On Unhappiness, Friendship, and Charlie Brown
Published in The Reading Room
During the cold months of the 1971-72 school year, when I was in third grade, my father brought home a cat that one of his buddies didn’t want or couldn’t keep. My family was soon to make the connection between animal hair — particularly cat hair — and my periodic bouts of asthma; but that hadn’t happened yet, which was why, on the day I am recalling, I was home from school, propped up in my parents’ bed and struggling for breath. For part of the day I was alone with my grandmother, who was seventy-seven or seventy-eight and who could hear you only if you stood right in front of her and spoke as if to someone a block away. At one point, while she was doing laundry or something in the basement, my breathing went from bad to worse – my lungs, which already felt as if they had shrunk to the size of thimbles, seemed to be shutting down altogether. I shouted for my grandmother, but she couldn’t hear me. Then my parents walked in, took one look at me, and whisked me off to the hospital. I came home that evening, my breathing restored (I never saw the cat again), and returned to my parents’ bed. Beside me was a stack of my older brother’s “Peanuts” books, collections of comic strips from years past. I was comfortable after a day of misery; there was no place I had to go; and I was engaged in one of my favorite activities. It was the happiest moment of my childhood.
Identifying with a character is not a prerequisite for enjoying a book or movie or TV show or comic strip, but it can certainly help, and my day of adversity no doubt enhanced my appreciation for the travails of Charlie Brown, the hero of “Peanuts” and the alter-ego of its creator, Charles M. Schulz. Neither my adversity nor my affinity for “Peanuts” was limited to that day. As I am hardly the first to point out, many, many children have identified with Charlie Brown’s perennial feelings of disconnectedness from the world around him, and my own ability to relate to Charlie Brown went a long way toward explaining my love of the strip. Charlie Brown was a loser, in both the original sense of the word — he simply lost in a lot of situations — and the modern sense: he seemed to have inherent qualities that made life more difficult for him than it was for other people. Yet those qualities were not of the kind that prevented anyone from feeling kinship with him, since they often seemed to amount to no more than bad luck — and who wouldn’t rather blame his failures on his luck than on himself? (The fault, dear Snoopy, lies not in our selves . . . ) True, his falling — literally — for Lucy’s offers to hold the football while he ran to kick it, despite her having tricked him innumerable times in the past, suggested a trust that bordered on stupidity; but is trusting people too much the worst sin there is? True, the baseball team of which Charlie Brown was pitcher and manager was routinely slaughtered; but that was hardly his fault alone, even if he did always shoulder the blame. Unlike, say, Lucy, he at least knew there was a game in progress. (Charlie Brown’s being the team manager, which I found puzzling as a boy, now makes perfect sense to me. Managing people, as anyone who has done it knows, is an inexhaustible source of headaches, and who would be more likely to find himself in that role?)
There were a couple of differences between Charlie Brown and me. One was skin color. The other was that Charlie Brown experienced things that, most of the time at least, I feared rather than suffered. But the first difference was unimportant to me, and I wasn’t even aware of the second, because, as I realize now, the fear of Charlie Brown-like experiences was as painful as the events themselves, and my potential for falling victim to them made me, in my own eyes, the same as one who was routinely victimized. As a boy I had a mortal fear of being laughed at, and my school life — which is most of a child’s life — was filled with events designed, it seemed to me, to bring about that result. I hated the tumbles we were made to do in gym class; I was afraid of doing them wrong, not because I might snap my scrawny neck but because there was a roomful of kids ready to laugh at any mistake. There were sometimes dances in the auditorium during school hours, and I would rather have lost a toe than set one on the dance floor. When other kids laughed at Charlie Brown, he seemed like my fellow soldier, taking a bullet that could just as easily have hit me. And his suffering, I thought, made him noble.
Just as important as my identification with Charlie Brown, in explaining my love of “Peanuts,” was that I found the strip uproariously funny. I often ran to read them to my parents and older siblings, sometimes barely able to get the words out because I was laughing so hard. I remember one cartoon in particular striking me as the height of sophistication and wittiness when I was in second grade. In it, Charlie Brown and Linus stand at the wall where they often hang out together; Linus tries to assure Charlie Brown that he is not alone in having places where he doesn’t feel he fits in, and asks if any place in particular makes him uncomfortable. In the last panel, Charlie Brown replies, “Earth!” I was inspired to create my own strip, “Jerome,” which was basically “Peanuts,” except that it was not drawn particularly well, even by the standards applied to eight-year-olds, and it wasn’t very funny – I looked at the strips again several years later, and even I didn’t get the jokes. (There was one exception: I drew a strip in which a girl, sad that her dress has shrunk in the washing machine, decides to get in the machine herself. Sometime afterward Carl Anderson, the cartoonist who drew “Henry,” had the exact same idea.)
Our tastes change as we grow older, of course, as does the way we think about human relationships. Among the hard truths we eventually learn are that suffering does not necessarily make people noble, that people’s misfortunes do not cause us to love them (often they have the opposite effect), and that shared misery is not by itself a basis for lasting friendship. Charlie Brown’s feeling of disconnectedness, even if it was not his fault, was the salient feature of his life; as a boy I identified with that feeling, but isn’t the idea, eventually, to find like-minded people with whom one has more in common than chronic unhappiness, and then to leave such unhappiness behind? Does anyone really want to be friends with a grown-up Charlie Brown? What would you talk about besides his screwed-up life, and how long would it be before you ran out of consoling words? My older daughter, who is a much more socially adept child than I ever was and who thus has no use for Charlie Brown, once pronounced him to be “depressed and depressing”; she prefers the title character of “Garfield,” the sarcastic but contented cat who gets the two things he wants in life — inordinate amounts of food and sleep — largely through the force of his sense of entitlement (which is how a lot of humans operate, too). I remember being a pretty serious “Peanuts” fan through my junior high school years, which were the worst years of my youth, probably of my life thus far. Then I went to high school, where suddenly, to my surprise, I was able to relate to my fellow students. Maybe not coincidentally, my ardor for “Peanuts” began to cool. Punch lines such as “Earth!” lost their hold on me, as did Charlie Brown.
The 1999 publication of Peanuts: A Golden Celebration, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the strip, was followed closely by the death of Charles Schulz, in early 2000. The two events made me mildly curious about how I would enjoy something I hadn’t undertaken in decades: a long, leisurely reading of the adventures of Charlie Brown. When A Golden Celebration was printed in paperback, in 2004, I picked up a copy, and in perusing the cartoons I remembered so well, I had three reactions — all of them pleasant, two of them surprising to me. The first was that rereading the strips was like visiting with long-lost friends; there was the same feeling of affection rekindled, the reasons for the separation forgotten or brushed aside like so much dust. Second, I found that I now responded less to the words – many of the punch lines, as I suspected, weren’t very funny to me — and more to the drawings. If “Peanuts” is still being read in another fifty years, which is possible, I predict it will be because of the masterfully rendered expressions on the characters’ faces, which are the features of “Peanuts” that still make me laugh. The emotions Charlie Chaplin or Giulietta Masina could reflect comically with their eyes and mouths are those that Schulz was able to make funny with a pen: alarm, disgust, impatience, and many more, singly or in combination. Finally, in embracing “Peanuts” during my childhood, then drifting away from it in my adolescence, I had responded to Charlie Brown alone – as if he were a real kid or had somehow drawn himself. I now saw him for what he was: a drawing, part extension, part creation of Schulz, and I found a new appreciation for him.
It sounds cold to say that friendship, like commerce, is based on mutual benefit; but at bottom, is it not true? Our friends give us something: they make us laugh, or they stimulate us intellectually, or they offer warmth, compassion, and understanding, or, if we are very lucky, they do all of these. To help a friend in need is, in part, to repay such acts – or it is charity. As a being in himself, Charlie Brown has only the fact of his misery to offer, and thus has significant limitations as a friend. But as a gift from a friend, as an offering from Charles Schulz, he is funny, his expressions drawn hilariously, his adventures – I realize now – depicted with an utter lack of sentimentality; he is the medium through which Schulz made many of us laugh while reflecting our fears, through which he conveyed his single greatest gift: his compassion.