Alastair Fowler

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

[Charles Schulz's] autobiographical memoir Peanuts Jubilee reads almost like a story, a myth of middle America. However modestly told, it must be a great success story….

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The memoir gives the real-life origin of many Peanuts events and characters. But this is a little deceptive: Mr Schulz often divulges less than he seems to.

He would have us think of him as the real Charlie Brown, a loser, stimulated to creativity by failures or disappointments in love. But if Charlie Brown ever wrote a comic strip, it would not be successful like Peanuts: it would be an international flop. Mr Schulz, we feel, must have something in him of Schroeder and Lucy—to say nothing of that typewriter ace Snoopy….

[The technical accounts of Mr Schulz's art] are not exactly secrets. About his own development away from gag cartooning, he is interesting but more reserved…. What is one to make of the cubist faces in Li'l Folks, or Snoopy's two right (seldom two left) eyes? Such matters are presented as technical problems. Thus, Mr Schulz abandoned the brush because his characters needed a tighter line; and he abandoned cats because he could not do them very well (a just appraisal, as a glance at We're Right Behind You, Charlie Brown will show).

Much—perhaps too much—of the Peanuts iconography is attributed to trivial causes. "It would be difficult to draw some of these characters from different angles." The front-view pose of Linus is obligatory because from the side his arm would be too short for thumbsucking. Schroeder, however, would be difficult from in front. It is possible that Mr Schulz really sees it all in this reductive way: "Cartooning, after all, is simply good design." But he must know that while his own draughtsmanship is limited (at best unnoticeable, like the transparent literary style of some great novelist), his cartooning has more value than that of better draughtsmen….

Two principles of Mr Schulz's art emerge. First, realism. He either treats familiar subjects (behind Schroeder's gratuitous information lies much reading of Beethoven biography); or else he gets subjects up to find out what is "authentic", that is, ordinary…. In one mood, Mr Schulz pursues statistical realism. Hence our characteristic response is one of recognition: Peanuts is just like the real thing…. People long to inhabit the humane, egalitarian Peanuts idyll.

The more subtle principle of variety … alternates probable and fantastic stories, and assigns them to a cast of diverse characters. When Snoopy threatens to take over the feature—he affects not to remember the name of "that roundheaded kid"—the principle of compensating variations restores him to proportion. Mr Schulz's art is firmly classical. More abstractedly, the same principle governs the alternation of daily episodes and extended stories. The latter are too long for Peanuts Jubilee; which is a pity….

The long stories are not planned ahead, but allowed to develop spontaneously. This daily encounter with the blank page could be construed as a form of self-interrogation, issuing in expressions of the various Peanuts archetypes. Such terms may seem disproportionate to a comic strip. But Mr Schulz himself more than once speaks of cartooning in connection with depressive phases, dreams, and curious mental states whose "examination" actually produces the past for self-analysis. Mythology, emblems, even witty epigraphs have provided interfaces with wisdom. And today, for some who lack a good ten-cent psychiatrist, the equivalent may well be Peanuts.

Theological allegorizing threatens to take over Peanuts criticism, and Mr Schulz tries … to put it in perspective…. This is not to deny that Peanuts introduces theological ideas …, or uses the Scriptures "in a gentle manner". But Mr Schulz prefers to leave discussion of such matters "for a time when you can look the other person directly in the eye". The dark glass of print distorts. This is almost too well judged for simplicity…. Mr Schulz claims not to have realized the subject he had touched on; and is careful to observe that people on both sides approved (and disapproved) of the strip. Before marvelling at his obliviousness: observe the real "point" of the strip: "that people all too frequently discuss things that they know little about." Charlie Brown's face, again, is round and ordinary because he represents Everyman.

Alastair Fowler, "The Round Face of Everyman," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 3, 1976, p. 1508.

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