Passages: The Life and Times of Charles Schulz

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A spare pen line and a subtle sense of humor: Schulz

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He was even, for a time in the 1950s, called the "youngest existentialist," a term that literally sent his determinedly unsophisticated creator to the dictionary.

The experience of being an Everyman — a decent, caring person in a hostile world — was essential to Charlie Brown's character, as it was to Charles Schulz's. We recognized ourselves in him — in his doomed ballgames, his deep awareness of death, his stoicism in the face of life's disasters — because he was willing to admit that just to keep on being Charlie Brown was an exhausting and painful process. "You don't know what it's like to be a barber's son," Charlie Brown tells Schroeder. He remembers how it felt to see tears running down his father's cheeks when his dad read letters in the newspaper attacking barbers for raising the price of a haircut. He recalls how hard his father worked to give his family a respectable life. By the fourth panel, Charlie Brown is so upset by his memories that he grabs Schroeder's shirt with both hands and screams, "YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE!!"

SCHULZ DID. A SHY, TIMID BOY, a barber's son, born on November 26, 1922, "Sparky" Schulz — nicknamed for the horse in "Barney Google"— had grown up from modest beginnings in St Paul, Minnesota, to realize his earliest dream of creating a newspaper comic strip. The only child of devoted parents, neither of whom had gone further in school than the third grade, Schulz linked the happy unsophistication of his childhood home with the ideal of a dignified, ordinary life that he forever after tried to return to. "There are times," he wrote at 58, "when I would like to go back to the years with my mother and father. It would be great to be able to go into the house where my mother was in the kitchen and my comic books were in the other room, and I could lie down on the couch and read the comics and then have dinner with my parents."

But growing up was a dismaying process for Schulz. He felt chronically unsupported. "He always felt that no one really loved him," a relative recalled. "He knew his mom and dad loved him but he wasn't too sure other people loved him."

His intelligence revealed itself at St. Paul's Richard Gordon Elementary School, where he was singled out in the second grade as the outstanding boy student and did well enough in the third and fifth grades to be twice skipped ahead by half-grades. By the time he reached junior high school, he was the youngest, smallest boy in the class. He felt lost, unsure of himself. With no one to turn to, he made loneliness, insecurity and a stoic acceptance of life's defeats his earliest personal themes. At the same time, he possessed a strong independent streak and grew increasingly stubborn and competitive as life and its injustices, real and imagined, piled up.

As a slight, 136-pound teenager, with pimples, big ears and a face he thought of as so bland it amounted to invisibility, he had few friends at school. In practically every thing he did at St. Paul Central High, he felt underestimated by teachers, coaches and peers. No one ever gave him credit for his drawing, or for playing a superior game of golf. "It took me a long time to become a human being," he once said. "I never regarded myself as being much and I never regarded myself as being good-looking and I never had a date in high school, because I thought, who'd want to date me?"

Sensitive to slights, he never forgot the rejections of Central High. To the end of his life he remained baffled that the editors of the "Cehisean," the Central High yearbook, had rejected a batch of his drawings. At the age of 53, he made sure that a high school report card was printed in facsimile in a collection of his work "to show my own children that I was not as dumb as everyone has said I was." He sustained the traumas of his adolescence far into adulthood — far enough, in the end, to see them become a crucial element in the universal popularity of his art.

Chronic rejection and unrequited love are the twin plinths of Schulz's early life and later work. Even when he had become the one cartoonist known and loved by people around the world, he could still say, with conviction, "My whole life has been one of rejection."

As a young man he suffered deep loss. His mother's wrenching early death from colon cancer shaped the rest of his life. He was 20 when she died in February 1943 at the age of 48. Three days later, a private in the Army, he boarded a train for Camp Campbell, Kentucky, and the war in Europe. The sense of shock and separation never left him. He survived World War II, as he had survived the Depression and the alienation of his youth, but the only world that had ever mattered to him — the secure home his parents had vouchsafed him — was gone, and for a time he had no hope for the future. His mother's death came to stand not only for her removal from his life, which would have been a cataclysm by itself, but also, because of the war, for Schulz's total separation from childhood and home. He would refer to it as a "loss from which I sometimes believe I never recovered."

Melancholy would dog him all his life, as would feelings of worthlessness, panic, high anxiety and frustration. It wouldn't matter that he married twice, raised five children, and became the most widely syndicated and beloved cartoonist of all time, attaining success on a scale no individual comic strip artist had ever known. Success fell off him. He was unable to take refuge in its rewards. With his first wife and five children, he moved in 1958 to a paradise among the redwoods of Northern California, where he briefly found happiness during a decade in which the work of his pen and the peaks of his professional achievements coincided with the nation's upheavals. But Schulz knew better than anyone that he could never really become a sunny citizen of the Golden State. He found little comfort in fame or prosperity or the California sun. Pain gave him his core. "I think that one of the things that afforded Sparky his greatness," a friend would say after his death, "was his unwillingness to turn his back on the pain."

The private, quiet, depressed, Scandinavian part of Schulz's character was both the quality that made him completely different from any other comic strip artist and the trait that led him to struggle with himself and his creation like the tormented artist in a Henry James novel.

UNTIL 1965, SCHULZ PROVIDED unconventional commentary in the national margins. He set out consciously never to settle issues raised by the strip and never to bring in issues from outside. He never made overt political statements through "Peanuts." He remained apart from specific social and political causes, never joining the battle of ideas. Having established an idiom and a mode that commented on modern ills such as commercialization, real estate development, generational distrust, Schulz extended the area of doubt in modern life only insofar as he made it funny to doubt. But, as the '60s intensified, as the Vietnam War failed and nothing quite worked out, as the triumphal quality of American life modulated, "Peanuts" became a refuge. Schulz became the patron saint of people who were putting up with all they could take. Reading the strip was a peculiar mixture of utter forgetfulness and at the same time, tremendous consciousness. "Peanuts" was proof that you were not alone when you woke in the middle of the night marooned with your failures, staring into the dark, worrying that the world had gone mad.

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