The Comfort Zone
Growing up with Charlie Brown.
by Jonathan Franzen
In May, 1970, a few nights after the Kent State shootings, my father and my brother Tom, who was nineteen, started fighting. They weren’t fighting about the Vietnam War, which both of them opposed. The fight was probably about a lot of different things at once. But the immediate issue was Tom’s summer job. He was a good artist, with a meticulous nature, and my father had encouraged him (you could even say forced him) to choose a college from a short list of schools with strong programs in architecture. Tom had deliberately chosen the most distant of these schools, Rice University, and he had just returned from his second year in Houston, where his adventures in late-sixties youth culture were pushing him toward majoring in film studies, not architecture. My father, however, had found him a plum summer job with Sverdrup & Parcel, the big engineering firm in St. Louis, whose senior partner, General Leif Sverdrup, had been a United States Army Corps of Engineers hero in the Philippines. It couldn’t have been easy for my father, who was shy and morbidly principled, to pull the requisite strings at Sverdrup. But the office gestalt was hawkish and buzz-cut and generally inimical to bell-bottomed, lefty film-studies majors; and Tom didn’t want to be there.
Up in the bedroom that he and I shared, the windows were open and the air had the stuffy wooden-house smell that came out every spring. I preferred the make-believe no-smell of air-conditioning, but my mother, whose subjective experience of temperature was notably consistent with low gas and electric bills, claimed to be a devotee of “fresh air,” and the windows often stayed open until Memorial Day.
On my night table was the “Peanuts Treasury,” a large, thick hardcover compilation of daily and Sunday funnies by Charles M. Schulz. My mother had given it to me the previous Christmas, and I’d been rereading it at bedtime ever since. Like most of the nation’s ten-year-olds, I had an intense, private relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle. He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house. My brothers, who are nine and twelve years older than I, were less like siblings than like an extra, fun pair of quasi-parents. Although I had friends and was a Cub Scout in good standing, I spent a lot of time alone with talking animals. I was an obsessive rereader of A. A. Milne and the Narnia and Doctor Dolittle novels, and my involvement with my collection of stuffed animals was on the verge of becoming age-inappropriate. It was another point of kinship with Snoopy that he, too, liked animal games. He impersonated tigers and vultures and mountain lions, sharks, sea monsters, pythons, cows, piranhas, penguins, and vampire bats. He was the perfect sunny egoist, starring in his ridiculous fantasies and basking in everyone’s attention. In a cartoon strip full of children, the dog was the character I recognized as a child.
Tom and my father had been talking in the living room when I went up to bed. Now, at some late and even stuffier hour, after I’d put aside the “Peanuts Treasury” and fallen asleep, Tom burst into our bedroom. He was shouting with harsh sarcasm. “You’ll get over it! You’ll forget about me! It’ll be so much easier! You’ll get over it!”
My father was offstage somewhere, making large abstract sounds. My mother was right behind Tom, sobbing at his shoulder, begging him to stop, to stop. He was pulling open dresser drawers, repacking bags he’d only recently unpacked. “You think you want me here,” he said, “but you’ll get over it.”
What about me? my mother pleaded. What about Jon?
“You’ll get over it!”
I was a small and fundamentally ridiculous person. Even if I’d dared sit up in bed, what could I have said? “Excuse me, I’m trying to sleep”? I lay still and followed the action through my eyelashes. There were further dramatic comings and goings, through some of which I may in fact have slept. Finally I heard Tom’s feet pounding down the stairs and my mother’s terrible cries, now nearly shrieks, receding after him: “Tom! Tom! Tom! Please! Tom!” And then the front door slammed.
Things like this had never happened in our house. The worst fight I’d ever witnessed was between Tom and our older brother, Bob, on the subject of Frank Zappa, whose music Tom admired and Bob one day dismissed with such patronizing disdain that Tom began to sneer at Bob’s own favorite group, the Supremes, which led to bitter hostilities. But a scene of real wailing and doors slamming in the night was completely off the map. When I woke up the next morning, the memory of it already felt decades-old and semi-dreamlike and unmentionable.
My father had left for work, and my mother served me breakfast without comment. The food on the table, the jingles on the radio, and the walk to school all were unremarkable; and yet everything about the day was soaked in dread. At school that week, in Miss Niblack’s class, we were rehearsing our fifth-grade play. The script, which I’d written, had a large number of bit parts and one very generous role that I’d created with my own memorization abilities in mind. The action took place on a boat, involved a taciturn villain named Mr. Scuba, and lacked the most rudimentary comedy, point, or moral. Not even I, who got to do most of the talking, enjoyed being in it. Its badness—my responsibility for its badness—became part of the day’s general dread.
There was something dreadful about springtime itself, the way plants and animals lost control, the “Lord of the Flies” buzzing, the heat indoors. After school, instead of staying outside to play, I followed my dread home and cornered my mother in our dining room. I asked her about my upcoming class performance. Would Dad be in town for it? What about Bob? Would he be home from college yet? And what about Tom? Would Tom be there, too? This was quite plausibly an innocent line of questioning—I was a small glutton for attention, forever turning conversations to the subject of myself—and, for a while, my mother gave me plausibly innocent answers. Then she slumped into a chair, put her face in her hands, and began to weep.
“Didn’t you hear anything last night?” she said.
“You didn’t hear Tom and Dad shouting? You didn’t hear doors slamming?”
She gathered me in her arms, which was probably the main thing I’d been dreading. I stood there stiffly while she hugged me. “Tom and Dad had a terrible fight,” she said. “After you went to bed. They had a terrible fight, and Tom got his things and left the house, and we don’t know where he went.”
“I thought we’d hear from him today, but he hasn’t called, and I’m frantic, not knowing where he is. I’m just frantic!”
I squirmed a little in her grip.
“But this has nothing to do with you,” she said. “It’s between him and Dad and has nothing to do with you. I’m sure Tom’s sorry he won’t be here to see your play. Or maybe, who knows, he’ll be back by Friday and he will see it.”
“But I don’t want you telling anyone he’s gone until we know where he is. Will you agree not to tell anyone?”
“O.K.,” I said, breaking free of her. “Can we turn the air-conditioning on?”
I was unaware of it, but an epidemic had broken out across the country. Late adolescents in suburbs like ours had suddenly gone berserk, running away to other cities to have sex and not attend college, ingesting every substance they could get their hands on, not just clashing with their parents but rejecting and annihilating everything about them. For a while, the parents were so frightened and so mystified and so ashamed that each family, especially mine, quarantined itself and suffered in isolation.
When I went upstairs, my bedroom felt like an overwarm sickroom. The clearest remaining vestige of Tom was the “Don’t Look Back” poster that he’d taped to a flank of his dresser where Bob Dylan’s psychedelic hair style wouldn’t always be catching my mother’s censorious eye. Tom’s bed, neatly made, was the bed of a kid carried off by an epidemic.
In that unsettled season, as the so-called generation gap was rending the cultural landscape, Charles Schulz’s work was almost uniquely beloved. Fifty-five million Americans had seen “A Charlie Brown Christmas” the previous December, for a Nielsen share of better than fifty per cent. The musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” was in its second sold-out year on Broadway. The astronauts of Apollo X, in their dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing, had christened their orbiter and landing vehicle Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Newspapers carrying “Peanuts” reached more than a hundred and fifty million readers, “Peanuts” collections were all over the best-seller lists, and if my own friends were any indication there was hardly a kid’s bedroom in America without a “Peanuts” wastebasket or “Peanuts” bedsheets or a “Peanuts” gift book. Schulz, by a luxurious margin, was the most famous living artist on the planet.
To the countercultural mind, a begoggled beagle piloting a doghouse and getting shot down by the Red Baron was akin to Yossarian paddling a dinghy to Sweden. The strip’s square panels were the only square thing about it. Wouldn’t the country be better off listening to Linus Van Pelt than Robert McNamara? This was the era of flower children, not flower adults. But the strip appealed to older Americans as well. It was unfailingly inoffensive (Snoopy never lifted a leg) and was set in a safe, attractive suburb where the kids, except for Pigpen, whose image Ron McKernan of the Grateful Dead pointedly embraced, were clean and well spoken and conservatively dressed. Hippies and astronauts, the Pentagon and the antiwar movement, the rejecting kids and the rejected grownups were all of one mind here.
An exception was my own household. As far as I know, my father never in his life read a comic strip, and my mother’s interest in the funnies was limited to a single-panel feature called “The Girls,” whose generic middle-aged matrons, with their weight problems and stinginess and poor driving skills and weakness for department-store bargains, she found just endlessly amusing.
I didn’t buy comic books, or even Mad magazine, but I worshipped at the altars of Warner Bros. cartoons and the funnies section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I read the section’s black-and-white page first, skipping the dramatic features like “Steve Roper” and “Juliet Jones” and glancing at “Li’l Abner” only to satisfy myself that it was still trashy and repellent. On the full-color back page I read the strips strictly in reverse order of preference, doing my best to be amused by Dagwood Bumstead’s midnight snacks and struggling to ignore the fact that Tiger and Punkinhead were the kind of messy, unreflective kids I disliked in real life, before treating myself to my favorite strip, “B.C.” The strip, by Johnny Hart, was caveman humor. Hart wrung hundreds of gags from the friendship between a flightless bird and a long-suffering tortoise who was constantly attempting unturtlish feats of agility and flexibility. Debts were always paid in clams; dinner was always roast leg of something. When I was done with “B.C.,” I was done with the paper.
The comics in St. Louis’s other paper, the Globe-Democrat, which my parents didn’t take, seemed bleak and foreign to me. “Broom Hilda” and “Animal Crackers” and “The Family Circus” were off-putting in the manner of the kid whose partially visible underpants, which had the name cuttair hand-markered on the waistband, I’d stared at throughout my family’s tour of the Canadian parliament. Although “The Family Circus” was resolutely unfunny, its panels clearly were based on some actual family’s life and were aimed at an audience that recognized this life, which compelled me to posit an entire subspecies of humanity that found “The Family Circus” hilarious.
I knew very well, of course, why the Globe-Democrat’s funnies were so lame: the paper that carried “Peanuts” didn’t need any other good strips. Indeed, I would have swapped the entire Post-Dispatch for a daily dose of Schulz. Only “Peanuts,” the strip we didn’t get, dealt with stuff that really mattered. I didn’t for a minute believe that the children in “Peanuts” were really children—they were so much more emphatic and cartoonishly real than anybody in my own neighborhood—but I nevertheless took their stories to be dispatches from a universe of childhood that was somehow more substantial and convincing than my own. Instead of playing kickball and foursquare, the way my friends and I did, the kids in “Peanuts” had real baseball teams, real football equipment, real fistfights. Their interactions with Snoopy were far richer than the chasings and bitings that constituted my own relationships with neighborhood dogs. Minor but incredible disasters, often involving new vocabulary words, befell them daily. Lucy was “blackballed from the Bluebirds.” She knocked Charlie Brown’s croquet ball so far that he had to call the other players from a phone booth. She gave Charlie Brown a signed document in which she swore not to pull the football away when he tried to kick it, but the “peculiar thing about this document,” as she observed in the final frame, was that “it was never notarized.” When Lucy smashed the bust of Beethoven on Schroeder’s toy piano, it struck me as odd and funny that Schroeder had a closet full of identical replacement busts, but I accepted it as humanly possible, because Schulz had drawn it.
To the “Peanuts Treasury” I soon added two other equally strong hardcover collections, “Peanuts Revisited” and “Peanuts Classics.” A well-meaning relative once also gave me a copy of Robert Short’s national best-seller, “The Gospel According to Peanuts,” but it couldn’t have interested me less. “Peanuts” wasn’t a portal to the Gospel. It was my gospel.
Chapter 1, verses 1-4, of what I knew about disillusionment: Charlie Brown passes the house of the Little Red-Haired Girl, the object of his eternal fruitless longing. He sits down with Snoopy and says, “I wish I had two ponies.” He imagines offering one of the ponies to the Little Red-Haired Girl, riding out into the countryside with her, and sitting down with her beneath a tree. Suddenly, he’s scowling at Snoopy and asking, “Why aren’t you two ponies?” Snoopy, rolling his eyes, thinks, “I knew we’d get around to that.”
Or Chapter 1, verses 26-32, of what I knew about the mysteries of etiquette: Linus is showing off his new wristwatch to everyone in the neighborhood. “New watch!” he says proudly to Snoopy, who, after a hesitation, licks it. Linus’s hair stands on end. “you licked my watch!” he cries. “It’ll rust! It’ll turn green! He’s ruined it!” Snoopy is left looking mildly puzzled and thinking, “I thought it would have been impolite not to taste it.”
Or Chapter 2, verses 6-12, of what I knew about fiction: Linus is annoying Lucy, wheedling and pleading with her to read him a story. To shut him up, she grabs a book, randomly opens it, and says, “A man was born, he lived and he died. The End!” She tosses the book aside, and Linus picks it up reverently. “What a fascinating account,” he says. “It almost makes you wish you had known the fellow.”
The perfect silliness of stuff like this, the koanlike inscrutability, entranced me even when I was ten. But many of the more elaborate sequences, especially the ones about Charlie Brown’s humiliation and loneliness, made only a generic impression on me. In a classroom spelling bee that Charlie Brown has been looking forward to, the first word he’s asked to spell is “maze.” With a complacent smile, he produces “M-A-Y-S.” The class screams with laughter. He returns to his seat and presses his face into his desktop, and when his teacher asks him what’s wrong he yells at her and ends up in the principal’s office. “Peanuts” was steeped in Schulz’s awareness that for every winner in a competition there has to be a loser, if not twenty losers, or two thousand, but I personally enjoyed winning and couldn’t see why so much fuss was made about the losers.
In the spring of 1970, Miss Niblack’s class was studying homonyms to prepare for what she called the Homonym Spelldown. I did some desultory homonym drilling with my mother, rattling off “sleigh” for “slay” and “slough” for “slew” the way other kids roped softballs into center field. To me, the only halfway interesting question about the Spelldown was who was going to come in second. A new kid had joined our class that year, a shrimpy black-haired striver, Chris Toczko, who had it in his head that he and I were academic rivals. I was a nice enough little boy as long as you didn’t compete on my turf. Toczko was annoyingly unaware that I, not he, by natural right, was the best student in the class. On the day of the Spelldown, he actually taunted me. He said he’d done a lot of studying and he was going to beat me! I looked down at the little pest and did not know what to say. I evidently mattered a lot more to him than he did to me.
For the Spelldown, we all stood by the blackboard, Miss Niblack calling out one half of a pair of homonyms and my classmates sitting down as soon as they had failed. Toczko was pale and trembling, but he knew his homonyms. He was the last kid standing, besides me, when Miss Niblack called out the word “liar.” Toczko trembled and essayed, “L . . . I . . .” And I could see that I had beaten him. I waited impatiently while, with considerable anguish, he extracted two more letters from his marrow: “E . . . R?”
“I’m sorry, Chris, that’s not a word,” Miss Niblack said.
With a sharp laugh of triumph, not even waiting for Toczko to sit down, I stepped forward and sang out, “L-Y-R-E! Lyre. It’s a stringed instrument.”
I hadn’t really doubted that I would win, but Toczko had got to me with his taunting, and my blood was up. I was the last person in class to realize that Toczko was having a meltdown. His face turned red and he began to cry, insisting angrily that “lier” was a word, it was a word.
I didn’t care if it was a word or not. I knew my rights. Toczko’s tears disturbed and disappointed me, as I made quite clear by fetching the classroom dictionary and showing him that “lier” wasn’t in it. This was how both Toczko and I ended up in the principal’s office.
I’d never been sent down before. I was interested to learn that the principal, Mr. Barnett, had a Webster’s International Unabridged in his office. Toczko, who barely outweighed the dictionary, used two hands to open it and to roll back the pages to the “L” words. I stood at his shoulder and saw where his tiny, trembling index finger was pointing: lier, n., one that lies (as in ambush). Mr. Barnett immediately declared us co-winners of the Spelldown—a compromise that didn’t seem quite fair to me, since I would surely have murdered Toczko if we’d gone another round. But his outburst had spooked me, and I decided it might be O.K., for once, to let somebody else win.
A few months after the Homonym Spelldown, just after summer vacation started, Toczko ran out into Grant Road and was killed by a car. What little I knew then about the world’s badness I knew mainly from a camping trip, some years earlier, when I’d dropped a frog into a campfire and watched it shrivel and roll down the flat side of a log. My memory of that shrivelling and rolling was sui generis, distinct from my other memories. It was like a nagging, sick-making atom of rebuke in me. I felt similarly rebuked now when my mother, who knew nothing of Toczko’s rivalry with me, told me that he was dead. She was weeping as she’d wept over Tom’s disappearance some weeks earlier. She sat me down and made me write a letter of condolence to Toczko’s mother. I was very much unaccustomed to considering the interior states of people other than myself, but it was impossible not to consider Mrs. Toczko’s. Though I never met her, in the ensuing weeks I pictured her suffering so incessantly and vividly that I could almost see her: a tiny, trim, dark-haired woman who cried the way her son did.
“Everything I do makes me feel guilty,” says Charlie Brown. He’s at the beach, and he has just thrown a pebble into the water, and Linus has commented, “Nice going. . . . It took that stone four thousand years to get to shore, and now you’ve thrown it back.”
I felt guilty about Toczko. I felt guilty about the little frog. I felt guilty about shunning my mother’s hugs when she seemed to need them most. I felt guilty about the washcloths at the bottom of the stack in the linen closet, the older, thinner washcloths that we seldom used. I felt guilty for preferring my best shooter marbles, a solid-red agate and a solid-yellow agate, my king and my queen, to marbles farther down my rigid marble hierarchy. I felt guilty about the board games that I didn’t like to play—Uncle Wiggily, U.S. Presidential Elections, Game of the States—and sometimes, when my friends weren’t around, I opened the boxes and examined the pieces in the hope of making the games feel less forgotten. I felt guilty about neglecting the stiff-limbed, scratchy-pelted Mr. Bear, who had no voice and didn’t mix well with my other stuffed animals. To avoid feeling guilty about them, too, I slept with one of them per night, according to a strict weekly schedule.
We laugh at dachshunds for humping our legs, but our own species is even more self-centered in its imaginings. There’s no object so Other that it can’t be anthropomorphized and shanghaied into conversation with us. Some objects are more amenable than others, however. The trouble with Mr. Bear was that he was more realistically bearlike than the other animals. He had a distinct, stern, feral persona; unlike our faceless washcloths, he was assertively Other. It was no wonder I couldn’t speak through him. An old shoe is easier to invest with comic personality than is, say, a photograph of Cary Grant. The blanker the slate, the more easily we can fill it with our own image.
Our visual cortexes are wired to quickly recognize faces and then quickly subtract massive amounts of detail from them, zeroing in on their essential message: Is this person happy? Angry? Fearful? Individual faces may vary greatly, but a smirk on one is a lot like a smirk on another. Smirks are conceptual, not pictorial. Our brains are like cartoonists—and cartoonists are like our brains, simplifying and exaggerating, subordinating facial detail to abstract comic concepts.
Scott McCloud, in his cartoon treatise “Understanding Comics,” argues that the image you have of yourself when you’re conversing is very different from your image of the person you’re conversing with. Your interlocutor may produce universal smiles and universal frowns, and they may help you to identify with him emotionally, but he also has a particular nose and particular skin and particular hair that continually remind you that he’s an Other. The image you have of your own face, by contrast, is highly cartoonish. When you feel yourself smile, you imagine a cartoon of smiling, not the complete skin-and-nose-and-hair package. It’s precisely the simplicity and universality of cartoon faces, the absence of Otherly particulars, that invite us to love them as we love ourselves. The most widely loved (and profitable) faces in the modern world tend to be exceptionally basic and abstract cartoons: Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons, Tintin, and, simplest of all—barely more than a circle, two dots, and a horizontal line—Charlie Brown.
Schulz only ever wanted to be a cartoonist. He was born in St. Paul in 1922, the only child of a German father and a mother of Norwegian extraction. As an infant, he was nicknamed Sparky, after a horse in the then popular comic strip “Barney Google.” His father, who, like Charlie Brown’s father, was a barber, bought six different newspapers on the weekend and read all the era’s comics with his son. Schulz skipped a grade in elementary school and was the least mature kid in every class after that. Much of the existing Schulzian literature dwells on the Charlie Brownish traumas in his early life: his skinniness and pimples, his unpopularity with girls at school, the inexplicable rejection of a batch of his drawings by his high-school yearbook, and, some years later, the rejection of his marriage proposal by the real-life Little Red-Haired Girl, Donna Mae Johnson. Schulz himself spoke of his youth in a tone close to anger. “It took me a long time to become a human being,” he told nemo magazine in 1987.
I was regarded by many as kind of sissyfied, which I resented because I really was not a sissy. I was not a tough guy, but . . . I was good at any sport where you threw things, or hit them, or caught them, or something like that. I hated things like swimming and tumbling and those kinds of things, so I was really not a sissy. [But] the coaches were so intolerant and there was no program for all of us. So 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? So I didn’t bother.
Schulz “didn’t bother” going to art school, either—it would only have discouraged him, he said, to be around people who could draw better than he could. You could see a lack of confidence here. You could also see a kid who knew how to protect himself.
On the eve of Schulz’s induction into the Army, his mother died of cancer. She was forty-eight and had suffered greatly, and Schulz later described the loss as an emotional catastrophe from which he almost did not recover. During basic training, he was depressed, withdrawn, and grieving. In the long run, though, the Army was good for him. He went into the service, he recalled later, as “a nothing person” and came out as a staff sergeant in charge of a machine-gun squadron. “I thought, By golly, if that isn’t a man, I don’t know what is,” he said. “And I felt good about myself and that lasted about eight minutes, and then I went back to where I am now.” After the war, Schulz returned to his childhood neighborhood, lived with his father, became intensely involved in a Christian youth group, and learned to draw kids. For the rest of his life, he virtually never drew adults. He avoided adult vices—didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear—and, in his work, he spent more and more time in the imagined yards and sandlots of his childhood. But the world of “Peanuts” remained a deeply motherless place. Charlie Brown’s dog may (or may not) cheer him up after a day of failures; his mother never does.
Although Schulz had been a social victim as a child, he’d also had the undivided attention of two loving parents. All his life, he was a prickly Minnesotan mixture of disabling inhibition and rugged self-confidence. In high school, after another student illustrated an essay with a watercolor drawing, Schulz was surprised when a teacher asked him why he hadn’t done some illustrations himself. He didn’t think it was fair to get academic credit for a talent that most kids didn’t have. He never thought it was fair to draw caricatures. (“If somebody has a big nose,” he said, “I’m sure that they regret the fact they have a big nose and who am I to point it out in gross caricature?”) In later decades, when he had enormous bargaining power, he was reluctant to demand a larger or more flexible layout for “Peanuts,” because he didn’t think it was fair to the papers that had been his loyal customers. His resentment of the name “Peanuts,” which his editors had given the strip in 1950, was still fresh in the eighties, when he was one of the ten highest-paid entertainers in America (behind Bill Cosby, ahead of Michael Jackson). “They didn’t know when I walked in there that here was a fanatic,” he told nemo. “Here was a kid totally dedicated to what he was going to do. And to label then something that was going to be a life’s work with a name like ‘Peanuts’ was really insulting.” To the suggestion that thirty-seven years might have softened the insult, Schulz said, “No, no. I hold a grudge, boy.”
I never heard my father tell a joke. Sometimes he reminisced about a business colleague who ordered a “Scotch and Coke” and a “flander” fillet in a Dallas diner in July, and he could smile at his own embarrassments, his impolitic remarks at the office and his foolish mistakes on home-improvement projects, but there wasn’t a silly bone in his body. He responded to other people’s jokes with a wince or a grimace. As a boy, I told him a story I’d made up about a trash-hauling company cited for “fragrant violations.” He shook his head, stone-faced, and said, “Not plausible.”
In another archetypal “Peanuts” strip, Violet and Patty are abusing Charlie Brown in vicious stereo: “go on home! we don’t want you around here!” As he trudges away with his eyes on the ground, Violet remarks, “It’s a strange thing about Charlie Brown. You almost never see him laugh.”
My father only ever wanted not to be a child anymore. His parents were a pair of nineteenth-century Scandinavians caught up in a Hobbesian struggle to prevail in the swamps of north-central Minnesota. His popular, charismatic older brother drowned in a hunting accident when he was still a young man. His nutty and pretty and spoiled younger sister had an only daughter who died in a one-car accident when she was twenty-two. My father’s parents also died in a one-car accident, but only after regaling him with prohibitions, demands, and criticisms for fifty years. He never said a harsh word about them. He never said a nice word, either.
The few childhood stories he told were about his dog, Spider, and his gang of friends in the invitingly named little town, Palisade, that his father and uncles had constructed among the swamps. The local high school was eight miles from Palisade. To attend, my father lived in a boarding house for a year and later commuted in his father’s Model A. He was a social cipher, invisible after school. The most popular girl in his class, Romelle Erickson, was expected to be the valedictorian, and the school’s “social crowd” was “shocked,” my father told me many times, when it turned out that “the country boy,” “Earl Who,” had claimed the title.
When he registered at the University of Minnesota, in 1933, his father went with him and announced, at the head of the registration line, “He’s going to be a civil engineer.” For the rest of his life, my father was restless. He was studying philosophy at night school when he met my mother, and it took her four years to persuade him to have children. In his thirties, he agonized about whether to study medicine; in his forties, he was offered a partnership in a contracting firm which he almost dared to accept; in his fifties and sixties, he admonished me not to waste my life working for a corporation. In the end, though, he spent fifty years doing exactly what his father had told him to do.
My mother called him “oversensitive.” She meant that it was easy to hurt his feelings, but the sensitivity was physical as well. When he was young, a doctor gave him a pinprick test that showed him to be allergic to “almost everything,” including wheat, milk, and tomatoes. A different doctor, whose office was at the top of five long flights of stairs, greeted him with a blood-pressure test and immediately declared him unfit to fight the Nazis. Or so my father told me, with a shrugging gesture and an odd smile (as if to say, “What could I do?”), when I asked him why he hadn’t been in the war. Even as a teen-ager, I sensed that his social awkwardness and sensitivities had been aggravated by not serving. He came from a family of pacifist Swedes, however, and was very happy not to be a soldier. He was happy that my brothers had college deferments and good luck with the lottery. Among his patriotic colleagues and the war-vet husbands of my mother’s friends, he was such an outlier on the subject of Vietnam that he didn’t dare talk about it. At home, in private, he aggressively declared that, if Tom had drawn a bad number, he personally would have driven him to Canada.
Tom was a second son in the mold of my father. He got poison ivy so bad it was like measles. He had a mid-October birthday and was perennially the youngest kid in his classes. On his only date in high school, he was so nervous that he forgot his baseball tickets and left the car idling in the street while he ran back inside; the car rolled down the hill, punched through an asphalt curb, and cleared two levels of a terraced garden before coming to rest on a neighbor’s front lawn.
To me, it simply added to Tom’s mystique that the car was not only still drivable but entirely undamaged. Neither he nor Bob could do any wrong in my eyes. They were expert whistlers and chess players, phenomenal wielders of tools and pencils, sole suppliers of whatever anecdotes and cultural data I was able to impress my friends with. In the margins of Tom’s school copy of “A Portrait of the Artist,” he drew a two-hundred-page riffle-animation of a stick-figure pole-vaulter clearing a hurdle, landing on his head, and being carted away on a stretcher by stick-figure E.M.S. personnel; this seemed to me a masterwork of filmic art and science. But my father had told Tom: “You’d make a good architect, here are three schools to choose from.” He said: “You’re going to work for Sverdrup.”
Tom was gone for five days before we heard from him. His call came on a Sunday after church. We were sitting on the screen porch, and my mother ran the length of the house to answer the phone. She sounded so ecstatic with relief I felt embarrassed for her. Tom had hitchhiked back to Houston and was doing deep-fry at a Church’s Fried Chicken, hoping to save enough money to join his best friend in Colorado. My mother kept asking him when he might come home, assuring him that he was welcome and that he wouldn’t have to work at Sverdrup; but there was something toxic about us now which Tom obviously wanted nothing to do with.
Charles Schulz was the best comic-strip artist who ever lived. When “Peanuts” débuted, in October, 1950 (the same month Tom was born), the funny pages were full of musty holdovers from the thirties and forties. Even with the strip’s strongest precursors, George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” and Elzie Segar’s “Popeye,” you were aware of the severe constraints under which newspaper comics operated. The faces of Herriman’s characters were too small to display more than rudimentary emotion, and so the burden of humor and sympathy came to rest on Herriman’s language; his work read more like comic fable than like funny drawing. Popeye’s face was proportionately larger than Krazy Kat’s, but he was such a florid caricature that much of Segar’s expressive budget was spent on nondiscretionary items, like Popeye’s distended jaw and oversized nose; these were good jokes, but the same jokes every time. The very first “Peanuts” strip, by contrast, was all white space and big funny faces. It invited you right in. The minor character Shermy was speaking in neat letters and clear diction: “Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown! Good ol’ Charlie Brown . . . Yes, sir! Good ol’ Charlie Brown . . . How I hate him!”
This first strip and the seven hundred and fifty-nine that immediately followed it have recently been published, complete and fully indexed, in a handsome volume from Fantagraphics Books. (This is the first in a series of twenty-five uniform volumes that will reproduce Schulz’s entire daily oeuvre.) Even in Schulz’s relatively primitive early work, you can appreciate what a breakthrough he made in drawing characters with large, visually uncluttered heads. Long limbs and big landscapes and fully articulated facial features—adult life, in short—were unaffordable luxuries. By dispensing with them, and by jumping from a funnies world of five or ten facial expressions into a world of fifty or a hundred, Schulz introduced a new informational dimension to the newspaper strip.
Although he later became famous for putting words like “depressed” and “inner tensions” and “emotional outlets” in the mouths of little kids, only a tiny percentage of his strips were actually drawn in the mock-psychological vein. His most important innovations were visual—he was all about drawing funny—and for most of my life as a fan I was curiously unconscious of this fact. In my imagination, “Peanuts” was a narrative, a collection of locales and scenes and sequences. And, certainly, some comic strips do fit this description. Mike Doonesbury, for example, can be translated into words with minimal loss of information. Garry Trudeau is essentially a social novelist, his topical satire and intricate family dynamics and elaborate camera angles all serving to divert attention from the monotony of his comic expression. But Linus Van Pelt consists, first and foremost, of pen strokes. You’ll never really understand him without seeing his hair stand on end. Translation into words inevitably diminishes Linus. As a cartoon, he’s already a perfectly efficient vector of comic intention.
The purpose of a comic strip, Schulz liked to say, was to sell newspapers and to make people laugh. Although the formulation may look self-deprecating at first glance, in fact it is an oath of loyalty. When I. B. Singer, in his Nobel address, declared that the novelist’s first responsibility is to be a storyteller, he didn’t say “mere storyteller,” and Schulz didn’t say “merely make people laugh.” He was loyal to the reader who wanted something funny from the funny pages. Just about anything—protesting against world hunger; getting a laugh out of words like “nooky”; dispensing wisdom; dying—is easier than real comedy.
Schulz never stopped trying to be funny. Around 1970, though, he began to drift away from aggressive humor and into melancholy reverie. There came tedious meanderings in Snoopyland with the unhilarious bird Woodstock and the unamusing beagle Spike. Certain leaden devices, such as Marcie’s insistence on calling Peppermint Patty “sir,” were heavily recycled. By the late eighties, the strip had grown so quiet that younger friends of mine seemed baffled by my fandom. It didn’t help that later “Peanuts” anthologies loyally reprinted so many Spike and Marcie strips. The volumes that properly showcased Schulz’s genius, the three hardcover collections from the sixties, had gone out of print. There were a few critical appreciations, most notably by Umberto Eco, who argued for Schulz’s literary greatness in an essay written in the sixties and reprinted in the eighties (when Eco got famous). But the praise of a “low” genre by an old semiotic soldier in the culture wars couldn’t help carrying an odor of provocation.
Still more harmful to Schulz’s reputation were his own kitschy spinoffs. Even in the sixties, you had to fight through cloying Warm Puppy paraphernalia to reach the comedy; the cuteness levels in latter-day “Peanuts” TV specials tied my toes in knots. What first made “Peanuts” “Peanuts” was cruelty and failure, and yet every “Peanuts” greeting card and tchotchke and blimp had to feature somebody’s sweet, crumpled smile. (You should go out and buy the new Fantagraphics book just to reward the publisher for putting a scowling Charlie Brown on the cover.) Everything about the billion-dollar “Peanuts” industry, which Schulz himself helped create, argued against him as an artist to be taken seriously. Far more than Disney, whose studios were churning out kitsch from the start, Schulz came to seem an icon of art’s corruption by commerce, which sooner or later paints a smiling sales face on everything it touches. The fan who wants to see an artist sees a merchant instead. Why isn’t he two ponies?
It’s hard to repudiate a comic strip, however, when your memories of it are more vivid than your memories of your own life. When Charlie Brown went off to summer camp, I went along in my imagination. I heard him trying to make conversation with the fellow-camper who sat on his bunk and refused to say anything but “Shut up and leave me alone.” I watched when he finally came home again and shouted to Lucy “I’m back!” and Lucy gave him a bored look and said, “Have you been away?”
I went to camp myself, in the summer of 1970. But, aside from an alarming personal-hygiene situation that seemed to have resulted from my peeing in some poison ivy, and which, for several days, I was convinced was either a fatal tumor or puberty, my camp experience paled beside Charlie Brown’s. The best part of it was coming home and seeing Bob’s new yellow Karmann Ghia waiting for me at the Y.M.C.A.
Tom was also home by then. He’d managed to make his way to his friend’s house in Colorado, but the friend’s parents weren’t happy about harboring somebody else’s runaway son, and so they’d sent Tom back to St. Louis. Officially, I was very excited that he was back. In truth, I was embarrassed to be around him. I was afraid that if I referred to his sickness and our quarantine I might trigger a relapse. I wanted to live in a “Peanuts” world where rage was funny and insecurity was lovable. The littlest kid in my “Peanuts” books, Sally Brown, grew older for a while and then hit a glass ceiling. I wanted everyone in my family to get along and nothing to change; but suddenly, after Tom ran away, it was as if the five of us looked around, asked why we should be spending time together, and failed to come up with many good answers.
For the first time, in the months that followed, my parents’ conflicts became audible. My father came home on cool nights to complain about the house’s “chill.” My mother countered that the house wasn’t cold if you were doing housework all day. My father marched into the dining room to adjust the thermostat and dramatically point to its “Comfort Zone,” a pale-blue arc between 72 and 78 degrees. My mother said that she was so hot. And I decided, as always, not to voice my suspicion that the Comfort Zone referred to air-conditioning in the summer rather than heat in the winter. My father set the temperature at seventy-two and retreated to the den, which was situated directly above the furnace. There was a lull, and then big explosions. No matter what corner of the house I hid myself in, I could hear my father bellowing, “leave the god-damned thermostat alone!”
“Earl, I didn’t touch it!”
“You did! Again!”
“I didn’t think I even moved it, I just looked at it, I didn’t mean to change it.”
“Again! You monkeyed with it again! I had it set where I wanted it. And you moved it down to seventy!”
“Well, if I did somehow change it, I’m sure I didn’t mean to. You’d be hot, too, if you worked all day in the kitchen.”
“All I ask at the end of a long day at work is that the temperature be set in the Comfort Zone.”
“Earl, it is so hot in the kitchen. You don’t know, because you’re never in here, but it is so hot.”
“The low end of the Comfort Zone! Not even the middle! The low end! It is not too much to ask!”
I wonder why “cartoonish” remains such a pejorative. It took me half my life to achieve seeing my parents as cartoons. And to become more perfectly a cartoon myself: what a victory that would be.
My father eventually applied technology to the problem of temperature. He bought a space heater to put behind his chair in the dining room, where he was bothered in winter by drafts from the bay window. Like so many of his appliance purchases, the heater was a pathetically cheap little thing, a wattage hog with a stertorous fan and a grinning orange mouth which dimmed the lights and drowned out conversation and produced a burning smell every time it cycled on. When I was in high school, he bought a quieter, more expensive model. One evening, my mother and I started reminiscing about the old model, caricaturing my father’s temperature sensitivities, doing cartoons of the little heater’s faults, the smoke and the buzzing, and my father got mad and left the table. He thought we were ganging up on him. He thought I was being cruel, and I was, but I was also forgiving him.