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Peanuts Comic Dealt with a Universe That, When Not Uncaring, Was Often Explicitly Hostile

Great discussion of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts comic strip, and its meaning, in the comments to this post: Obama’s Ego Stroking Will Preempt “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

That sort of overt Christianity would never pass muster with the networks nowadays. Santa Claus*, reindeer, elves? Okey dokey. Jesus Christ, son of God, Messiah and Savior? Nope, too controversial. It might offend the Jews, Hindus, or Muslims. (And let’s not call it Christmas, because some pedants will remember that it means “Christ’s Mass”; let us simply say “the holidays”.)

That being said… I don’t much lament the fact that Christmas may be passing from the pop-culture vernacular. It is, like Easter, primarily a religious holiday and ought to be recognized as such. It celebrates the birth of the Son of God, and it has always seemed rather sacrilegious for unbelievers to celebrate the day as Christmas. (Yeah, yeah, I know: “Merry Christmas to you, too, Mister Grinch!”)

*Who is, let us remember, is historically the (Christian) Saint Nicholas.

Posted by: Monty at November 30, 2009 02:40 PM


Charles Shultz was a miserable, bitter, dessicated little asshole of a man.

Which, oddly, is not unusual for humorists and comedians. Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes) was almost a recluse, and remains a resolute contrarian. It wouldn’t surprise me if Watterson actually didn’t like kids all that much; C&H wasn’t an especially kid-friendly strip. “Humorists” like Letterman and Garrison Keillor are reputed jerks in their private lives. (Keillor in particular wants to project the air of a curmudgeon, but is in reality just a self-righteous and holier-than-thou asshole.)

Schulz’s Peanuts strip was never really all that “funny” in the sense that other comics of the time were (think Beetle Bailey or Blondie or Dennis the Menace or Family Circus). His themes in the strip were pretty depressing: hopelessness, loss, failure, futility, and alienation. Think about Snoopy. Ostensibly a boy’s dog is his best friend, but Snoopy was distant and rather cold towards his owner — sometimes cruel, often capricious and self-serving. He, like everyone else in the Peanuts world, treated Charlie Brown like a chump. I’ve often wondered if Schulz wasn’t simply updating the old Testament story of Job, with Charlie Brown playing the upright man beset on all sides by the cruelty and perfidy of others. But in Schulz’s world, even God cannot comfort Charlie Brown — he is alienated from everyone and everything, including himself.

Posted by: Monty at November 30, 2009 02:50 PM


The kite-eating tree was my favorite: What child has not at some point seen his joy (like a favorite toy) devoured by his uncaring surroundings?

Each character in Peanuts always seemed to embody some specific character trait — they’re almost like Greek gods in that way. Schroeder was the god of music; Linus the god of poetry and philosophy; Lucy the god of deceit and tricks, though not explicitly evil (like Loki); Snoopy a god of epicureanism and pure feeling (like Pan); Sally the god of love and beauty (like Aphrodite).

But what does Charlie Brown embody in this universe of assertive egos and pure talents? Failure. Futility. Misplaced hopes and hopeless dreams. He is one of the saddest and most bereft characters in literature.

Posted by: Monty at November 30, 2009 03:09 PM


But what does Charlie Brown embody in this universe of assertive egos and pure talents? Failure. Futility. Misplaced hopes and hopeless dreams. He is one of the saddest and most bereft characters in literature.

Posted by: Monty at November 30, 2009 03:09 PM

Charlie Brown is a thoroughly ordinary kid who is painfully aware of his own limitations. In a nation that feeds its children the mantra, “You can do anything you set your mind to,” and its corollary, “Anyone can grow up to be President,” Charlie Brown was pretty firmly grounded in reality — and surrounded by peers who made sure he stayed that way.

And yet, every once in a while, reality gave him something good on which to pin his hopes for the future. Linus helped the other kids see that Charlie’s choice of Christmas tree wasn’t bad at all; the Little Red-Haired Girl gave him the rare smile or kind word; he caught the fly ball and for once, it didn’t fall out of his glove.

And throughout it all, he had at least a couple of loyal friends, chiefly Snoopy and Linus, who took him as he was. I don’t see him in nearly as bleak terms as you do.

Posted by: stuiec at November 30, 2009 03:21 PM


As for the Platonic goddess of beauty and happiness: Schultz had one, but it wasn’t Sally. That’s the Little Red-Haired Girl.

Well, I think Sally was more the epitome of Female Vanity, in the Classical sense: an empty-headed blonde with a gold-digger’s heart. Her love for Linus is shallow and easily swayed; her appreciation for beauty is likewise shallow and based only on surfaces. Which makes her attraction to the stout and kind Linus a Classical conundrum as well.

The Little Red-Haired Girl, early on, had the same purpose as the Golden Fleece in Greek myth: an unattainable, beautiful, perfect object which exists to drive the protagonist onward in both a physical and moral sense. It was only later that she became a “person”. The Peanuts strips of later years became less symbolic because Schulz had to deal with backstories, love triangles, and a bit of topicality (Snoopy’s “Joe Cool” phase).

But Peanuts never lost that existential despair that was Charlie Brown’s life. When he succeeded (rarely), it was by chance or the capricious kindness of Fate; it was never by his own agency. Linus’ role was to act as the Chorus (as in a Greek tragedy): to explicate and illuminate the tragedy of Charlie Brown, and to drive home the moral of the story.

Posted by: Monty at November 30, 2009 03:43 PM


Posted by: Monty at November 30, 2009 02:40 PM

Actually, the network (I think it was ABC) tried very hard to cut the monologue. Schultz (a committed Christian) told them that Linus’ speech was the crux of the whole cartoon and either it stayed or he was going to kill the entire thing. The network had already sunk a lot of money (for the era) and so backed down. I always admired him for that.

The other thing I read is that even as he got older, he refused to farm out tasks like lettering or inking to someone else (which is a pretty common practice). He did not want anyone else to touch his creation. Even as he knew he was going down, each strip was entirely his own creation.

Posted by: oLD gUY at November 30, 2009 04:19 PM


Umberto Eco (of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum fame) wrote a really great preface to one of the Peanuts volumes a number of years ago, and raised most of the points I brought up here. One of the most trenchant things he pointed out was that the very first Peanuts strip was an existential attack on Charlie Brown. Two children, a boy and a girl, are sitting on a curb when they see Charlie Brown coming along. The boy says something like, “Here comes Charlie Brown. Good ol’ Charlie Brown.” Then, when Charlie Brown has passed by, the boy says (apropos of nothing), “How I hate him!”

The very first emotion attributed to poor Charlie is inchoate hatred. Heavy stuff for the very first strip. How many protagonists are introduced this way?

I think this is what elevated Peanuts beyond any other strips of the time, and gives it a surprising depth. It’s “humor” was basically existential despair cloaked in the social lives of children and anthropomorphic animals. It dealt with a universe that, when not uncaring, was often explicitly hostile.

Posted by: Monty at November 30, 2009 05:14 PM

November 30, 2009 , 6:24PM - Posted by | Hollywood

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