Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#88, May 23, 2000


by Marylaine Block

On May 27, 2000, when the National Cartoonists Society meets in New York to honor Charles Schulz with its lifetime achievement award (better late than never), every cartoon strip and editorial cartoon will refer to Peanuts.

If you've never known a world without Peanuts, you might not understand how important, even revolutionary, Charles Schulz was, as much to ordinary readers as to those who said "That's what I want to do when I grow up."

His art is simple, but far from simple-minded. Our own cartoonist Chris Hiers says "it appears deceptively easy, inspiring many to imitate, but most never come anywhere close." With a few spare lines Schulz sketches in nuances of expression and tells us everything important about these utterly distinct personalities. Cartonist Mike Peters says, "There's no other strip where you can go down the line and describe each character in one or two words, they were that strong."

Schulz' greatest contribution was making the lives of kids real to adults. Grownups used to honestly believe that childhood was a time of innocent bliss. Huh? Where had they been during their own childhood? Sleepwalking? Did they forget the taunts and teasing? Annoying, all-wise older brothers and sisters? The valentines and party invitations they didn't get? As Mort Walker said "He brought pathos and the attitudes you know that all real children have of rejection and failure, and he somehow made them funny."

Twenty years before Judith Viorst wrote about Alexander, Charlie Brown was having terrible, horrible, no good very bad days. Years before Lord of the Flies, Schulz showed us that children's society could be ruthless to those who don't fit in.

There IS innocent joyousness in Peanuts -- that's what Snoopy is all about, Beethoven's Ode to Joy in physical form. Who can forget his blissed-out dancing, his preposterous imaginary adventures? Lucy tells him, "With all the trouble in the world, you have no RIGHT to be so happy." But he IS happy, oh, he is. We may identify more with Charlie Brown, but Snoopy is who we'd like to be.

Charlie Brown is the poster boy for "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" -- and fail, fail again. We know perfectly well he will NEVER get that kite up in the air, NEVER win a ball game, NEVER punt that ball. And yet, resilient as the human spirit itself, he always keeps trying. As cartoonist Mell Lazarus said, "He gave us permission to be pessimistic but still cheerful."

And then there's Lucy, the unforgettable curmudgeon. A recent tribute to Charles Schulz spoke of her as a feminist heroine, bold, assertive, admirable.

Oh, please. A bitch is not necessarily a feminist.

Lucy is "the crabgrass in the lawn of life" to her little brother. She tries to improve Charlie Brown's life by making a list of his faults that extends like an endless scroll; she "helps" the little boy who cries in school by whacking him, because "There's nothing like a little physical pain to take your mind off your emotional problems." Smug and self-satisfied, she refuses to believe that Schroeder could really reject HER.

We love Linus for the openness of his insecurity, his spiritual questions, and his unwavering belief in the Great Pumpkin; we enjoy Sally for her automatic outrage at the world, so often followed by an Emily Litella-ish "Never mind."

Not least of the strip's charms are the words to live by, scattered throughout:

Lucy: "Each generation must be able to blame the previous generation for its problems. It doesn't solve anything, but it makes us feel better."

Linus: "No problem is so big or so complicated that it can't be run away from."

Linus: "There's no heavier burden than a great potential."

Charlie Brown: "A hot dog just doesn't taste right without a ball game in front of it."

Charlie Brown: "It's hard on a face when it gets laughed in."

Many people seem to think Peanuts is for kids, and of course children do enjoy it. But it's the adults who need reminders of what childhood is really like. Chris Hiers says "upon rediscovering Schulz, it all remains intact. All of the humor, warmth and unforgettable characters, still valid, still poignant. There's never been a strip with anywhere near the generational crossover appeal of Peanuts."

Thank you, Charles Schulz, for rescuing grownups from our amnesia, for helping us recapture our childhood, and showing us how to believe there's hope for us anyway.

Read the rest of
these columns

home to all my
other writing