My Life with Charlie Brown by Charles M. Schulz

Posted by on May 20th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

University Press of Mississippi; 216 pp.; $25; B&W; Hardcover (78-1604734478)

The latest addition to the ever-growing comics criticism library at the University Press of Mississippi (one of my publishers) is My Life with Charlie Brown, a collection of the major prose writings of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, edited and with an introduction by M. Thomas Inge, a popular-culture scholar (and a friend of mine) and author or editor of more than 60 tomes on such esoteric subjects as author William Faulkner and African-American cartoonist Oliver Harrington, as well as comics generally. Inge, who is the general editor of two UPM series, Great Comics Artists and Conversations with Comics Artists, edited the first volume in the latter series, Charles Schulz Conversations. (At Inge’s invitation, I did the second, Milton Caniff Conversations — just so you are perfectly cognizant of the incestuousness of all this.)

The collection at hand includes some pieces never before published — for example, the essay he wrote when taking a course in novel-writing at the Santa Rosa Junior College in 1965, about which, Schulz wrote: “I took a college course in the novel a few years ago, and oddly enough I got an A in it. When I was a kid, I was a lousy student, the way Peppermint Patty is. I never knew what was going on, never did my homework, never did the reading assignments. This time, I did all the reading and wrote a paper on Katherine Anne Porter’s book, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. As I wrote it, I pretended I was writing for The New Yorker. Afterwards, the professor said to me, ‘I just want you to know that this is a perfect example of what a paper should be.’” This essay alone — entitled “Don’t Give Up” — is worth the price of the book for the paragraph I just quoted: it is one of the few times Schulz admitted to having unabashed talent. But there are other such occasions, and many of them are in the prose of this book. (His Porter essay, by the way, reads much like a typical New Yorker piece: It begins with what appears to be an irrelevancy, which Schulz then makes relevant.)

Most of these essays are culled from the introductions to various Peanuts reprint volumes; the value of this compilation is that it brings all such endeavors together in one place. I was happy to find herein my favorite fragment in Schulz’s speech to the National Cartoonists Society in May 1994: “I’m still searching for that wonderful pen line that comes down — when you are drawing Linus standing there, and you start with the pen up near the back of his neck and you bring it down and bring it out, and the pen point fans out a little bit, and you come down here and draw the lines this way for the marks on his sweater and all of that. This is what it’s all about — to get feelings of depth and roundness, and the pen line is the best pen line you can make. That’s what it’s all about. If there’s somebody who is trying to be a cartoonist or thinks he is a cartoonist, and has not discovered the joy of making those perfect pen lines, I think he is robbing himself — or herself — of what it is all about. Because this is what it is! The time you make these wonderful pen lines and make them come alive.”

It is perhaps the perfect short explanation of why cartoonists — and, indeed, all other graphic artists — spend their lives drawing. Otherwise, a person could go crazy drawing noses. Noses, noses, noses — every day, all over again, the same noses, again and again and again, without pause. Bob Dunn, cartoonist and NCS raconteur, told the story of a cartoonist named Allman, who drew a strip in the 1920s called Doings of the Duffs: “He summed up every cartoonist’s frustration when his syndicate complained that his work was being mailed in unfinished. Allman screamed over the phone: ‘I’m sick and tired of drawing noses!’ The poor guy had a breakdown. He was through.”

But the artist who searches daily for the perfect line never tires: He finds the line with great regularity, but that only makes him want to find it again. And again and again.

The essays, 25 in all, are arrayed under three headings: My Life, My Profession, and My Art. There are some illustrations, about a dozen Peanuts strips (a few of which are stupidly spread across two facing pages, straddling the gutter, making the pictures — and speech balloons — in the middle panel wholly undecipherable), but Schulz’s graceful prose is the reason for this book. With this volume and the other Inge-edited book of Schulz conversations, we meet the authentic Schulz, I think — a creative individual a good deal more in touch with the sources of his creativity than you might imagine if you read only David Michaelis’ biography of the cartoonist.

In a review of My Life with Charlie Brown, James Rosen of the Washington Post Writers Group speculates that the “impetus for the book, published with the cooperation of the Schulz estate, appears to be his family’s well-publicized disappointment with … David Michaelis’ SCHULZ and Peanuts biography.” Well, maybe.

I asked Inge about the genesis of the book, and he wrote back: “Actually I proposed to Jeannie Schulz putting this book together shortly after Sparky’s death, but she was high on Michaelis at that time and did not want to do anything that might take attention away from the biography. Michaelis himself liked the project and did not see it as interference but rather a help to him. In any case, I put it on the back burner until the dust settled after the biography. So I did not do it in direct response to Michaelis, but it seemed to work out that way.”

Inge, the Blackwell Professor of Humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, enjoyed a long friendship with Schulz, visiting him occasionally to talk about comic art and Inge’s numerous comics-research projects. Their relationship began when Peanuts was only 5 years old and Inge wrote to Schulz asking the cartoonist to draw an illustration for his college’s freshman handbook; Schulz gladly drew a picture for Inge.

Nothing particularly unusual about that response, as Inge explained in response to some questions from Hogan’s Alley: “Cartoonists frequently complied with such requests in those simpler days long before fandom and quick eBay sales came on the scene. It wasn’t until much later that we reestablished contact after I had begun to write about comic art and was invited to contribute an essay on Peanuts to the catalog for an exhibition of his original art.  He liked the fact that a professor of English considered his work important, and I would visit him from time to time in Santa Rosa.  He was an avid reader, especially of contemporary literature, so we often talked at cross purposes.  That is, he wanted to talk about literature, while I wanted to talk about comic art.

“Over the years,” Inge continued, “I took notice of his essays and articles contributed to magazines, newspapers, and anthologies of his comic strips, and I thought they were remarkably insightful and well written.  I put them away in a file with the intent of assembling them into a book someday primarily for scholars and lovers of the comic arts.  I wanted them to be available on a library shelf for future readers alongside the collections of Peanuts as a way of shedding light on his accomplishment.”

The Schulz estate and Jeannie Schulz approved the project that resulted in the present volume, and Inge was allowed access to the cartoonist’s papers at the Schulz Museum and Research Center where several unpublished manuscripts were found.  “While a few additional pieces have surfaced since then,” Inge said, “the book pretty much contains all of his important writings.”

Asked if he found anything Schulz said or wrote to be surprising, Inge replied: “I was somewhat surprised by his blunt statements of belief while he was in his theological period, studying the Bible and commentaries, and teaching Sunday school.  Of course this was a passing phase as he moved towards what he would later describe as ‘secular humanism.’ He was a lay theologian in effect who thought through matters of faith very carefully, and his philosophic concerns about the human condition are clearly reflected in the comic strip.  He was basically an existentialist, although he often pretended to be puzzled by that designation.”

In short, the book wasn’t intended as a corrective to Michaelis’ skewed biography of Schulz: It may serve that purpose, but more than that, it was Inge’s act of affection and regard for the cartoonist.

You can find both the UPM Schulz books — and others in its comics library — at its website http://www.upress.state.ms.us.

PEANUTS  © United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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