Sunday, November 16, 2008

Schulz and Peanuts

I finally read David Michaelis' biography, Schulz and Peanuts, in a long marathon read starting on Friday evening and lasting all day Saturday. First off, I love the cover designed by Chip Kidd:

And before anyone reads further on my review, it might be more appropriate to look at Austin Kleon's review which he posted on his flickr page.

Now, onto my thoughts on David Michaelis' interpretation of Charles Schulz's life. I say "interpretation" as I do consider all biographies such and that the biographer is an active force in shaping the understanding of the subject. In many ways, a biographer is a harder task than that of a writer since a biographer is not dealing with inventions but with a human being who once lived (and occasionally are still living). Therefore, the final book is also a reflection of the biographer's ability to approach his subject with sensitivity and understanding while keeping a critical distance lest the biography become a hagiography.

David Michaelis had a large task in front of him as he is the first biographer of Schulz who passed away 2000. Moreover, as Michaelis tells us in his acknowledgments, Schulz did not believe in keeping drafts nor notes on his work and destroyed such items on a daily basis. What Michaelis had to work with were Schulz's letters, what Schulz's family, friends and acquaintances could tell about Schulz, and the Peanuts which Schulz penned up to a few months before his death.

In this regard, Schulz is not unique in becoming an enigmatic personality for a biographer to research; yet, such a loosely documented life tests the biographer's ability to weigh all evidence carefully. Unfortunately, Michaelis, while doing Peanuts-lovers a favor in researching Schulz's life and some of the inspirations for Peanuts, is a heavy-handed interpreter. Michaelis suffers from the psychoanalysis twitch. In this, he is not alone. Reading Schulz and Peanuts, I felt I could easily substitute Sylvia Plath's name for much of the psychoanalyzing: dead parent when young, ambition, unhappy marriage, and all this being used as fodder for the artist. Inasmuch as one should be careful not to presume in ever so delicately psychoanalyzing one's own friends, a biographer owes something (perhaps respect?) to his dead subject in not imposing a psychoanalytic trajectory that explains the artist too easily.

In essence, Michaelis' idea of Schulz can be summed up as such: Schulz suffered from his mother's cold and distant Norwegian demeanor. Therefore, when Dena Schulz died when Schulz was twenty, Schulz had yet to show his mother his accomplishments. The early death of his mother, combined with Schulz's feelings of inadequacy with his mother and his rough and tumble sardonic Norwegian relations, metamorphized in the young Schulz to a passive-aggressive ambition to become the best at comics while also creating a void which never allowed Schulz to feel satisfied with his accomplishments or his romantic life.

It might well be that Dena Schulz was a distant mother and that Charles Schulz felt that he never lived up to her expectations. However, this does not explain enough about Schulz's ability to create the world of the Peanuts, one which wasn't hermetic, as Michaelis seems to imply, but an imaginary world that reflected the true emotions of the world we inhabit. As such, while the children are cruel to each other, there are also lyrical moments of tenderness, music, dancing, philosophy, wit, and many of the humane ideas which balance out the cruelty and the awful sense of fatality in our lives.

In projecting his own psychoanalytic interpretation of Schulz, Michaelis fails to explore further all the aspects of the Peanuts (and possibly the many different aspects of Schulz) that made the Peanuts such a legendary comic strip.

Earlier, I mentioned Sylvia Plath and how the interpretation of her life is interchangeable with that of Schulz. The now entrenched viewpoint that Plath is a confessionalist poet whose works are a reflection of her inner turmoils has irreparably damaged much of the scholarship on Plath. Many scholars and biographers, insensitive to the technical brilliance that Plath brought to her poems, have wasted their energies on finding a one to one correlation between Plath's works and her life. However, a close reading of her poems reveals that while Plath interwove real aspects of her life into her work, she transformed events into a symbolic and often a mythical language that was influenced by writers such as T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Hopkins, Dylan Thomas and more. Such transmutation of life into fiction and poetry was not a cause to find a psychological disease in a writer until the recent decades; if anything, such transformations were seen as part of an artist's task.

Michaelis follows in the path of many contemporary biographers in looking corollaries between the Peanuts characters and the people in Schulz's life. For instance, Michaelis interprets Lucy as a pure transposition of Schulz's first wife, Joyce, who had an imperious manner and seemed to commander their marriage. In support of such a narrow understanding of Lucy, Michaelis interweaves strips (as he does throughout the whole book) of Lucy's domineering behavior. Yet, what he fails to mention are the strips when Lucy dances with Snoopy, when she can be surprisingly gentle or tender to Linus, or when she displays curiosity towards the world in such small things as watching bugs on the sidewalk. While it seems likely that a number of the strips about Lucy were inspired by Joyce and the Schulzs' unhappy marriage, it also seems possible that the character of Lucy was larger than that. In the same vein, Michaelis interprets Charlie Brown and Snoopy as two different aspects of Schulz himself.

Throughout his whole life, Schulz said that the Peanuts were his own creation, and Michaelis gives many instances when Schulz would not allow anybody's interference as to what should go in any of the strips. If Schulz maintained this artistic line, as Michaelis believes, then, aren't all of the Peanuts a reflection of different aspects of Schulz, or at least as Schulz understood the world?

What I dislike about finding narrow corollaries between a work and an artist's life is that it narrows our understanding of a work rather than enriching it. If I am to believe that Lucy is only Schulz's first wife, what then am I to make of the many instances when I sympathize with Lucy as she is on the page, as she was created by Schulz and then leapt off the page as a vivacious, crabby, loud, violent, funny character?

Peppermint Patty is attributed by Michaelis to be a take-off on Schulz's tomboyish cousin, Patty Swenson. Yet, later in life when Schulz married a second time to Jeannie Clyde, much of Jeannie's activities and words were transposed onto Peppermint Patty. It would seem that Schulz himself saw his characters in a more fluid manner where he worked some of the people onto the characters that were suitable.

In his groundbreaking work, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud posits that it is easier to emphatize with comic strip characters because their faces are such a quick sketch, a few lines with few deliminating characteristics, making them almost universal. In many critical writings on James Joyce's Ulysses, scholars note Joyce's telescoping of the specific onto the universal in plotting a son and surrogate father story onto an epic myth. One might say that it is necessary for any artist to strive to make her characters and feelings understood universally. After all, the task of an artist is to interpret his world and then offer it up to an audience so that the viewer or reader can use such works to better interpret his own life. In this, Schulz was triumphant. While Michaelis' biography has covered much ground in research, the interpretation seems lacking. It would be a shame if future Schulz biographers were to see The Peanuts in such a confessionalist manner, as has happened to Plath's work. Instead, I hope that other biographers will use Michaelis' research and follow up with a more broadening understanding of Schulz's life and his work.

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