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The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life. Edited by Andrew Blauner. Illustrated. 338 pages. The Library of America. $24.95.
by John Williams
NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- I dont 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. Its 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. Schulzs 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 clear, if you dont 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 Schulzs 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.
Its 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 books most inspired match of writer to subject is Peter D. Kramers entry on Lucys work as a psychoanalyst, which to my mind is like having Clayton Kershaw write about Charlie Browns pitching career.
Kramer takes Lucys 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 Lucys 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 Browns 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 Ecos appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1985. Maxine Hong Kingstons Duck Boy, a brief essay that first appeared in The New York Times in 1977, is about her experience teaching a troubled teenager. Its 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 Browns sister, Sally. Numerous contributors mention the running psychological portrait of Charlie Browns unrequited crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl who, like Norms wife, Vera, in Cheers, never actually appears.
The roster of writers skews quite noticeably to the older and whiter side, and the book doesnt reproduce any of Schulzs strips, but there are original illustrations (though not of Schulzs beloved but 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 hadnt 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 Snoopys 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 strips besetting artistic weakness to ruining it altogether.
The meaning of life makes it into this books 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.
Bruce Handy writes, in analysis that could apply to Sartre or Beckett: What I took away from Schulz is that life is hard, people are difficult at best, unfathomable at worst, justice is a foreign tongue, happiness can vaporize in the thin gap between a third and fourth panel, and the best response to all that is to laugh and keep moving, always ready to duck.
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 Ive read in years. Schulz was a devoted Christian (eventually calling himself a secular humanist), and Peanuts, Gopnik writes, like the work of Schulzs 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 Its 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 Im not a Peanuts enthusiast. I have a deep well of affection for it, especially the TV shows that flickered against my youth, but Ive certainly never considered myself a fanatic. But this charming, searching book made me wonder if Im right about that after all.
© 2019 The New York Times Company
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