"I only dread one day at a time!"

Charles Schulz, the author of the beloved "Peanuts," was himself a depressive, self-deceiving character many found hard to love.

Published October 13, 2007 11:37AM (EDT)

For 45 years, Charles Schulz's comic strip "Peanuts" was part of the furniture of American culture. More ubiquitous and essential to the '60s and '70s than bell-bottoms or shag carpeting, "Peanuts" was almost as pervasive as that supreme totem of Americana, Coca-Cola -- and in my house, even more so, since we were forbidden to drink soda, while the place was littered with as many paperback cartoon collections as could be bought with the allowances of five children. Most remarkable of all, everybody liked "Peanuts": adults as well as children, hippies and straights, Middle America and the coasts, highbrows and the salt of the earth. According to David Michaelis' new biography, "Schulz and Peanuts," by 1971, Schulz had 100 million readers and the fourth-highest sales figures of any 20th century author.

In an era of market niches and polarization, it's astonishing to realize just how universal the appeal of "Peanuts" was. In 1970, at the same time that my family was sympathizing with Snoopy's misadventures during a riot at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, so was the man we considered the personification of political wickedness. Ronald Reagan would write, "It is a great comfort to know that other Head Beagles are having problems, too ... My hero Snoopy has also experienced the joy of a campus disturbance." That Snoopy had been caught up in a demonstration against the enlistment of dogs in the Vietnam War, and tear-gassed with the rest of the crowd, doesn't seem to have fazed the California governor who called out the National Guard to quell similar "disturbances" in Berkeley. Somehow, without (it seems) actually trying to, Schulz succeeded at making all of his readers think that his strip was about them.

Actually, it was about him. Michaelis reveals that the upshot of Snoopy's brush with campus protest -- a breathless romance with a "girl-beagle" who had "the softest paws" -- was inspired by Schulz's extramarital affair with a 25-year-old office worker named Tracey Claudius. Snoopy's sentimental swooning over his lady love was no exaggeration, either; Schulz inundated Claudius with doting notes and flowers and gifts commemorating each month of their "anniversary." For the straight-arrow Schulz, the affair was a first foray into adultery after almost 20 years in a marriage that, while difficult, produced four kids and underpinned the most productive period of his life. Claudius, who regarded "Peanuts" as "holy," was terrified when he took her to the Tonga Room in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, convinced that the newspaper columnist Herb Caen would spot them and blow their cover. "I would be the one that would ruin his image for the world," she told Michaelis. "God! If I'd found this out when I was reading it, I would have been crushed. Charlie Brown wouldn't be innocent to me any longer."

Some readers may feel much the same after finishing Michaelis' biography. Not, however, about the affair with Claudius, which was heartfelt and, in its own small way, tragic. Schulz was no philanderer, though he was prone to crushes on "distant princesses" (cf, Charlie Brown's little red-headed girl). Rather, it's learning about the depressive, anxious, detached, resentful, self-defeating and self-deceiving personality of the comic strip's creator that's likely to puzzle and sadden some of those who grew up with "Peanuts." (And, really, what American child didn't grow up with Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Peppermint Patty, as well as Snoopy?) I realized, reading this book, that it's as impossible for me to be objective about "Peanuts" as it is to be impartial about my own parents; like Mom and Dad, Schulz's characters had always been there, four panels every weekday and in color on Sundays. (Schulz retired in late 1999, and died just before his last strip appeared in February 2000.)

No wonder, then, that reading "Schulz and Peanuts" feels like reliving the last 40 years. Strangely enough, Schulz's own life seems to recapitulate the quintessential experiences of postwar America's middle class. Born into Midwestern rectitude as the son of a popular barber in St. Paul, Minn., his early life was shaped by neighborhood baseball games, the funny pages, Depression-mandated economies and, finally, World War II. Schulz, known to his intimates as Sparky, went into the army a sensitive only child ("a mother's boy," as a sympathetic corporal referred to him) and emerged, to quote his own Brokaw-esque formulation, "a man."

He got a day job as a drawing instructor at a correspondence school in Minneapolis, palling around with co-workers who introduced him to modern art and classical music. With the help of the GI bill and his first contract with United Features, the syndicate that handled "Peanuts" for its entire run, Schulz got married and moved into a series of suburban homes with his wife, Joyce. Then "Peanuts" really began to catch on, first on college campuses, where "a student generation absorbed in irony and tension, paradox and ambiguity" found a mirror in the light existential musings and chronic social discomfort of Schulz's round-headed child characters. "When Charlie Brown first confessed, 'I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel,'" writes Michaelis, "he spoke for Eisenhower's America."

These sections of "Schulz and Peanuts" conjure a time of brand-new ranch houses and earnest young men, autodidacts in dark skinny ties and heavy, black-rimmed glasses, listening intently to classical LPs and reading "The Great Gatsby" on the train to work. Michaelis describes dinners the Schulzes threw for their friends, Fritz and Louanne Van Pelt (who gave their surname to Linus and Lucy), where the dishes served included, "Joyce's specialty, pear halves in green Jell-O topped with a dollop of mayonnaise and grated cheddar cheese, followed by an evening of auction bridge to a background of Beethoven's symphonies."

Eventually, Schulz's burgeoning wealth made a move to California seem somehow inevitable. In 1958, they bought a ranch in Santa Rosa, not far from San Francisco, and Joyce, a dynamo, proceeded to build the ultimate family-oriented paradise in which to raise their five children. (She had a daughter from an improvident first marriage, whom Schulz adopted.) It featured an 11-room open-plan house with a central redwood deck, tennis courts, a Little League-size baseball diamond, riding stables, a swimming pool, a privet maze and even, eventually, a nine-hole miniature golf course with an around-the-world theme. Their daughter Amy called it "our little Disneyland."

By the late 1960s, however, the marriage began to splinter under the pressures so common to that time: a frustrated wife, a remote husband and wayward teenagers. After the Schulzes split up in 1972, they both remarried, he to a divorcee, a 33-year-old fitness buff who introduced him to jogging, benignly tolerated his many crushes and expertly managed the moodiness that had always exasperated his first spouse. Despite living a notably abstemious life -- he never smoked, "could count on his fingers the number of times he had drunk alcohol," and remained rail-thin to the end -- Schulz died at 77, not young, but too soon for a man who had expected to go on drawing his strip into his 80s.

The emotional terrain of Schulz's life sounds typical for his time, as well. Joyce and his children complained incessantly of his detachment and obsession with work. Amy recalls hearing an interviewer ask him how his kids were doing, and get a reply about Charlie Brown and Co., rather than his flesh-and-blood children. "Oh great," she thought, "he thinks of his characters before us ... Were we his everything? No. His strip was his everything." Yet "Peanuts" usually reflected some family dynamic, often with Joyce cast as Lucy (ouch!) and Sparky Schulz submerged in his drawing like Schroeder at the piano.

The niftiest part of "Schulz and Peanuts" is the way Michaelis juxtaposes biographical material with the strips Schulz was writing at the time. Some of the details are merely droll: After Schulz won his first award from a comic artist's association, he drew Lucy receiving a trophy for "Outstanding Fussbudget of Hennepin County." Peppermint Patty and Marcie take part in an "all-woman transcontinental air race" (flying Snoopy's doghouse) at the same time that Schulz's second wife got her pilot's license. But readers loved "Peanuts" for dealing with deeper concerns, as well; Schulz's slowly building disenchantment with religion was reflected in Linus' misguided commitment to the doctrine of the Great Pumpkin.

Above all, Lucy Van Pelt -- aggressive, blunt, ambitious, bossy, blithely unreasonable -- was the avatar of Joyce Schulz, a woman who reminded her husband, he once remarked, of "a speeding bullet." Michaelis attributes the strip's increasing mildness in the '80s and '90s to the Schulzes divorce. Without the daily jolt of Joyce's personality, Sparky lost his spark. "What had once been a masterfully played chess game, a continually renewed power struggle between Lucy and each of the other characters, became a world-weary exercise in filling white space," Michaelis writes. "In small but important ways, the central Peanuts characters had become rather dull and adult."

Ultimately, Joyce turned out not to be Schulz' real problem after all. Despite the loving ministrations of his second wife (her family joked that her evening schedule included the item "9:15 to 9:30: Comfort Sparky") he continued to be "melancholy" (the word he preferred to "depressed," even though "Peanuts" was the first comic strip to popularize that term). More than ever, he hated to travel or otherwise disrupt his routine. And he would plunge without warning into "a feeling of impending doom."

Michaelis traces all of this back to Schulz's childhood, which could easily have doubled as one of the less sunny passages in a Garrison Keillor monologue. His mother's family, Norwegian farmers, practiced a needling deflation of anyone in the clan who seemed to be getting too big for his britches. They didn't appreciate rarefied indoor activities like drawing, just about the only thing Sparky really cared about from the first time he picked up a pencil. His father was an agoraphobic workaholic who wouldn't -- and probably couldn't -- interrupt a haircut, not even on the day his son walked back into the shop after returning from the war in Europe. Threads of depression and catastrophe ran through Schulz's family history on both the paternal and maternal sides, but Sparky at least managed to avoid the alcoholism that plagued his mother's relatives -- by becoming a rigorous and often judgmental teetotaler.

Schulz regarded the untimely death of his mother as the great tragedy of his life, and Michaelis, for the most part, concurs. She succumbed, after a long, painful battle, to cervical cancer when he was 20. Her decline progressed in a household where no one ever talked about what was really going on, and even the patient herself was never told her diagnosis. Her son, although virtually an adult, had to hector the word "cancer" out of an aunt. However much Schulz resented this, his own children experienced the same lack of parental communication; they learned that their mother had filed for divorce from a radio news report.

But Michaelis also makes the case for a more complicated view of Schulz's gloomy temperament. Even on his deathbed, the cartoonist grumbled about his old neighborhood and "kids that push you down and knock you over and won't let you swing on the swings that you want to swing on." It's an image that blends seamlessly into that of his comic strip counterpart, poor ol' Charlie Brown. The character widely presumed to be Schulz' stand-in was everyone's target, pranked again and again by Lucy with her football, knocked into the air by a line drive he's just pitched, his kite eaten by a tree, even his face extensively critiqued by the neighborhood girls.

Schulz himself encouraged the comparison. Yet Michaelis, who managed to track down several of Schulz' boyhood friends, men who can recall in detail various hockey and baseball games from the period, can remember no such incidents.

What they do remember, however, is that Schulz's own aggressive style of play sometimes wound up causing injury to his friends. This theme recurs much later, when Schulz's son Monte describes getting badly slashed with a hockey stick by his 50-ish father while they were playing on opposite teams not long after his parents separated. "You're lonely," Monte complained. "I come and visit you all the time. Now you've maimed me." But apologies were always difficult to wrest from Charles Schulz. Michaelis doesn't make much of this, but an old friend of Schulz's from his correspondence school days tells of "not so humorous practical jokes," and "a mean streak," alluding to the deeply buried current of rage in Schulz's character.

Why was Schulz so angry? Michaelis speculates that he felt unappreciated and underestimated by his parents and extended family. He had a great-uncle who once announced, "That kid isn't going to be worth five cents when he grows up. All he wants to do is scribble." As a successful adult, Schulz told many stories about teachers or prospective employers who had stupidly ignored him, and he claimed to have been "invisible" to his peers at school. Certainly his own parents, who never intervened or showed the slightest degree of concern when his grades began to plummet in the eighth grade, were sometimes neglectful, at least by middle-class contemporary standards.

Yet Michaelis also finds evidence that Schulz's parents did care about his ambitions, if not his schoolwork. His mother dragged the whole family (including, impressively, Sparky's work-obsessed father) to an exhibit of comic strip art at a local museum, and she was the one who brought him a magazine ad for the correspondence school course that became his first real training as an artist. In Schulz's high school yearbook, Michaelis discovers surprisingly warm and personal inscriptions from the peers who supposedly didn't know he existed. One popular girl remembered appreciating the instructions Schulz gave her on using a protractor, but recalls that when she tried to talk to him outside of class, he "clammed up." A murky incident involving some drawings Schultz submitted to the yearbook turns out not to be a simple case of high-handed rejection -- though that was how he would portray it for the rest of his life.

Charles Schulz could really hold a grudge, even if he had to trump it up in the first place. Time and again, Michaelis records incidents of Schulz relishing his triumph over people who most likely had no idea he thought they'd offended him. Feeling aggrieved supplied him with fuel for his relentless creative ambition, and surely justified the competitive drive that pulsed in him to his dying day. Schulz presented a gentle, mild-mannered front to the world, but like his strip, with its deceptively minimalist, apparently gentle tone, he was capable of a shocking coldness and cruelty. That, however, was one of the things that set "Peanuts" apart from the many merely sweet or cute comics that feature children.

Michaelis acquits himself well in describing Schulz's innovations to the comic strip form, but it is the convoluted personality behind the work that serves as the main attraction in "Schulz and Peanuts." This comes across despite prose that is often clumsy, sometimes to the point of ineptitude: Michaelis describes Saturday Evening Post cartoon editor John Bailey as "a habitual, Irish curmudgeon," although neither Irishness nor curmudgeonliness can be habits because they are not behaviors. Occasionally, he glues marginally coherent clauses together without establishing any meaningful connection between them: "Fame distressed him and he would not allow it, which left Joyce -- at the dawn of the woman's liberation movement in mainstream America -- neither as the wife of a famous man nor as a woman in her own right, nor even as a model for one of America's best known cartoon characters."

Nevertheless, Michaelis convincingly excavates the heart of his subject, no easy task with a man as retiring, evasive and fundamentally unself-reflective as Schulz. Like all true biographers, Michaelis refuses to buy into Schulz' version of his own life, and the resulting portrait goes far beyond the conventional notion that Schulz was the grown-up version of Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown was so much nicer, really, than his creator. But then Charlie Brown never grew up to beguile 100 million readers, either. That was the secret of both Schulz and those decades of American history during which he spoke for, in his words, "a generation that really did fear the next day, sometimes wasn't sure if the next day was going to come." None of us were ever as innocent as we seemed.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Charlie Brown