traces of effort: accidental blots, glue stains and tape bits, strips of paper pasted to correct mistakes in lettering, unerased letters, registration marks, residues of white gouache, pentimenti reversing all kinds of slips and false starts-a whole unseen world of reasoning and revision had passed.” This remarkable passage is surely a form of drawing in prose. This pictorially-rich prose wins our trust: Michaelis’s discussions of Schulz the artist carry an earned conviction.

Voices of the dead. Michaelis deserves our gratitude simply for all the interviews he did. He never met Schulz himself but he seems to have talked to everyone who could still remember the young Schulz. We hear from cousins, play-mates, army buddies and work friends. Many of these people died while Michaelis was working on his book, so without him all these voices would be lost. Any future book on Schulz will have to attend to the primary evidence Michaelis gathered.

Problems with book. A quick summary: It’s too judgmental, the picture of Schulz and his parents are too darkly drawn, melancholy is emphasized at the expense of other moods, there is a lazy reliance on ethnic stereotypes, we’re given only a sketchy sense of how earlier cartoonists influenced Schulz, equally skimpy is the account of Schulz’s intellectual interests (the books he read, the movies he watched, the music he listened to, the art he surrounded himself with), and the portrait of Schulz as a father seems seriously mischaracterized. This is a fairly extensive list and each of these points deserves elaboration.

Too judgmental. A cloud of disapproval hangs over this biography. Michaelis constantly highlights Schulz’s weaknesses and failures (as well as those of his parents which supposedly made him the way he was). Michaelis doesn’t accept Schulz as he was, but seems to be constantly holding him to account, measuring him against some unstated standard of good behaviour. This judgmental tone is well-caught by summary of the book as portraying Schulz as “a depressive, self-deceiving character many found hard to love.” Now, I have to say that that my sense of Schulz, based not just on the biography but also on numerous interviews he gave and on comments made about his by his family and friends, is that he wasn’t “hard to love.” In his interviews, Schulz comes across as thoughtful, intellectually curious, honest and winningly vulnerable. In accounts by his children and friends constant reference is made to Schulz’s generosity and sensitivity. This is very different than the man described by the encapsulation. (Of course, some of this has to do with personal morality: if you think adultery is a grave sin you’ll judge Schulz much more harshly than if you think its an understandable human failing.)

Cold, distant parents. The impression left by this book is that Schulz’s parents, Dena and Carl, were cold, distant, withholding, and didn’t offer emotional support to their son’s ambition of becoming a cartoonist. This bad parenting is purportedly the root of much of Schulz’s later psychological problems: his melancholy and his inability to build a loving home with his first wife. But how true is this account? Schulz himself in interviews always spoke of his parents with affection and gratitude. And Michaelis recounts two stories that seriously belie the overall portrait of Schulz’s parents as aloof and unsupportive. In 1934, Dena saw a notice for an exhibit of comic strip art at the St. Paul Public Library. Knowing her son’s interest in comics, she insisted that the family go see the show (despite the fact that she and her husband were not exhibit going people). Later, when Schulz was finishing high school, Dena came across an ad for a mail-order school offering cartoon lessons. Despite the fact that the tuition of the school was very high ($170 or about $2,000 in current terms), Dena and Carl were willing to skimp and save in order to pay for their son’s cartooning lessons. Michaelis mentions these facts but he doesn’t weigh them; yet they indicate that Dena and Carl were supportive of their son’s interests and ambitions in a way that contradicts the biography’s argument.

Reliance on ethnic stereotypes. Schulz was half-German (from Carl) and half-Norwegian (from Dena). Michaelis give us a short-hand account of what these two groups were like: the Norwegians lazy but earthy, the Germans cold but hard-working. “Norwegians accepted no more of America than they had to. Physical evidence of German culture could be found on the lintels and pediments of libraries and athletic unions, music clubs and shops, and businesses in the center city before 1918. The Norwegians … produced a single secular institution from which to launch themselves into American life: the family farm.” These ethnic generalizations can hardly stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. The Norwegian immigrants to Minnesota in fact built many institutions, especially labor unions and civics groups. They were at the heart of progressive movement. This reliance on stereotypes speaks to a lack of grounding in the local history.

Cursory comic strip history. In my Globe and Mail review I listed some factual errors: “He incorrectly describes a few comic strips (for example, compare page 22 with the Peanuts strip of April 28, 1954); has Schulz being influenced by Krazy Kat when young (although Schulz didn’t actually read that great strip until he was an adult); misattributes a quote to anti-comics psychiatrist Fredric Wertham; and gets the spelling of Winsor McCay’s name wrong.” Many of these errors centre around comic strip history, a field that Michaelis seems to possess only a cursory knowledge of. In general, we’re given a quick listing of the strips Schulz read when young but there is no sense of what he might have learned from them. I would suggest that Schulz’s sleek and stylized pen-line owes something to such earlier cartoonists as Crockett Johnson, Virgil Partch, and Gluyas Williams. And perhaps Schulz’s sense of rhythm in dialogue and his play with repetition derived from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. But Michaelis is too tightly focused on Schulz life to take these aesthetic influences into account. In particular, Schulz’s relationship to Herriman is botched in Michaelis’s rendering. The actual story is quite dramatic. Schulz grew up on all sorts of ordinary comic strips, then went off to war and matured. When he got home, he read the Krazy Kat book that was published in 1946 and it altered his sense of what comics were like, because it was so much better than what he was used to. In effect, Krazy Kat was a revelation to Schulz. But this doesn’t come across in Michaelis’s book, which makes it sound as if Schulz had been reading Krazy Kat all along.

An artist’s taste. The biography doesn’t give us a sense of Schulz’s intellectual life, which is a shame since the cartoonist had a lively mind and wide-ranging curiosity. We’re given a few glancing hints of his reading habits (Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the New Yorker short stories, and John Updike). Much more could be said. Schulz had, for example, an unexpected taste for the Southern gothic fiction (Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers) and tended to like contemporary women writers more than men (he was a fan of Ann Tyler and Margaret Drabble). This could easily have been linked with Schulz’s preference for strong women: his two wives, his mistress, and his many female friends all tended to be formidable, tough, independent, and intelligent. This attraction towards strong women could in turn illuminate the strip: has there been any other cartoonist that created such an array of strong and distinct female characters: Lucy Van Pelt, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and Sally Brown. Some more paragraphs about Schulz’s taste in movies, music, and painting would have been immensely humanizing, and given a dimension to the man that’s missing.

An aloof father? Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Michaelis’s book is the portrayal of Schulz as an aloof and emotionally undemonstrative father. When Schulz married Joyce Halverson in 1951, he adopted her daughter Meredith (child of Joyce’s earlier marriage). The couple had four more kids: Monte, Craig, Jill and Amy. In general, the kids are not a large presence in the biography. All five of them together receive less attention than Tracy Claudius, who was Schulz’s mistress for a few years. Three of the kids (Monte, Jill and Amy) have expressed strong objections to how their childhood was portrayed in the book. As Amy Schulz Johnson said, “I thought I had a happy childhood until I read David’s book.” How can an outsider adjudicate these claims? It’s difficult but it has to be said that the Schulz that we find in interviews seems like a very different father than the one shown in the biography. In interviews, Schulz talked frankly about the pain of his 1973 divorce, and especially how much he missed his kids when they were temporarily separated from him while the legal proceedings went through. After the dust raised by the divorce settled down, four of the kids (Monte, Craig, Jill and Amy) came to live with Schulz rather than their mom. And in a long 1997 interview with Gary Groth in The Comics Journal, Schulz often mentions his kids, spontaneously bringing them up and talking about their lives even when he wasn’t asked about them. From all this, it doesn’t seem likely that Schulz was a hands-off father.

The impossibility of being definitive. Given all these complaints, you would think that I hate the biography. But I don’t. It’s a wonderfully well-written and made Schulz come alive more than any other portrait of the man. The problem here might be with the expectation that this biography, or any biography, can be “definitive”. Richard Ellmann’s life of James Joyce, a richly documented and splendidly written biography, was often described as definitive. But the literary critic Hugh Kenner, Ellmann’s rival as a keen-sighted commentator on Joyce, was having none of that. Reviewing the revised edition of Ellmann in the Times Literary Supplement in 1982, Kenner raised many objections and then argued that “there can be no ‘definitive’ biography. Biography is a narrative form: that means a mode of fiction. Many narratives can be woven from the same threads.” Michaelis’s life of Schulz isn’t definitive but, like Ellmann’s life of Joyce, it’s a great work that anyone who cares about the artist will have to enjoy and struggle with.

21 thoughts on “Schulz and Peanuts Revisited

  1. Very thought-provoking, Jeet. I think your first paragraph neatly sums up why Schulz means so much to so many of us.
    “. . . the first work of art we encountered that spoke to our inner selves . . . ” I remember myself at age 12, going through a horrid period of puberty. Who couldn’t relate to Charlie Brown. One of my first attempts at creating “art” was a crude comic strip I came up with that year starring a 12-year-old Charlie Brown loser type. And a dog in the backyard who lived in a fanciful dog-house cum mansion. . . Whats so singular about “Peanuts” was that it spoke to little kids and adults of all ages and all types. At any rate, thanks for a great piece. A lot of food for thought.

  2. If you read our comments at, you can get a sense of how untruthful this biography is, regarding my father’s personality and David’s portrait of our family life. My essential question, though, is why so many reviewers seem content to take David’s portrait of us at face value. Because it is so absurdly false and uninformed, it’s made us furious, and really leaves the book as useless to future biographers. Yet, except for many of your critically thoughtful analyses here, readers seem to feel the book is, indeed, well-conceived and executed. In fact, regardless of its length, and the number of interviews it boasts, the book is quite lazy and careless, and, as you say, overly judgmental to the extent of being wrongheaded. I particularly like your point that David offers no standard by which to measure my father as a parent. And also that you noticed how he gave Tracey Claudius more space than all the children combined. There are more problems with this book than I can illuminate here, but suffice it to say, his biography really is more deeply flawed than any reader can possibly imagine.

  3. Ace, Eric, Monte:

    Thanks for the kind comments. I’ll have more comments on the book in due course. I should also have mentioned that Jean Schulz, who lived with the cartoonist longer than anyone else aside from his dad, is a very minor character in the book, getting only a chapter for her 27 year marriage. That’s also a problem.

    I’ll have more to say about the book in due course.

    I should say that the main problem with the reviewers is that they were chosen for being good general interest writers (like John Updike) rather than experts on comics and Schulz. This made the reviewers more credulous than they would otherwise be. (Still, I did like the book more than Monte did but we can discuss that another time).

  4. Jeet, I guess what astonishes me most of all is how anyone can possibly believe that David’s written opinion of our family life actually has a validity when places alongside my own or that of my siblings. Because I can tell you that his portrait of us, as I’ve said elsewhere, in terms of Dad not being an affectionate and attentive father, is complete fiction. Nothing in his book irritated me more than that. Yet to have him write it, is one thing; but to hear his opinion parroted back by reviewers, and then to hear the reviewers give his view of our private family life — something he cannot possibly have any true insight about — as much or more validity than ours, is amazing. Worse yet is that I spent hours and hours talking to him about how we lived, even walking the grounds of our property with him, sharing anecdotes about those old days. Then to see what he wrote, which was riddled with factual errors and utterly erroneous in its assumptions and conclusions, really was sickening, and made him look like an idiot to us. Of course, then to see the reviewers actually dismiss our complaints in favor of his scholarship, was simply galling. So I’ll say this again: David Michaelis’s portrait of Dad as a parent, and of our family life back then, is entirely fallacious, and is demonstrably false. There are not two sides. What he writes is simply untrue.

  5. Jeet – I appreciate the opportunity to share a voice in this problem. I also am appreciative of the things you said that support the family’s reasons for being so angry. Allow me to begin by again saying, as I have in other posts, that I completely and wholeheartedly agree with everything that Monte has said. It should be noted that there is merit in that alone. How many adult siblings can say that they completely agree with one another over their feelings about their parents? I defy anyone to find a celebrity father who was more admired and loved by all of their children than was our father. That alone was one of the most amazing things about our dad. He was so completely unaffected by his fame when it came to family life. There was never one minute of our time with him where we felt that he put his career first. In fact, he so much put US first that I didn’t even know he had a real job! To switch topics, it is not true, as you stated above, that if David had not researched people from Dad’s past, then that history would be lost. There are many people still alive today who could tell you all about the past. Also, I, personally, spent the passed 5 years researching my dad’s genealogy on his mother’s side and I have many taped interviews, videos and about 50 pages worth of personal interviews that I have typed up. I did not come away with any of the same feelings about the family background that David did. I will stand strong against David’s ridiculous book when I say that his biggest “sin” was the sin of omission. I am sick of hearing how many people he interviewed. Let me tell you that there are literally hundreds of personal friends and family that never got a voice in that book. Therefore, the book remains an extremely false portrait of dad’s life. Again, thank you for the opportunity to speak out.

  6. I applaud you for going back over Michaelis’ book and recognizing that it is not all true and much you suspected to be half-baked.

    Your instincts are correct. I was married to Charles (Sparky) Schulz for the last 1/3rd of his life and I can tell you he had as full a relationship with me and with his kids (and with my two) as any person could be expected to have AND he drew 7 comic strips a week for almost 50 years. He loved doing that. It gave him great fulfillment. But just as his daughter, Amy has a husband and 9 children and loves each one equally and also loves her home, her community and her church. So Sparky had a large enough heart to love me, his children, his work and to find time for the sports he also loved, and just “hanging out” which he also loved and considered a must for everybody (he was always telling me that I had to learn to “just hangout”).

    You mention the book is too judgmental you are right. Michaelis can only sustain them because he has not included material which would deflate those judgments. (see Cartoonbrew blog of the last 30 days).

    As to cold parents: Not on your life. Sparky never once expressed any ambivalence about his parents love and care. He knew they couldn’t understand his “strange obsession” but he was so thankful they “let him be” and didn’t press their needs on him. And that is the way he raised his children.

    You are right that Michaelis shows a lack of understanding of both a cartoonist and the pressures and on cartoon history, also a fact mentioned by a cartoon historian I know.

    Sparky felt that good novels were filled with great truths about life. You are right on when you mention strong women he liked. But when you refer to Tracey Claudius as his mistress you should look again, I wasn’t there in 1970, but I know how much time Sparky had to be at his drawing board and he couldn’t possibly have been off for even a weekly liaison. If you look carefully at the timeline you’ll find: 1 weekend in Monterey, another possible night at Tracey’s when the roommate was gone, a dinner at the Tonga Room, a night at Jacques Brel, a lunch on the waterfront and a couple more meetings in book stores. The rest was telephone calls, notes, drawings, etc. Why does Michaelis give it so much space? It is a mystery to me and I argued with Michaelis about the number of pages he gave to it because he said he didn’t have space to write about Sparky’s humor or his joys. I think the Tracey pages are in there because they suited his theme. Do we learn anything about Sparky in the 20 pages? I guess so, he was an impractical romantic, who like Charlie Brown, kept hoping. I think we learn more about Tracey, and Michaelis.

    One more thing as it is late. About a week ago I received a letter from one of Sparky’s army buddies, the squad/battalion (I’m not sure) informal historian we sent Michaelis to, and he obliged with piles of documents and, I believe, telephone interviews. He wrote me a 4-page letter with all the mistakes and mistaken assumptions in the book and berated the author’s sloppiness, and again his unfounded judgments.

    Glad for the opportunity to get this out, and I hope I’m around for the next Charles Schulz bio.

  7. I watched American Masters last night, and came away from it saying “This is not the impression I got from the many interviews I’ve seen of Charles Schulz!” When I was a boy, Charles Schulz and PEANUTS were formative for me. I was inspired by the simplicity and profundity of his drawing and writing. Those little paperbound PEANUTS compilations from the 60s were my treasures, and even to this day, when I draw a cartoon, Schulz’ influences how I draw. I suspect that is true for many of my generation, and his legacy is and will be a very good one.

    God bless Charles Schulz.

  8. Jeet, thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking review of this book, and many thanks to the Schulz family for adding their thoughts.

    I approached this book with care and concern, because Charles Schulz and his work were loved and admired by me for almost all of my life. I still smile and get a very warm feeling every time I think of Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the gang, and remember my Determined Productions “Peanuts Project Book”, or hear Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” theme.

    I’m glad I borrowed the book from my local library, rather than purchasing a copy. I’m glad to have read the book for its factual information, but I am also grateful to have the perspective gained from reading the comments from the Schulz family here and in other forums.

    Thank you all for helping me get to know the complex man who brought so much joy to me and to so many others.

  9. Snoopy is screaming due to Schulz’s affair with Claudius! Snoopy’s mouth somewhat went steaming is like the train whistle. Toot, like the snoopy’s mouth. Just saying.

  10. Do you think that Michaelis made the errors he did and focused on Schulz’s depression and affair just to sell books? I think he just came to his subject with a preconceived notion.

    Incidentally, how important is it for a biographer to approach a subject without preconceived notions?

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