Arthur Asa Berger

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1788

Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, is a rather shy person who personifies the American Dream. (p. 181)

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Peanuts is now so ubiquitous that it is literally part of the fabric of modern American society, and Schulz is the spokesman for millions of mute Americans. (p. 182)

Because the comic strip does not have much status as an art form, and because the characters in Peanuts are little children and a dog, we tend to underestimate Schulz's achievement, even though almost everybody admires his work. I believe that Schulz is one of the greatest humorists of the twentieth century…. [He] has developed a distinctive style of art work, an incredible assortment of characters, and a positively amazing command of the techniques of humor.

His ouvrage is monumental. And though his earlier work was not particularly exceptional, he has developed his talent to an extraordinary level over the years. We find his work all about us…. The strip is also popular abroad—some hundred million people read it daily—though I believe it is essentially American in its spirit.

We enjoy Peanuts because it is extremely funny. Schulz mixes graphic, verbal, and ideational humor in a genuinely inventive manner. He is a master of representing expressions in his characters. His characters tend to be monomaniacs who pursue their destinies with all the zany abandon of divinely inspired zealots. We seldom see them this way, however, because we have been taught to regard children (and dogs) as innocent and mildly amusing.

Schulz does not accept this notion; he portrays children in all their Augustinian corruptness. The characters in Peanuts exist after the fall of man from the Garden of Eden. They are corrupted by original sin and therefore can be selfish egoists without any strain on our credulity.

There are no adults in the strip; there are no authority figures, though Lucy, by virtue of her domineering personality and ready resort to fisticuffs, is probably the locus of power for all practical purposes. The strip is a fascinating study in anarchy. Without any central organizing power to set limits and establish boundaries, we find a collection of self-important petty sovereigns—or perhaps petty tyrants. A peanut is an "insignificant or tiny person," and Schulz's characters are in reality peanuts in both senses of the word. As far as their self-image is concerned, however, they are giants.

They are also lovable. Guilt does not make people nasty or hateful. (pp. 182-83)

The love in Peanuts is based upon understanding, not illusion; Schulz is a supreme realist. One of the strip's charms is that it openly acknowledges pride and stupidity and gullibility and all the other evil qualities (or nasty ones) in man, and still is able to be accepting. Somehow we all feel that Schulz accepts man for what he is, not what he claims to be. Schulz relieves us of the awesome burden of innocence, and we are all grateful.

Schulz's characters are only innocent in the sense they are asexual and pregenital; they have all the vices of adults in every other aspect. They are subject to passions, susceptible to whims, motivated by greed or love, and they never learn. Lucy pursues Schroeder relentlessly, never understanding (or admitting to herself) that he does not particularly like her. Linus is insecure, and an emotional cripple without his blanket. Charlie Brown is continually suffering ignominious defeats on the baseball diamond and is victimized by people who take advantage of his trusting nature.

Since the characters are children (and animals), we are not offended by the light they throw on our vices. Naive commentators have long been used as a literary device by humorists to point out our shortcomings. Huck Finn is a case in point. But Twain's humor has a savage intensity, founded on a sense of moral outrage that we do not find in Schulz, whose satire is infinitely more gentle and genial. Schulz deals with a wider perspective and operates at a higher level of abstraction.

Peanuts is a commentary on the human condition, from the perspective of a person who understands human nature and man's invincible ignorance and propensity toward folly. The comic strip format does not easily lend itself to the more biting satire of Twain or Swift, but it does lend itself to satire and social commentary, and Schulz is probably the king of popular psychologists and lighthearted critics of man in America. (pp. 184-85)

An important element behind humor—an insight we get from Freud and psychoanalysis—is that it serves to mask aggression. The energy that we expend laughing at the ridiculous releases pent-up hostilities. Under the guise of wit, Schulz says things we would rather not hear. He does this by defining things in an amusing way. "Happiness," he tells us, "is a warm puppy"; or "happiness is feeling the wind and rain in your hair." These definitions, which have a folksy quality to them, are really like proverbs—and Schulz is following a long line of humorists in America from Benjamin Franklin on, who cloaked their moralizing in witty phrases and comic maxims. Humor is implicitly social, and we must expect a certain amount of moralizing from our humorists. Proverbs, really, are moral directives. Schulz disguises this ethical element in his work so beautifully that we seldom see it.

Snoopy, from atop his doghouse, is very much a commentator from a mock-pulpit, calling man to see his errors and return to the straight and narrow path…. There is something about being on doghouses, pulpits or even soapboxes that brings out the moralist in man—and dogs like Snoopy.

Schulz is a mirthful moralist; he continues to point out our frailties and calls upon us to lead the good life. His particular instrument is his comic genius and the remarkable collection of many characters he has created in his strip. He does not sentimentalize childhood, and perhaps goes a step or two in the opposite direction at times, but then childhood is a period with many bitter and painful experiences.

Peanuts does a number of things for us. It points out, by implication, the danger of a society full of egoists who pursue their particular passions; it offers us little homilies and morality plays to help us maintain our righteousness; it offers us insights into the many frailties of man and human nature: and it enables us to release our aggressions by having a remarkable assortment of comic characters and fools for us to laugh at. It is no wonder that the strip is so popular with adults, for it is very reassuring. (pp. 186-87)

Peanuts is full of inversions. We find children who act like adults, dogs who act like humans, and a comic strip which deals with many of the profundities of life and does not sentimentalize children. Inversion is also central to the pastoral, and I believe we must understand Peanuts as a kind of pastoral. When we think of the pastoral, we usually imagine shepherds and maidens frolicking on the grass. But in its modern manifestations we can interpret the pastoral as a device which uses inversion and puts the complex into the simple. Schulz's children act like adults in a society where adults often act like children.

There is a certain abstract quality to the strip. The characters do not seem to live in society, per se—though society is intimated in the form of schools and psychiatrists and holidays. Much of the action takes place beyond society in a state of nature, with modern shepherds and shepherdesses playing out their roles. (pp. 187, 190)

Schulz's genius … is in finding ways of manipulating his stock characters so that unexpected resolutions occur or that the resolutions that we anticipate do not occur. (p. 191)

By all odds the greatest of Schulz's characters, and the one he relies most upon, is Snoopy. Snoopy is … one of the greatest manifestations of the talking animal convention. Not only does he talk, but he has a brilliant personality—he carries on human relationships, he is a bon vivant, he participates in history, he has an incredible imagination, he is witty, he expresses himself with virtuosity in any number of ways (eye movements, ear movements, tail movements, wisecracks, facial expressions), and he is superb as mimic and dancer. He has energy and spirit and a heart overflowing with kindness, though he has been known to boot a bird or two, or snatch a blanket.

There is, in fact, an existential dimension to Snoopy. He is an existential hero in every sense of the term. He strives, with dogged persistence and unyielding courage, to overcome what seems to be his fate—that he is a dog; that he is just a dog. And somehow he does it! I think we see Snoopy as a "person" who happens to be a dog, rather than a dog who happens to become a person…. (p. 192)

What Snoopy demonstrates, to all his readers, is that ultimately we are all free to create ourselves as we wish, no matter what our status on the Great Chain of Being might be. We can all be authentic if only we will have the courage to be what we can be. And this applies even to dogs.

Snoopy is an animal who has transcended his limitations, though he still has some. How curious that in a society characterized … by a growing sense of alienation and apathy, a dog in a comic strip is just bursting with joie de vivre, vitality, and hope. Perhaps we have reached the stage in which we live vicariously through Snoopy…. (pp. 192-93)

This is somewhat farfetched, but there is little question in my mind that one of the reasons for the popularity of Peanuts is that it helps assuage our hunger for personality in a world that is full of dehumanizing forces and in which identity is so much under attack. Snoopy shows that man's spirit has resiliency and that there is hope yet.

Schulz has said that his greatest ambition is to create a comic strip as good as Krazy Kat, probably the greatest comic strip produced to date. There is little question, I think, that he has come close to this goal. Schulz has transformed a comic strip into part of the very essence of American life. Charlie Brown and Linus and Snoopy and their cohorts are not just comic strip characters; they have long since transcended their roles and now are part of the galaxy of great comic creations, in any form of popular art. His characters have become legends in their own comic strip lifetimes. (p. 193)

Arthur Asa Berger, "Peanuts: The Americanization of Augustine," in his The Comic-Stripped American (copyright © 1973 by Arthur Asa Berger), Walker and Company, 1973, pp. 181-90.

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