Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Solace of "Peanuts" - an Appreciation

When your life fails to glide smoothly along but rather stutters like unwaxed skis on old snow – when your family’s incessant squabbling would put the Little Brute Family to shame – when you realize that not only will you never run the L.A. Marathon in under four hours, but apparently your bum ankle will make it impossible to ever run more than 5 miles without pain - when your vegetable garden failed to yield even one single decent-sized tomato and you only got three green beans at a time, for a grand total of 15 – when your weed-infested front garden makes a mockery of your pathetic dreams of being a stop on the Venice Garden Tour – when sure, work is fine, but really, all you want is to be paid to read and write about books all day long, and everything else is drudgery…

When, in short, you know that it’s simply obnoxious to sink into such a morass of self-pity when you should practice Thankfulness for all life’s many gifts (including your own Little Brute Family) but you can’t summon up the energy – then it’s time to lay whatever book you’re reading aside (ignoring those pangs of guilt at the vast piles of unread books lying around your house and office) and pick up one of the early Complete Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. I own 1950-1952, 1953-1954, and 1955-1956, and the rest are on my wishlist. Classics all, and hugely comforting.

As a child, I was captivated by Charlie Brown’s world, peopled by children who spoke like adults but with whom I identified completely. I dreamed of morphing like Gumby into the Peanuts strip, where I would comfort Charlie Brown, observe Lucy from an admiring but wary distance, and sit in contemplative silence with Linus.

The early Charlie Brown, from 1950 to 1952, bears almost no resemblance to the Charlie Brown of later years. Round-headed but totally devoid of worry or self-doubt, he revels in teasing girls into chasing him and hanging with Shermy, Schroeder, and the other local kids. By the end of 1952, however, Violet and the other girls are calling him “wishy-washy,” and when he calls Violet in a panic to let her know he’ll be late for her party, she says, “Oh, aren’t you here yet, Charlie Brown? We hadn’t even noticed!” Lucy, at this point, is still a toddler.

From 1953 to 1956, Charlie Brown slowly evolves into the put-upon, long-suffering guy we all know and love, but he still retains quite a bit of the sass of those first couple years. Although he complains constantly that no one likes him, his small smirk makes clear that he doesn’t quite believe it, and after all, he does has plenty of friends. Tiny Linus’ prodigal ability to show up Charlie Brown at almost any activity, from folding newspaper into boats (Linus makes a three-masted clipper ship) to blowing up balloons (Linus’ are cuboid) to making snow forts (Linus’ resembles a medieval fortress) fails to lower Charlie Brown’s spirits, and Lucy may be intensely exasperating, but she can’t, at this stage anyway, truly hurt him at his core.

No, what is so heartbreaking about Charlie Brown is that, by the end of 1956, he has demonstrated that only his own failings have the power to rend his soul. Unlike Lucy, who, when Charlie Brown asks her what her New Year’s Resolutions are, loudly proclaims that she likes herself just the way she is, Charlie Brown is keenly aware of his own failings. He has two bouts of extreme insomnia in 1956 – once when he strikes out and loses a baseball game. He relives the moment in bed, wearing his baseball cap, for strip after strip – “The nights are the hardest,” he says in agony. Ain’t it the truth? After Christmas, he is so upset at not receiving a single Christmas card that he seeks solace in sleep. “Sleep is the only real cure for discouragement…you just have to go to sleep and try to forget everything, and…” at which point he rears up and wails, “Not even one!” Charlie Brown’s amazing capacity for experiencing Angst begins here.

There are plenty of purely light moments in these early strips – charming, fresh, and howlingly funny. But even these early strips are not totally devoid of the pop culture that reared its ugly head to often wearisome effect in the 70s. On June 22, 1956, Lucy says “Yes, sir, boy!” not once but three times with great enthusiasm and appreciation, while gazing at a photo of – Elvis Presley.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I identify quite strongly with Lucy. I don’t possess her unconquerable self-confidence or self esteem, but I do share with Lucy a strong sense that folks could stand to have a few of their faults pointed out to them – purely as an aid toward their own betterment. It’s not my best quality, but like Lucy, I am quite often an over-critical fussbudget.

Finally, there is Pig-Pen. I have never found strips featuring this perpetually messy but usually blithe boy to be particularly funny, but I do love one strip. Violet and Patty are being nasty to Pigpen, who is sitting calmly in a mud puddle reading a book – Patty: Just look at that “Pig-Pen.” Violet: Isn’t he awful? Patty: “Terrible…just terrible! Violet: A real “good-for-nothing.” Patty: I’ll say…a complete flop!

As they walk off, Pig-Pen stands up, still clutching his book, and shouts after them, “I’m well-read!”



  1. My family said I was Lucy when I was a kid, and I'm afraid they were referring to my self-righteous self-confidence as well as my tendency to be a fussbudget. You never really get over these labels, do you?

  2. No, maybe not. Perhaps as an antidote, you could figure out which character in "Pooh" you most resemble. That always soothes my soul...