Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts,” which ran from 1950 to 2000 and lives on in syndication, is one of the world’s most successful and marketable comic strips. Much of its universal appeal lies in a light-hearted humor that steers clear of controversy: Charlie Brown’s trials on the pitcher’s mound, Lucy’s one-sided crush on Schroeder, and Snoopy’s transporting delight in suppertime. Schulz’s bestselling gift books of the 1960s were perfect distillations of the strip’s essential sweetness: “Happiness Is a Warm Puppy,” “Security Is a Thumb and Blanket,” “Love Is Walking Hand in Hand.” Anyone have problems with that?
Yet “Peanuts” and its creator could also get political. Many of the most memorable strips featured subtly rendered commentary on hot-button issues including the Cold War, feminism, racial integration and religion. While these strips were in plain view for all to see, conservatives and liberals interpreted them in markedly different ways—and some missed the message altogether.
Blake Scott Ball examines this phenomenon in “Charlie Brown’s America: The Popular Politics of Peanuts.” An assistant professor of history at Alabama’s Huntingdon College, he believes that “Peanuts” was “never simply an escapist endeavor, but regularly touched on the lived experience of socially and politically conscious Americans in the postwar era.” He is fascinated by “how often people of opposing viewpoints loved the same comic strip but for contradictory reasons,” as well as how a great cartoonist succeeded, through his “adept usage of both ambiguity and allegory,” to “create space for multiple interpretations.”
Schulz was a lifelong Republican but wasn’t a political partisan. He admired GOP stalwarts like Wendell Willkie, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, but also spoke respectfully of Democrats including Mario Cuomo, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. His political leanings, like his religious beliefs, were long a matter of critical dispute and mystery. He muddied the waters during a 1997 interview with the Comics Journal by stating he was “very liberal.” When pressed to clarify, he said that, though “there’s a difference between being a liberal and being kind,” by “being liberal I mean being kind. Generous.” Mr. Ball, for his part, attempts to lift the veil on the comic strip’s ideological mask. Some stories will be familiar, especially Schulz’s incorporating biblical verses into certain strips and his 1965 animated special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Other tidbits of information will be lesser known or entirely new.
The author argues, sometimes in unattractive academic jargon, that many of the strip’s “most recognizable devices were born out of Cold War anxiety.” Linus’s “security blanket,” for instance, originates from a term first used in World War II to describe the “military’s secrecy surrounding troop movements in Europe.” Yet Schulz moves the phrase’s meaning from “an exterior confrontation of military maneuvering” to an idiosyncratic strategy for “containing one’s own mental and emotional ‘weaknesses’ for the good of a stable and prosperous democratic society.” Lucy’s psychiatry booth (“The Doctor Is ‘In’ ”) is another brilliantly realized device, and rich in ambiguity. Readers identified with the “openness and vulnerability” of Lucy’s most trusting patient, Charlie Brown, but also with Lucy’s savvy cashing-in on the postwar vogue for analysis instead of running a “more conventional childhood lemonade stand.”
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War was a common yet camouflaged theme in “Peanuts” during the Vietnam years. Mr. Ball suggests that Snoopy’s fantasies of life as a World War I flying ace addressed the “emotional and psychological weight of the war” on American psyches, including Schulz’s own. (Schulz supported the troops in Vietnam, but admitted to only an “uneasy acceptance” of America’s deepening military endeavor.) Snoopy never caught the Red Baron but cursed his faceless mortal enemy, much as American soldiers cursed the Vietcong (and vice versa). In time, Snoopy, in his single-minded and vain pursuit of his nemesis, “seemed to fall deeper into his fantasy war, to the point that the dog and the pilot became almost indistinguishable,” even to Charlie Brown. Snoopy, like the nation, seemed “trapped in a quagmire of his own.”
There’s also a fascinating chapter about the strip’s first African-American character, Franklin. While “Peanuts” in the 1950s was, in Mr. Ball’s phrase, “as white as Levittown,” it wasn’t due to either segregation or racial tension. Correspondence between Schulz and former public-school teacher Harriet Glickman reveals that Schulz was concerned that introducing a black child into the strip would be perceived as “patronizing our Negro friends.” By the height of the civil rights movement Schulz had changed his mind; Franklin appeared in 1968 bringing a stray beach ball back to Charlie Brown, and he fit right in. While some newspaper editors and readers objected in a collective roar, they were largely drowned out by supportive admirers and friends like African-American cartoonist Morrie Turner of “Wee Pals” fame. “Peanuts” practiced a color-blind approach to race relations that made Franklin’s inclusion a smooth and powerful one.
It was part of Schulz’s genius that he could make profound statements in the newspaper funnies about war, religion, capitalism, mental health and feminism without dramatically raising the nation’s temperature in the political arena. Intellectuals and political pundits struggled to figure out if Schulz was liberal or conservative. Some readers couldn’t decide whether he was a friend or foe on issues near and dear to their hearts. But when it came to their beloved “Peanuts” characters, Mr. Ball’s book shows, the personal always trumped the political.
Mr. Taube, a columnist for Troy Media and Loonie Politics, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.
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