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Friday, May 23, 2008

The Schulz and Peanuts Roundtable

(Excerpt from the Roundtable introduction.)

David Michaelis' Schulz and Peanuts is the most ambitious biography to date of the creator of what may be the most influential and beloved comic strip of the 20th century; it may be the most controversial biography of a cartoonist, as well.

Schulz and Peanuts appeared in early October. It received largely respectful reviews, most of which took Michaelis' story of Charles Schulz's life at face value and reiterated it uncritically — including those reviews that appeared in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Several reviews underscored Michaelis' conclusions that Schulz was a depressed or melancholic personality and a remote father and husband, but didn't question them. By the end of October, however, it was widely known, at least among cartooning circles, that the Schulz family was unhappy with much of the biography and disputed precisely those most-talked-about assertions made in the book. Schulz's son Monte was particularly vocal about his — and the family's — dissatisfaction with Michaelis' portrait of his father, posting numerous messages on the Cartoon Brew website to that effect.

On Nov. 7, as part of his book tour, Michaelis appeared in Seattle, where I had the privilege of interviewing him about the book. We spoke at length about the gestation of the biography and his admiration for Schulz. I brought up the burgeoning controversy and read a couple of quotes by Monte Schulz, inviting him to respond. Michaelis replied that his biography was interpretive, conceded that it could be read as a "corrective" to Schulz's antiseptic public persona, and steadfastly defended the truthfulness of his portrait of Schulz.

Because Schulz and Peanuts is an important biography about one of the most important cartoonists who ever lived and brings up specific issues regarding Schulz, as well as broader issues about the latitude of a biographer, the difficulty of resolving competing truth claims, and the nature of biography itself, we decided to arrange a symposium on the book. We asked five historians and critics to, first, write a response to the book and, second, comment on each otherĂ­s initial responses. Three participants are Journal contributors: Jeet Heer, R.C. Harvey and Kent Worcester. (R. Fiore's essay, insightful as it is about Schulz, did not discuss the book itself, and appears in his column on page 208.) The fourth is Monte Schulz. In the course of a conversation with me on the subject, Monte was sufficiently impassioned that I encouraged him to consolidate his numerous message-board posts into a coherent argument that we could publish as part of the roundtable. He did more than that by writing both an argument and an alternative portrait of his father. I would like to have participated myself but, as the publisher of The Complete Peanuts, felt I lacked the objectivity (or the appropriate subjectivity). We are happy to publish any response Michaelis would care to make or respect his disinclination to do so. He was invited to participate in this issue by responding to the two rounds of argumentation or in any other way he felt comfortable, but he declined, saying he preferred to let the book speak for itself. Clearly, it had a lot to say, for good or ill, judging from the critical conversation it has provoked.
— Gary Groth

(Excerpts from Monte Schulz's contribution to the Roundtable.)

I must admit I'm not a big fan of biography. This is not to say I don't read them, because now and then I'm drawn to the story of writers I admire, such as Virginia Spencer Carr's biography of Carson McCullers, or A. Scott Berg's book on Maxwell Perkins, and Arthur Mizener's biography, The Far Side of Paradise, one of the early examinations of F. Scott Fitzgerald's life. I've read Joseph Blotner's book on Faulkner, and Moreau's biography of James Agee, and even Shade of the Raintree, Larry Lockridge's memoir of his father. So, while I am not indisposed to appreciating biography, it's not something I seek out all that often.

For that reason, the idea of a biography on my father was not, for me, a huge priority, even after he died. Perhaps it was because I presumed his story had already been told in 50 years of comic strips, or maybe because the only part of his life that mattered to me were the years I knew him as my father. In any case, when David Michaelis approached us with the idea of writing Dad's life, I was fairly neutral to the idea. What interested me in evaluating David's pitch was how well he wrote, not necessarily what he intended to write. I supposed he would try to say, as others had, that Dad was melancholy and morose and hated to travel. And if that were to be the direction of the book, I'd have to say no. Yet not only was I impressed by what I read in his biography of N.C. Wyeth, his artful language and literary sensibility, but by David himself, who came across as thoughtful and engaging, fun to talk to and be with; I even nicknamed him "Pudge." He even confided to me how the genesis of doing the biography on my father came from a conversation with the Kennedy kids, former schoolmates of his. When asked how he had intended to follow his biography of N.C. Wyeth, David told them he was leaning toward a book on their grandfather, Joe Kennedy, an idea they rejected out of hand, arguing that he ought to write about Charles M. Schulz. Although his Wyeth editor at Knopf favored the Kennedy biography, David became convinced that telling my father's life — a Midwestern story — was what interested him best, and so that's what he proposed to us several months after Dad's death.

Charles, Monte and Carl Schulz: photo courtesy of Monte Schulz.

It's important to bear in mind that David and I had a good and constant relationship over the years he researched and wrote my father's biography. We visited with the rest of my family in Minneapolis and St. Paul the year after Dad's death, traveling from Roselawn cemetery in St. Paul, where Dad's mother was buried, three miles east to my grandfather's plot at Forest Lawn. We drove to the houses where Dad lived as a boy, the apartment he shared with his mother and father above Grandpa's barbershop on Selby and Snelling, and onto Minnehaha Parkway where our family lived before coming west to California in 1958. David was invited into our lives to record what we knew was important about Dad and our time with him, sharing, as we traveled about, anecdotes and observations we were sure would be recorded into David's definitive biography on Charles M. Schulz's life and art.

After Minnesota, I flew into Washington D.C. to take part in Katie Couric's colon cancer benefit. David met me at National Airport and I stayed the night at his Georgetown mansion where we did our first interview about my life with Charles M. Schulz. He and his wife, Clara, were very gracious hosts. A year later, I came back to Washington to take part in a ceremony awarding Dad the Congressional Gold Medal and had dinner with David, my friend (and Dad's) Robert Short (The Gospel According to Peanuts), and the former president of Dad's company, Warren Lockhart. That evening, I discovered that David was more religious than I'd expected, something that bore out in the first draft of his manuscript years later with a discussion of my father's own faith regarding the Church Of God and his professing late in life of an inclination toward secular humanism.

It's important to understand how often David and I spoke during the period he researched and wrote this biography. I considered us to be good friends, and I presume he did, too. Nor were all our communications limited to a discussion of Dad and his life. Indeed, few people in my life were more supportive of my own work than was David and I owe him quite a lot for that. Likewise, we shared a good correspondence regarding his own difficulties, both personal and professional, and I felt a deep and abiding empathy for that path which led him to our family. He had, after all, lost his own mother fairly recently and felt her absence as much I missed Dad. I found David over the years to be considerate and gracious, unusually insightful on artistic and personal matters, and genuinely forthcoming in expounding on his own triumphs and failures. We commiserated often and that's what made our friendship so worthwhile to me — beyond the ultimate purpose of his biography-writing and his presence in my life. The practical result of our relationship was my constant and energetic cheerleading of his efforts in dealing with my family. Initially, Mom had no interest in talking to him; neither did my older sister Meredith, nor my Aunt Ruth. My mother believed David was simply cashing in on the publicity surrounding Dad's death and wanted no part of that. I spent four years urging them to speak with him, because I believed in David's book and the importance of the project. Moreover, I was utterly convinced, as was my stepmother, Jeannie, that David Michaelis was clearly the best person to tell this story, both from a literary perspective and his own sensibilities, as I perceived them during those years.

The cover image to Robert L. Short's The Gospel According to Peanuts, ©1956 United Feature Syndicate.

We kept up a steady correspondence both by telephone and e-mail, so I felt confident in what sort of biography David intended to write. Also, I closed each phone call by reminding him that the mythology of my father's depression was not only false but also done to death by journalists and his first biographer, Rita Grimsley Johnson. Knowing my father over any reasonable period of time would disabuse someone of the idea that he was melancholy or withdrawn. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most people who knew him found Dad quite engaging and full of enthusiasm for life and its many facets, both wonderful and troubling. He understood as well as anyone that we live in a difficult world whose contradictions test our faith in goodness and love and reverence for all things bearable. Yet, life still must be lived and appreciated for what it offers. Doing that, while trying to exist through tragedy and sorrow and disappointment, makes some of us heroes, and lends a glow to our minor triumphs. This understanding lies at the heart of Peanuts and is what perhaps made it unique in American culture.

David sent me the manuscript a few days before Christmas, and I read it in bed after returning from a family celebration on Christmas Eve. I was still reading at 4 in the morning. Virtually nothing of what I had told him over the years about my relationship with Dad was represented in the manuscript I had just read.

(Email to David Michaelis.)

Your book is so fundamentally false in its portrayal of my father, so narrow in its description of his character, and so deceitfully uninterested in telling his life story (as opposed to your moralizing psychological analysis of him, which is not 'biography'), that I have neither the desire, nor any intention whatsoever, of revealing any of the many, many factual errors in this manuscript. I am so astounded and shocked that you would devote six years of your life to writing this kind of book (which you repeatedly assured me did not interest you), I've come to the conclusion that you either had no genuine passion in telling his life story, or that you became bored halfway through, and decided a salacious account of his love life and the size of his bank account, would be more interesting than anything else. And, make no mistake, it's not so much what you wrote that I find objectionable, but all that you left out — unquestionably the larger story of his life. Also, having written a long book myself that required voluminous research, I was appalled how careless and lazy yours turned out to be, how unintellectual and amateurish. Therefore, I will be more than satisfied to see your book sail out of the harbor with dozens of loose planks below the waterline.

It is quite difficult to reread that e-mail now without seeing how abruptly mean-spirited and intransigent it was. There is none of the give and take David and I had offered each other over the years, no room for negotiation or compromise. He had requested criticism and suggestions, and I replied with the former, but none of the latter. Certainly, I feel somewhat uneasy with that note now, a year later, particularly without his manuscript in front of me, because his own work provided the motivation and anger, which inspired that amazingly snarky e-mail. So I am of two minds regarding what I wrote, just as I am ambivalent about David Michaelis himself. How our correspondence could have degenerated so rapidly really does astound me today, but then so did his first draft of the biography. And you simply cannot understand what prompted me to write such a nasty note without following me through the manuscript. One led irrevocably to the other. And both distress me still. And, naturally, there are two books to talk about: that stunning first draft, and the one HarperCollins published in October. They are similar (the final being somewhat shorter), yet I feel the need to offer a couple of differences in order to illustrate what astonished me so much in my initial reading. Since we were not shown the final version until September of '07, there was no sense in making a loud noise about the book until we had seen it. Complaining about parts of the book David had already cut was only useful in showing what he had desired to write, not what HarperCollins planned to offer to the public. Every writer makes cuts, and I would certainly not comment on sloppy writing or first-draft eccentricities. What writer lacks such things? Nonetheless, there are two examples I believe need to be aired in the context of what seemed at such variance with that book we were so convinced David was writing. I'll show them in their proper context.

There are, essentially, three major problems with Schulz and Peanuts. The biography has a number of factual errors throughout, some minor, some reflective of larger issues, all easily corrected. Yet none of them are really excusable when David Michaelis had such constant access to those of us willing to respond to the smallest questions at any time. That he let so many mistakes creep into the book is surprising, and disappointing, too, given how carefully he was doing his research. But these mistakes do exist and I will point some of them out as we move through the book. Then, there are factual errors of interpretation and these are more serious because they influence the reader's opinion of certain areas of my father's story. In other words, David presents specific information, whether in his own narrative or by quoting someone, that is erroneous or misleading. These mistakes are certainly deliberate, because they direct the story he is trying to tell, and lead the reader away from the truth of a given situation or point of view. Another aspect of this turns on whom David quotes to illuminate some moment of Dad's life or personality, or even our family's life at a given moment in time. Choosing to quote one person to the exclusion of another can easily direct the narrative somewhere it ought not to go. Which brings me to the largest problem in this biography: omissions. As I wrote to David in that final e-mail, what he left out of the biography was without doubt the larger part of my father's life, and by doing so he did a great disservice to his readers who were then left with David Michaelis' version of Dad's life, not that of those of us who actually lived with, or alongside of, Charles M. Schulz. And although David has argued that the biography was already too long and needed to be edited down, which is true of any long volume, what he left in very conveniently suited his own themes and beliefs in this book, while much of what he left out would have contradicted his point of view. So these many great omissions were conscious, deliberate cuts by David to create a book that is, in places, flatly untrue and deceitful in a very obvious and unfair manner. I will illustrate them as I go along, explaining that most of what I know to be left out occurs in the part of the book where I am alive and old enough to be aware of what was going on in my father's life. What my essay cannot be is a page-by-page analysis of the biography. I have no desire to write something longer than David's book, so by necessity I can only jump about here and there, trying to illuminate parts of the biography that are problematic to me, and have been to others.


From Being a Dog is a Full-Time Job: A Peanuts Collection ©1994 United Feature Syndicate, Inc..

To begin, what's odd about this biography is how heavily David attaches it to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. His contention that, like Charles Foster Kane who "got everything he wanted, and then lost it," my father succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, but struggled to love and be loved. According to David, my father felt alone all his life. I presume that David believed my father adored this movie because it resonated with themes in Dad's own life. Yet, really, Dad told me that he thought Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made because of the cinematography, its innovations and artistic achievement. He never made one mention of its astonishing insights, or any connection to his own life. And it is also true that my father spoke just as often about Beau Geste as his favorite movie, even using it now and then in the strip. In any case, I think David creates a thesis and a theme right off the top in his book of dubious merit. It's more his invention than anything else. Just as the issue of whether Dad struggled to love and be loved and felt alone all his life is part of David's imagination, and has to be regarded as an unknowable fact since none of us close to Dad over those many, many years believe David's thesis to be true at all. Of course, one might also wonder why David feels it necessary to explain my father's life analogically when he has already at hand the incredible story of a little boy who is given the name of a comic-strip character practically at birth — "Sparky," after Sparkplug in Barney Google — then grows up to become the most famous cartoonist of the 20th century and dies the night before his final strip appears in the newspapers.

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