Long Zoom: Interview with Steven Johnson

Jason B. Jones

"My editor said, 'Yeah, it's like Emergence if the slime molds started killing people in chapter four.' And that became my mantra as I was writing it: 'Just think Emergence with killer slime molds and you're golden.'" PopMatters talks to Ghost Map author, Steven Johnson.

The Ghost Map

Publisher: Penguin
Subtitle: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Author: Steven Johnson
Price: $26.95
Length: 320
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 1594489254
US publication date: 2006-10
Quote: Imagine a kind of conceptual tracking shot of life two or three years from now, a movement from scale to scale -- like the wonderful Charles and Ray Eames film, Powers of Ten, which starts with a view of the Milky Way and steadily zooms all the way to a person lying in a park in Chicago, and then all [the] way to the subatomic particles contained within that person's hand. Only in our long zoom do we find, at each scale, the same behavior repeating itself again and again.

-- Steven Johnson, Emergence

This idea of the "long zoom," a perspective that shifts back and forth from the macro- to the microcosm, organizes each of Steven Johnson's five books of cultural criticism and science journalism. As he explains below, Johnson deploys concepts borrowed from contemporary science and from literary theory, using these in particular to understand the way information -- biological, cultural, or other -- self-organizes as it moves along networks. It's not that he has one idea and applies it indiscriminately; rather, the long zoom is a kind of method: He focuses attentively on what happens at the moments when one shifts between scales -- those moments, that is, when an explanatory vocabulary that makes sense from one point of view appears to break down. Johnson consistently shows how scientific and cultural progress happens when consilient thinkers are able to translate observations and data at one level of experience into another, making visible what had been hidden.

After the media storm around Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005), Johnson's name is probably familiar to most readers of PopMatters. He's also the author of three prior books: Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (1997); Emergence: The Connected lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (2001); Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life (2004). He's also co-founded such influential websites as Plastic and the late, lamented Feed. At the end of 2006, he published a fifth book, The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, and co-launched a new neighborhood-centric web service, outside/in.

The Ghost Map tells the story of the Broad Street (London) cholera epidemic of 1854. Johnson focuses on John Snow, a Victorian physician already known for his work on standardizing doses of anesthesia -- in 1853, he had administered chloroform to Queen Victoria during labor -- and who emerges here as a strong advocate of the water-borne theory of cholera. This was a contrarian point of view at mid-century, when the miasmatic theory was still the consensus view. Johnson's story, then, pits Snow against the bacteria and against the city's nascent public health institutions; he is most interested in Snow's empirical approach, wherein the physician combined close observation of water samples with statistical analyses and reportorial interviews. As Johnson shows, by the end of this epidemic, cholera -- a longstanding scourge of metropolises, essentially faded as an epidemic threat in the developed nations. In short, cities became far more livable as they sorted out how to handle, not just waste, but also information from scientific research and the millions of inhabitants comprising a major city.

Steven Johnson sat down at the Underground Deli in New Britain, CT, to talk about The Ghost Map and the Long Zoom. In the interview, Johnson explains how the Long Zoom holds together his recent work, and how this perspective emerged from his graduate-school training in literary theory and the Victorian period. Of particular interest, perhaps, is his deliberate attempt to position himself at the nexus of competing cultural discourses: On the one hand, he is far more open to the insights of theoreticians like Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari than many (most?) scientists; on the other hand, he also has little use for the reflexive ideological suspicion of science that can frequently be found in humanistic writing. We also discuss, albeit slightly indirectly, a frequent criticism of Johnson's work: That he is, as he acknowledges in the afterword to Everything Bad Is Good for You, a species of "technological determinist," and, as such, is somewhat likelier to downplay the cultural difficulties involved in exporting scientific and technical knowledge from postindustrial metropolises to the giant, sprawling shantytowns of some developing nations.

So: interfaces, cool adaptive evolutionary skills, brain imaging, video games ... and now cholera. Did you self-consciously choose a "muckier" topic for The Ghost Map?

The origins of the book are very funny. You know, they've all had different, specific stories about how I came about to write them, but they also all have totally different kinds of stories. For example, Emergence took forever to take shape: It was going to be a book about cities, it was going to be a book about brains, and then it was going to be a book somehow about cities and brains, and then it was -- now wait! What is the underlying principle that unites these two things?


And then it was about ants, and it just took forever to form. And this one, I had gone out to dinner with my wife, while I was in the middle of writing Everything Bad Is Good for You and I was thinking about what to do next. And so I was thinking, it would be nice to do a book with a story: I've never written anything with a sustained story all the way through, and so it would be nice to find some kind of a historical story that could provide this architecture that I could then wrap an idea book around. So I was thinking, there must be some story that out there, that I know, that's somewhat out there, and that I could then work into my own web of ideas. And so then the next day, we went out to see Seabiscuit in the movie theater, and we're sitting in the middle of the theater and all of a sudden the Broad Street outbreak comes into my head. I'd heard about it, I think, first from Tufte, and then run across it in a couple of different ways, and within like two minutes I had almost all the major idea components that were in the original proposal: I would tell it with three protagonists -- bacteria, Snow, and the city, and I had the map connecting it with interfaces, and I had this disease thriller kind of idea, that you could structure it that way. And so I literally got up out of the theater and went out on the street and called my agent on the phone. I was said, "I have the next idea for the book!" And then I came back in the theater and my wife asked [stage whisper] "where did you go?" and I said [stage whisper], "I have the new idea for the book!"

So, Seabiscuit ... not just inspirational to the masses, but also the source of book ideas!

That's right: That's all you've got to do is go see Seabiscuit. But, really, it was not so much the messiness of it, but it was the historical narrative that I wanted to have.

That was going to be my next question: I've read other interviews where you say, in effect, "Hey -- there are these things called stories; writers use them sometimes!" And so I'd wondered whether the fact that Mind Wide Open and Everything Bad had done so well gave you the space to do a new thing.

The other consistent thing, though, is that formally they've all been a little different. All five of them, you know. So, Interface Culture is kind of just a cultural criticism of the most academic sort. It's the one that's bridging my failed grad school life and my whatever came after that. And then Emergence is a real scientific travelogue, where I'm going to take you through these different ideas. Mind Wide Open, I'm a character in it, so that added this whole component to it. Everything Bad is just this pure work of persuasion. It's all about getting you to come around to this one idea. And then The Ghost Map has this story. So I really just like both going on to new topics, with some common themes, but also trying out different forms. So the next one -- all haiku.

Paul Muldoon has this set of poems that are all putatively instant messages, where each is formed into a haiku -- it's in Horse Latitudes. It's pretty cool.

Damn ... someone already did it.

No, no -- it's just one poem. You've joked on your blog about how reviewers want to see The Ghost Map as proceeding, naturally or not, from Everything Bad, when actually it's a return to Emergence. But isn't the vanishing mediator between your two most recent books your essay on The Spore, with its focus on the Long Zoom?

It's true. It's very funny how you don't realize the connections between your work until you're in the middle of doing it sometimes. Sometimes you see it all along and you kind of have mapped it out, but sometimes it just takes a long time, and that whole process is interesting. When I was writing The Ghost Map, it was only halfway through it that I realized that, in some ways, it was a sequel to Emergence: that it was all about the city, that it was about neighborhoods, that it was about this bottom-up intelligence in neighborhoods, and how cities solve problems from below. And so, (I think I mentioned this in another interview), I called up my editor and he asked, "How's it going?" I replied, "It's kind of like Emergence, you know, if Emergence were a disease thriller." And he said, "Yeah, it's like Emergence if the slime molds started killing people in chapter four." And that became my mantra as I was writing it: "Just think Emergence with killer slime molds and you're golden."

As I was writing it, I was thinking of it kind of consciously as this sequel to Emergence, whatever that means, and then I finished it and I wanted to write this piece about Spore, because it's just such an interesting game and while I for a while had a little imaginary sign above my desk saying, "No more articles about Will Wright!" I just keep breaking that rule because he keeps coming out with incredibly interesting things. And I really wanted to have this concept of the Long Zoom, and that was when I started to realize, "Oh, there is this connection": Both in the sense that Spore is a game and Everything Bad is a book about games; Spore is a game that uses this Long Zoom perspective, and part of both the narrative technique of The Ghost Map and the kind of celebration of John Snow as a thinker was about that consilient crossing of scales. The subtler connection, which I'm sure you're picking up as well, is the stuff in the "Appendix" to Everything Bad, where it's saying that the way to think about culture is to think about it in this Long Zoom way, where you have a theory about how the brain works, which is based on neuroscience, which connects to a theory about how media interfaces with that brain, which is connected to a theory about how technology changes forms of media, which is connected to a theory about how broad social changes are connected to technological changes and media changes and brain changes. When you can tell the story across all those levels, that's when you're really describing what's happening.

But that's always been a feature present in your books, right? Because that was one of the things that was so interesting about Interface Culture, and also Feed, which obviously were more or less contemporaneous, was this sense of, "oh, look -- there are these humanities-trained people who aren't afraid of science, or who don't see it as politically suspicious, or whatever else, and you can bring the two worlds into dialogue."

Interface Culture was about culture and technology, and there were allusions to science in that book, but they were pretty half-baked. I did not do the kind of research that I needed to, and so there's an allusion or two to chaos theory in that, and actually, in a funny way -- if you go back and look at the agents chapter in that, the end of the agents chapter, where I look at what would a system driven by recommendations look like, there's this whole "Long Tail" thing that's there. It says, "certainly the culture would diversify -- there would be more, smaller groups of things." It was kind of ahead of its time, on the other hand, it didn't have the science right at all.

I wonder whether your interest in the Victorian period is a consequence of your graduate training -- I know you've joked that this is the first book you're actually qualified to write, but you do come back to it a lot (Dickens is in all your indexes, for instance) or is there a deeper interest in the Victorian period and its relationship to our time?

I'm trying very slowly to write my dissertation.

Doesn't everyone? Write it slowly, I mean?

I'm trying to spread it out over, like, 10 books, and at the end I'll say, "here, look: somewhere in here is my dissertation!"

I suppose I should make a goal of trying to write one book without a reference to Dickens. It's funny, I went to Columbia, in the English program, in a sense to do theory. I had been a semiotics major in college, and that was Brown in the late '80s -- it was the third most popular major in the humanities. It had no faculty of its own, but it was third: history, English, and semiotics. And so I went there because Said was there, and Gayatri Spivak was going to be there, and a bunch of other folks who were in that world--it was either going to be Duke or Columbia. I got there and they actually had this weird thing where they made you read novels, which [laughs] was odd, and then I fell in with Franco Moretti, who ended up having the most influence over my intellectual life at that period. He was really doing the nineteenth-century novel, and so I took a couple of different classes with him and I just got really interested in the period. I had always loved London, and I was interested in technology and culture, and so here you had industrialization hitting in this incredible way, and the novel. It was also interesting to write about the novel at that point because it was so central to the culture, in that it was the dominant explanatory form for that transition. I was able to write about cities and technology, and also write about the art of the period, but to write about the art of the period as if it were an active participant in making sense of that period. I got more and more interested in actual stuff.

Moretti has this essay on literary evolution, I think it's called "On Literary Evolution" in Signs Taken for Wonders, and I remember having this amazing experience of reading it and seeing him walking down Broadway in Morningside Heights, and saying, "But Franco, I think you're talking about science here in kind of a straight way; you're saying, "science has these ideas about the world that may be true, so let's see if we can apply some of those ideas to the study of literature, and you don't seem to be deconstructing science at all" and he said, "Right." "Interesting approach," I thought. It just opened up this whole world -- "oh, I could just borrow some of these ideas and not actually be battling those folks, I could actually ask them for help." That was the beginning of a whole avenue that took a long time to explore.

Well, let me follow up on that for a moment and then come back to the Victorian bit. Since you speak theory, as we've just covered, I wondered if you could comment on the absence of Foucault from The Ghost Map. Because there's such a close fit, that it almost seems like a pointed refusal.

That's interesting. Maybe it is. Nobody's asked me that, and, you know, Foucault was my idol when I was twenty, so maybe there's some point of denying it. I literally have not read in -- I mean, I have dog-eared copies, I read Discipline and Punish, Archaeology of Knowledge, and History of Sexuality, and -- what's the madness one?

Madness and Civilization

I read those books over and over again. Maybe I've just blocked it out in some way ... it's interesting. How would you have connected Foucault to Ghost Map?

Well, the whole idea of epidemiology as a kind of insertion of disciplinary techniques; you seem to be begging at the end for ... a mass intrusion of disciplinary biopower into the Third World. It's like you could be the devil-man of a certain kind of postcolonial science studies.

Right, right. That's interesting.

And you do talk about Deleuze and Guattari, and Manuel De Landa in the afterword to Everything Bad

Deleuze was very trendy when I was at Brown, and I remember this seminar that I took that was just on D and G, and I remember asking, "guys, does anybody have any idea what these people are talking about? Because I feel like I've read Derrida very closely, and I've worked really hard and I understand that, and I understand Foucault, and I have no idea what these guys are talking about. And it was this weird moment when everybody said, "no, actually I don't know, either." It was De Landa who finally went back and made sense of it to me. Those first two books of his were just totally fascinating, and in a funny way, I always feel like with De Landa that he has this mission of relating everything back to Deleuze's theory of the world, and I'm like, you know, Manuel, I really like your theory. I don't need, actually, to have it all annotated with how this fits in with this 1000 Plateaus worldview -- it's fine, just run with your own ideas. It was one of those things where it took fifteen years for me to understand the idea of not thinking of the culture symbolically, but thinking of the culture as a network of forces that are at play with each other. And that is the underlying theory that's there in Everything Bad, which I did first encounter in Deleuze. I just didn't know what to do with it: It was one of those ideas where it just sits around for years and years in your head until you think, "oh, I get it finally."

Back to Dickens, if we can. One of the things that I like about Interface Culture is the argument at the end that Great Expectations and Bleak House are basically interfaces for Victorian London for the people who live in it. And then you come back to Bleak House at the start of The Ghost Map, and Dickens is everywhere. I was just wondering: What's Dickens for you? Because when you talk about novelists you like, you talk about Eliot and James, and the modernist novel, but Dickens is the example that you use.

To me, in all the novels that I've read from that period, the one that I still think is the best is Middlemarch. And in some ways I feel as if the ultimate criteria that I came out of grad school with is, and this is also a total Long Zoom idea, though I didn't call it that at the time, that the way to judge these things ultimately is: are they able to represent the multiple scales of experience in some kind of common narrative thread? Middlemarch seems to me to have the best balance between a very private, personal struggle or series of struggles, intimate struggles between individual people, and then their broader community around them, whether it's a town or a city, and then the political struggles of the time, and then the broad kind of movement of history and technology, the forces propelling those things. In Middlemarch, it feels to me as if you've got the best balancing act between all those layers, they're all active participants in the plot. And so, to me, if I'm just ranking great novels, that's the kind of thing I'm looking for. And Sentimental Education is like that in the same way in the French tradition, and then Balzac is kind of like that.

In Dickens, you have that same thing, it's just that the greatness is just a tiny bit compromised by the comic element that exists on the level of character. So when you make it all the way down to the actual people, you never really buy them as human beings.

Right, they're arguably not -- that's Forster's point about Dickens's "flat" characters ...

Right, and Orwell's to some extent: They never change, they're not capable of change, they're fixed. In some ways, I feel as though that was an understandable trade-off that he had to make, because the web was so complex that to zoom from these individual lives to this huge, sprawling city, and all the interconnections between them was so big that if you also had incredibly well-rounded, complicated characters it would just seem like too much, you know? And it may well be that the fact that he was as widely read as he was is partially because he made that decision. The comic part of it is a huge part of the success, and so, in his attempt to reach a wider audience, which is wonderful, that may have been a strategic decision to make, but it hurts him a bit in the overall evaluation. But ultimately he's about the attempt, in the Interface Culture language, to make sense of something that's too big to make sense of in an easy way, and to do it in a way that's accessible to ordinary folks, to do so in a way that actually plays a role in mass culture.

One last quasi-Victorian question. The Ghost Map all the way through, and especially at the end, extols a bottom-up kind of knowledge, that you call "local" and "native" all the time. And if you're telling a Victorian story, that word, native, really sounds like something. And then at the end of the book, you basically call for this imperialism by epidemiologists: What the developing nations, especially the ones with shantytowns, need to do is build public health institutions. I guess I was struck by that.

That's interesting. Well, I don't know: I did this radio show, "Start the Week," in London, which is their version of "Fresh Air," this big, huge radio show on Monday mornings. And it's a panel show, and this is the second time I've done it, and both times I have been called, in a slightly pejorative way, "an American." And this time, the critique was that there was a certain American optimism toward the end of the book. I buy part of that; I also would direct people to the section about nuclear terrorism, which is not optimistic at all, and is designed to be as terrifying as possible. But part of it really does come around to this question of the megacities, because you can look at what happened in London, and say, "this is a city that was totally out of control, and was literally drowning in its own filth, and all of these things were just terrible." Part of the point of the book is to remind ourselves of how bad it was, and how relatively recently, and you see that there's just an amazing amount of things that have in fact been solved, and are issues that people in cities like London just no longer worry about. So, the question then is, why are people worrying about them anywhere? What can we do about that? What is the cause of it? I think there are some people who in some ways have this vested interest in thinking of the developing world's megacities as a disaster beyond repair, where it's just this thing that's never going to be fixed, and it's just terrible. You could also say, no, they're just going through what London did, on a bigger scale, and they're going to go through this process, and so the question is, is it going to take them 100 years to go through this process, which seems like a big long waste of time, since we know how to solve a lot of these problems, or maybe they can do it faster. But it's true, maybe there is something imperialistic about coming in and saying, you should have sewers, because sewers really help.

Well, not so much the sewers as, "Be like London. Do it our way." I mean, wasn't that sort of the original imperialist mission?

Yes, that's right, though it depends on what "Be like London" is. If "be like London" is, "separate the drinking water from the waste," then ...

No, I know. I'm just giving you a hard time, because you do say that we should jettison the prejudices and superstitions that are associated with taking this knowledge on the road and focus on this technological issue -- so I am just giving you a hard time.

I know; it's ok -- I need a hard time.

A couple of follow-ups about points you just raised: First, the American optimism thing. Developed nations didn't draw the lesson, "let's fully fund public health institutions and embrace bottom-up epistemology," right? They embraced statist bureaucracy. And so I was wondering why we're going to do it better now?

This came up in London at the thing I did with Eno, it came up in the audience Q and A a lot: so much of this comes around the idea of what you think of the shantytowns. If you think of the shantytowns as this great abomination, the worst thing that's ever happened to humanity -- "oh my god, a third of us are going to be living in these things" -- and you combine that with the top-down history of the West, then you think, "my God, this is a total disaster." It's kind of like, do you take the Stewart Brand approach or the Mike Davis approach. (Though I haven't read all of the Mike Davis book.) So if you take the approach: Look, there's actually a lot of innovation going on, there's a lot of bottom-up energy that's coming into these shantytowns, and the places where they've been around a long time have in fact in many cases developed into real cities with real economic growth, that is very much emergent, bottom-up. It's not that the multinational corporations or the IMF are coming in and funding these shantytowns; it's the low-level economic energy that happens when people get together and trade and make it work for themselves in a dense urban area. So if you think, there're a lot of things there, and in fact people are moving to these things, not necessarily because they're being forced out of the land; they're moving there because there's more opportunity there, even though the conditions seem appalling to us. And so you look at that and you say, they're still appalling, they shouldn't be appalling, but it's not a total loss. There's a lot there that could develop into something much more promising.

And then the other thing was your mention of nuclear terrorism and how that's terrifying. It's funny, because I was really struck by the relative stoicism with which you envision urban nuclear terrorism. You have this line, "Perhaps urban nuclear explosions will turn out to be like hundred-year storms" -- and that's the good news, because otherwise they'll just be going off every ten years. I'm wondering if our view of risk is distorted somehow because our society has become (relatively) so safe -- do we panic about these things too much?

The problem with the conclusion is that it's focused on a very specific question, which is: We've been on this extraordinary ride where we've gone from three per cent of the planet living in cities to 50 per cent living in cities now. The book lays out why that's generally probably a good thing, and how if we're going to have this planet of 8 billion people, that's probably a better way to live, and a lot of good things have come from that development, and city life has generally over time gotten much, much better. And so, great! Let's keep this process going. The question of that last chapter, then, is, "is there something that could derail that?" That's where you get into this mode of -- and I really spent some time trying to describe what would happen with a detonation at Broad Street, so that the scale and terror of that would be clear -- but, on the other hand, the question is, would one of those things be enough to de-urbanize the planet? On some level, there's a kind of cruel logic to asking that question; on the other hand, it's a pretty interesting question, and you have to play out the scenarios. I think that on some level if one of them went off it probably wouldn't in the long run -- I mean, as I say in the book of a bioterror attack, my wife and I would probably leave Brooklyn, but we would probably come back, maybe after 10 years or something.

You can probably field-test this hypothesis in Sims -- drop a bomb on Sim City ...

Right, "what would happen if ...?"

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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