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Book Review: My Life with Charlie Brown by Charles M. Schulz

Non-Fiction Reviews

Book Review: My Life with Charlie Brown by Charles M. Schulz

Charles M. Schulz: My Life with Charlie Brown by M. Thomas Inge
My Life with Charlie Brown
by Charles M. Schulz and M. Thomas Inge (Editor)
University Press of Mississippi, 193 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

You’re a Good Man, Sparky

Inge’s introduction clearly lays out the intention of this particular edited collection. He thought that no previous book on Schulz (including Inge’s own Charles M. Schulz Conversations) truly captured the essence of the man who gave us Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Pigpen, Woodstock, and the others. Since no definitive autobiography exists on Schulz (called Sparky by his wife, his five children, and all of his friends), this compilation of book introductions, magazines writings, lectures, autobiographical pieces, and other writings by Schulz himself will more than suffice. Couple this with the many illustrations the Schulz estate allowed Inge to reproduce alongside the text, and this is a very wide-ranging and interesting look at the personal and professional life of one of America’s most famous cartoonists.

Charles Schulz (1922-2000) started out simply wanting to draw for a living. He never had any sense that these big-headed, small-armed kids he was doodling back in the 1940s would be a staple of newspapers for the next five decades. Indeed, it almost seemed that he repeatedly looked upon his own career with a kind of reverent awe. Part of the appeal of Schulz the man is that even when fame struck, he still seemed amazingly humble. When National Cartoonist Society President Bruce Beattie went to visit Schulz in his Santa Rosa studio in 1994, he expected a couple of snapshots, a quick conversation, and then to be hustled out. Instead Schulz generously spent the entire day with him and, as Beattie said about the visit during a later introduction for one of Schulz’s speeches, “what really impressed me about him was the passion and dedication he has for the work and the enthusiasm he has.”

Schulz’s effect on the general reading public seems equally profound. In this book’s selection from Peanuts: My Life and Art with Charlie Brown and Others (1975), Schulz describers how his storyline had Lucy and Linus ready to leave town with their parents, and how he was receiving hundreds of letters a day from concerned readers, such as the telegram that said “PLEASE DON’T LET LINUS LEAVE. HE IS LIKE A SON TO ME” or the letter from a girl from Stockton who wrote that she was worried about the pair, ending her letter with the word “Sob” a hundred times. Even more evidence of his lasting effect on others is that he received the Silver Buffalo Award (the highest award to an adult by the Boy Scouts of America, which is given for service to America’s youth) and the Congressional Gold Medal (the highest civilian honor the U.S. legislature offers). In 1996, Schulz even got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame–right next to Walt Disney’s.

Some of Inge’s selections are incredibly revealing, such as “Don’t Grow Up” where Schulz describers himself in a decidedly Charlie Brownish manner:

“Maybe the real secret to not getting too old is not to grow up. I’m not a complete grown-up, really. I find that I still feel out of place most of the time. At different times I’ve had trouble traveling and become almost agoraphobic. I’m always insecure. I think I’ll always be an anxious person. Somebody asked me in an interview recently, “What are you anxious about?” I said, “If I knew, I wouldn’t be anxious anymore.”

Perhaps one of the reasons he was able to connect so well with audiences is that Schulz never underestimated them. Consider the following, where he implies that the reader operates as a co-creator:

“An offstage cat now works better than a real one in the same way that the little red-haired girl, Linus’s blanket-hating grandmother, Charlie Brown’s father, the barber, and the kids’ teachers all work better in the reader’s imagination. There comes a time when it is actually too late to draw these offstage characters. I would never be able to draw the little red-haired girl, for example, as well as the reader draws her in his imagination.”

A disappointment is that the while University of Mississippi press had the full support of the Schulz estate (who seemed motivated to correct David Michaelis’ landmark volume, Schulz and Peanuts, which was published to critical acclaim in 2007) they chose to lay out far too many of the included “Peanuts” strips across two pages, which makes the strip, particularly the dialogue, difficult to appreciate. Yet the book does an exemplary job in the 25 essays of presenting Schulz’s gently, introspective humor and love of life, God, and justice. While the essays exhibit a number of Schulz’s frank statements of belief during his earlier theological period (where he read the Bible frequently and taught Sunday school), he later became a self-described “secular humanist.” Inge explains that Schulz “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.”

One of the many surprising details that emerges from this book is that Schulz never liked the title “Peanuts,” saying “I still am convinced that it is the worst title ever thought of for a comic strip.” His preference was for the strip to be called “Li’l Folks,” only Tack Knight had once used the title “little Folks,” so that option was out. Schulz’s next inclination was “Good Ol’ Charlie Brown,” but that was vetoed by United Feature Syndicate. So he got stuck with “Peanuts,” which he never thought did justice. One thing is certain–whether they got the name wrong or not, Schulz’s life work certainly has passed the test of time. As Schulz always hoped, maybe there is a market for decency no matter what’s going on in the world.

This is an interesting, highly readable book that sheds a lot of light on American’s greatest comic strip creator. It also serves as a pretty good “how to” on living a purposeful, enjoyable life just as Charles M. Schulz clearly did.

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Ryan G. Van Cleave was the 2007-2008 Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at George Washington University. He has taught creative writing and literature at Clemson University, Eckerd College, Florida State University, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as at prisons, community centers, and urban at-risk youth facilities. He lives in Sarasota, FL where he works as a freelance writer, editor, consultant, ghostwriter, and script doctor. He serves as Director of CandR Press, a non-profit literary organization based in Chattanooga, TN.

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