The Peanuts merchandising machine and the treacle of A Charlie Brown Christmas allow Peanuts to be remembered as something sweeter, kinder, and more lovable than it truly was. The cognitive dissonance represented by the mass-merchandising success of this prickly, often despairing, sour, and snide work might have been worth more thought in a book of this scope than Michaelis gives it.
There were very rare moments of soft cheese in Peanuts'piquancy. For example, Lucy hugging Snoopy and declaring "Happiness is a warm puppy." That moment turned into a pioneering "book," composed of "Happiness is … " messages with accompanying drawings by Schulz, that became the No. 1 "nonfiction" work of 1963, and a prime mover in the Peanuts merchandising empire. Michaelis is sharp on that empire, and he shows Schulz willingly turning a blind eye to union-busting franchisee J.P. Stevens, a textile company.
In the strip, Schulz would mock both merchandising and himself. When Lucy tried a second time to snatch Snoopy's warmth for her own happiness, he growled back, "My mother didn't raise me to be a heating pad!" Schulz himself said it best: "Anybody who says Peanuts is cute is just crazy." But he also enabled the merchandising machine that means so many Americans hear Peanuts and see a grinning Snoopy wishing a young girl happy birthday.
Schulz's relationship with Joyce started as Charlie Brown and Lucy, then morphed to Schroeder and Lucy. Schulz grew more withholding, retreating into his work. They left Minnesota and Schulz's family, and settled in Sebastopol, Calif. He financed the construction of an elaborate, expensive community ice-skating arena for Joyce to supervise, and they had four children of their own. On Thanksgiving 1968, when his daughter Jill was 10, her own pony stepped on her face. She said something that seems to put the lie to Schulz's insistence that his characters were purely from his imagination, not drawn from his family life: "I wonder what life is all about. It seems to me we have a few tragedies or we win a few prizes and then it is all over." Peppermint Patty couldn't have been more true to the Schulz worldview. Joyce, like Lucy, was tough on her hapless husband, and by 1969 Schulz could no longer take it. Joyce was herself weary of his endless melancholy, which he used as a defensive weapon. "He was perpetually sad, and he has no reason to be. He got everything he wanted," she complained.
Schulz began a romance with a young woman, and in their first private meeting she called him "adorable"—a word he would not have used to describe himself. More than 25 years later, in the shaky but still determined line of his declining years, he remembered that moment, and what it did to his life and family. Joyce discovered his infidelity, and he meekly put an end to it. But after months of being taunted that he didn't have the guts to leave, he finally did. Within two years, he married Jeannie Clyde, a woman he met at the ice arena after the first affair had ended.
While romancing Jeannie in 1973, Schulz launched on a bravura Peanuts sequence often cited as a favorite by fans. It starts with Charlie Brown seeing the rising sun as a giant baseball. Then his head begins to turn into one. To hide his freakish shame at summer camp, he wears a grocery bag over his head and is dubbed "Mr. Sack" by his campmates. Suddenly the always put-upon Charlie Brown, incognito, becomes a wise leader of men. Michaelis reads this as elaborate cartoon autobiography. Charles Schulz can't be loved or respected as himself. Only under the identity of "the man who draws Snoopy" can he win the accolades and respect of the world that he thought ugly little picked-on Sparky Schulz could never know.
Schulz and Peanuts is somewhat deflating. Schulz had the unlovely characteristic of the ungracious winner; from Jules Feiffer to Billy Graham, from Timothy Leary to Ronald Reagan, everyone loved Peanuts. But all his life Schulz remained, as a reporter who knew him said, "the only person I ever met who felt he had no piece of the pie at all."
By the end, the reader agrees with his cousin Patty's deathbed jab: that everyone loves Schulz "because they don't know him." But as she tells it, Sparky himself laughed at the sentiment. While it may be true that Schulz never believed anyone truly loved him because he never truly loved anyone—as a friend once said—his art proves him worthy of the affection tens of millions feel. Schulz created one of America's great epics of the comedy of failure, and Michaelis has written one of its great epics of the tragedy of success.
This Books essay was originally published as a slide show. The images have been removed to comply with the publisher's request that they be used for only a designated period of time.