A Boy, a Dog, a Gang of Peanuts, and the Meaning of Life

For all the Charlie Browns in the world, Library of America has published The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life.

The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life
Andrew Blauner, Editor
Library of America
October 2019

Where would we be without Charles Schulz’ Peanuts?

What would our notion of America be and how would it be different if Peanuts never existed? How would children learn to reconcile their emotional states with an often unfair world around them? If Charlie Brown and the Gang never came into being, what would American culture look like?

Don’t dwell on those questions too long, you may discover a creeping existential dread that darkens your psyche. Breathe in deep, exhale; Peanuts is alive and well and in no danger of being lost in the annals of American history.

Good thing, too, because Peanuts is much more than a 50-year slice of American popular culture. Peanuts is as indelible to post-WWII American history as rock ‘n’ roll and Robert Frost, the only relic with a rare, cross-generational appeal. Volumes could be written about each minuscule aspect of Schulz’ art, his characters, and his endearing storylines, but for now, Library of America and editor Andrew Blauner offer us a single, rewarding volume on the topic of Peanuts. Thirty-three writers and artists wax eloquent and often poetic in the pages of The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life. The book is, quite simply, a necessary and important work, a text that gives Peanuts a proper dissection and adds to the pleasure of the original source material.

Somber and earnest yet often downright silly in tone, Peanuts was one of the first comics to imbue cartoon children with heart-wrenching emotions before disseminating those emotions outward with precision and clarity at a pace of three or four panels. In Peanuts, children are the primary devices for storytelling, therefore it is completely necessary that The Peanuts Papers remain faithful to the comic strips’ childlike candor. It does just this, but it also captures the raw emotions of childhood in each piece—or, as Joe Queenan notes in his appropriately-titled essay, “Why I Love Peanuts”, “The world of Peanuts was hermetically sealed, in the way that children at play have always wanted their cosmos hermetically sealed.”

Queenan and an assortment of some of the most popular writers and artists in the world share insights and revelations of varying degree with such ease that, as a reader, you’d be foolish not to sift through the text with pen or highlighter in hand. There are topical essays for everyone and more than enough for the casual reader to absorb with pleasure. Yet, the world of Peanuts goes beyond casual reading. We could spend twice the amount of time Schulz did expounding upon Charlie Brown’s neuroses and never come close to reaching the end. But that doesn’t stop contributors from Ira Glass to Ann Patchett, Maxine Hong Kingston to Ivan Brunetti, and cartoonists Chris Ware and Seth, among others, from digging deeper into the Peanuts world of childhood.

The writers explore Peanuts from every angle and cover a great deal of literary ground in the process. Presented in five sections, the collection is split between poetic rumination, such as Nicole Rudick’s “A Space for Thinking” and Kevin Powell’s “What Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Peanuts Mean to Me”; character studies such as Sarah Boxer’s “The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy”‘ and heartbreakingly true stories from Jonathan Franzen and Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell. The joy of reading The Peanuts Papers comes in a rush once you realize just how universal their experiences with these characters are. Chuck Klosterman’s observations on Charlie Brown are eerily similar to my own; David Hadju’s brief history on the influences of Peanuts might have otherwise been forgotten; and Janice Shapiro’s illustrated contribution encapsulates the dark, confusing tunnels of childish emotions and first crushes.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of
The Peanuts Papers is the breadth of coverage. Fans of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz soundtrack, the multiple television specials, and the original comic strip will all find at least one essay (but probably two) to savor. Gerard Early’s exploration of how jazz, Peanuts, and childhood intersect its revelatory to read but I’ve always gravitated toward the inherent melancholia in the jazz score of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Melancholia is a good state to reside in when reading Peanuts Papers, as most of the essays live in the world of depression surrounded by a general lack of color. But there’s joy inside those black and white panels and each missed football kick is a cause for celebration amongst this gang of artists and writers.

A true standout among the pack is one of two poems in the collection: Jill Bialosky’s “A Childhood in Four Acts”.

My poetic sensibilities are long gone, but Bialosky dug them up and shined them up for me. Her verses are sparse and stunning, hitting squarely where nostalgia and
Peanuts intersect and they come ready to strip away the thin layers of ego to expose the emotional core underneath. Her poem resonates loudly across my heart, especially the final stanza regarding Charlie Brown’s choice of one, sad little Christmas tree:

Does compassion make him choose the saddest

are we all bound by our peculiar fate, minor victories and wish for ballast

trimmed with one red bulb

from Snoopy’s decorated doghouse,

the branch with barely a needle left

droops to the ground and falls over.

Bialosky exposes what we knew all long:
Peanuts is poetry in cartoon form. It has grounded our reality so long it’s impossible to imagine life without it. For 70 years, Peanuts has been a guidebook for navigating difficult emotions, finding strength in friends, and remembering to appreciate the small moments in life. The Peanuts Papers is a worthy addition to the legacy of Charles M. Schulz and the legacy of American culture.

RATING 8 / 10