Writing About Charlie Brown Feels Like Writing About Myself
Chuck Klosterman on the Enduring Appeal of The Peanuts
I can’t write objectively about Charlie Brown. It feels like I’m writing about myself.
This, I realize, is no accident.
I know that Charlie Brown is the type of character consciously designed to make people feel like they’re looking at an image of themselves. If you can’t empathize with Charlie Brown, you likely lack an ability to empathize with any fictional character. Here is a child continually humiliated for desiring nothing more than normalcy—the opportunity to kick a football, the aptitude to fly a kite, the freedom to walk down the sidewalk without having a random acquaintance compare his skull to a block of lumber. He wants glory, but not an excessive amount (one baseball victory would be more than enough). He has the coolest dog in town, but that plays to his disadvantage. He’s an eight-year-old who needs a psychiatrist, and he has to pay the bill himself (only five cents, but still). Charlie Brown knows his life is a contradictory struggle, and sometimes his only option is to lie in a dark room, alone with his thoughts. He will never win. He will never win.
Yet here’s the paradox: Charlie Brown is still happy. He still has friends. He still gets excited about all the projects that are destined to fail. Very often, young Americans are simultaneously pessimistic about the world and optimistic about themselves—they assume everyone’s future is bleak, except for their own. Charlie is the opposite. He knows he’s doomed, but that doesn’t stop him from trying anything and everything. He believes existence is amazing, despite his own personal experience. It’s the quality that makes him so infinitely likable: He does not see the world as cruel. He believes the world is good, even if everything that’s ever happened to him suggests otherwise. All he wants are the things everyone else seems to get without trying. He aspires to be average, which—for him—is an impossible dream.
I suppose nobody feels this way all the time. But everybody feels this way occasionally.
Charles M. Schulz died on February 12, 2000. The final Peanuts strip ran the very next day, a coincidence noted by virtually everyone who cared about the man and his work. In the years since his passing, I’ve noticed a curious trend: For whatever reason, it’s become popular to assert that the spiritual center of the Peanuts universe is not Charlie Brown. The postmodern answer to that puzzle is Snoopy—dynamic, indefatigable, and hyperimaginative. Perception has drifted toward what the public prefers to celebrate. It’s a little like what happened on the TV show Happy Days: A sitcom originally focused on milquetoast Richie Cunningham rapidly evolved into a vehicle for the super‑coolness of Fonzie. Obviously, this type of paradigm shift is no crime against humanity, and I love Snoopy almost as much as his owner (he’s a wonderful dancer and my all-time favorite novelist). But Snoopy is not the emotional vortex of Peanuts. That’s simply wrong. The linchpin to Peanuts will always be Charlie Brown. It can be no one else. And this is because Charlie Brown effortlessly embodies what Peanuts truly is: an introduction to adult problems, explained by children.
The probable (read: inevitable) death of daily newspapers will have a lot of collateral damage, to varying degrees of impact. I don’t know where the gradual disappearance of the Sunday comics falls on this continuum, or even if it belongs at all. I assume something else will come to occupy its role in the culture, and the notion of bemoaning such a loss will be categorized as nostalgia for a period when the media was controlled by dinosaurs who refused to accept that the purpose of every news story was to provide random people the opportunity to publicly comment on how they felt about it. But I will miss the Sunday comics. I miss them already.
As a kid, I loved the idea that there was at least one section of the newspaper directly targeted at my brain; as an adult, it was reassuring to read something that was still the exact same product I remembered from the past. It was static in the best possible way. Like most people, I moved through various adolescent phases where different strips temporarily became my obsession: Garfield in fifth grade, The Far Side throughout high school, Calvin and Hobbes as a college boozehound. But I always considered Peanuts the most “important” comic strip, and the one that all other strips were measured against. The fact that Peanuts was the first strip on the very top of the Sunday comics’ front page verified this subjective belief—if comics were rock bands, it seemed obvious that Peanuts was the Beatles.
The strips in this particular collection stretch from 1956 to 1960. It was a transitional period for Peanuts—the characters no longer have the generic, unsophisticated appearance of the early Li’ l Folks era, but their fantasies and dialogue rarely skew as surreal as they will become throughout the mid‑60s and beyond. Snoopy “talks,” but not in the way we’re accustomed (his concerns are more traditionally doglike), and his jowls and his gut look a tad thin. Linus Van Pelt— still noticeably younger than all the other kids in ’57—eventually becomes interchangeable with his slightly older peers (and Schulz was clearly enamored with Linus during this period, as he stars in a majority of the offerings, most notably a three‑week serial where he worries about performing at the Christmas program). Around 1959, we meet Sally Brown for the first time (still an infant). But the most critical evolution involves the persona of Charlie himself. It is during this three‑year stretch that he becomes “the Charlie Browniest.” Throughout the mid‑fifties, Charlie Brown was still confident. On page 2, we see a boy who believes his snow fort is an architectural masterwork. On page 20, Charlie violently punishes the kite he cannot fly. He’s not arrogant, but he is self‑assured. He’s almost a smart aleck. Yet by the inception of the sixties, that confidence is gone. From 1960 onward, Charlie Brown is the person we all recognize from all those old television specials: the unironic loser with a limitless heart, endlessly hammered for caring too much.
“Nobody likes me,” Charlie Brown says as he stares into space. “All it would take to make me happy is to have someone say he likes me.” When Lucy overhears this lament, she’s immediately incredulous. “Do you mean to tell me that someone has it within his or her power to make you happy merely by doing such a simple thing?” Charlie assures her that—yes—this simple act is all it would take. In fact, it wouldn’t even matter if the sentiment wasn’t true. He just wants to know how it feels to be liked. But even this is still too much to ask for.
“I can’t do it,” Lucy replies. And then she walks away. And this, it seems, is the whole joke.
One of the common assumptions about Peanuts is that Charlie Brown and Charles M. Schulz were the same person, and that we are able to see the personality of Schulz by studying the personality of Brown. Certain similarities are undeniable (both of their fathers were barbers, both were obsessed with red‑haired girls they never really knew, etc.). But I don’t think this connection is fully accurate. The reflection is not as straightforward as it seems. I think that the primordial Li’ l Folks version of Charlie Brown—the little guy from the 40s—was Schulz crafting a fictional version of his literal childhood. Early Charlie was, essentially, who Schulz once was. But the model of Charlie Brown we recognize and love so much more—the model reinvented here, at the end of the 1950s—was Schulz crafting a version of how he felt, both in his memory and in the present tense. It was the construct of an adult, suffering through problems only an adult can conceive and recognize. It was also a depiction of how he wanted to feel: Schulz, the man, was rumored to be a maniacal grudge holder, unwilling to forget any slight or embarrassment ever levied against him. His creative boyhood doppelgänger is the opposite; Charlie Brown could always wipe the slate clean. And that makes an overpowering difference, both for the character and for everyone else.
“It’s depressing to realize that you’re so insignificant you haven’t got a chance ever to become president,” Charlie Brown tells Lucy on page 76 (it’s the second week of June, 1957). “It wouldn’t be so bad if I thought I had some chance.” Like so much of the classic Peanuts banter, he makes these remarks apropos of nothing—it’s just something he’s suddenly worried about, for no clear reason. Lucy, of course, obliterates Charlie for voicing this trepidation, mocking him with a tsunami of faint praise, almost as if he had somehow claimed he was destined for political greatness. Is her response amusing? I suppose it’s a little amusing. But it’s mostly dark (and entirely true). At the age of eight, Charlie Brown is considering a reality that most people don’t confront until much later: a realization that the future is limited. It’s not that he desperately wants to become Dwight Eisenhower—it’s the simple recognition that this couldn’t happen even if he did. He’s confronting the central myth of childhood, which is that anyone can be anything. Charlie Brown represents the downside of adult consciousness. And what does Lucy represent? Lucy represents the world itself. Lucy responds the way society always responds to any sudden insight of existential despair: How did you not know this already, Blockhead?
It doesn’t matter how many times this sort of thing has happened before. It will never stop happening, to Charlie Brown or anyone else. Like I said—Charlie Brown knows he’s doomed. He absolutely, irrefutably knows it. But a little part of his mind always thinks, “Maybe not this time, though.” That glimmer of hope is his Achilles’ heel. It’s also the quality that makes him so eminently relatable. The joke is not that Charlie Brown is hopeless. The joke is that Charlie Brown knows he’s hopeless, but he doesn’t trust the infallibility of his own insecurity. If he’s always wrong about everything, perhaps he’s wrong about this, too.
When Charlie mentions the impossibility of his own presidential fantasy, there’s a vague sense that he wants Lucy to tell him he’s mistaken. And at first (of course), Lucy does exactly that. She says “maybe.” And then (of course) she does what she always does. She reminds Charlie Brown that he is Charlie Brown. Which is how I suspect Charles M. Schulz felt about himself, up until the very end: “No matter what I do or what I try, I’m always going to be myself.”
In this particular anthology, there are four strips where Charlie tries to kick a football. Unless you’re a yet-to-be-conceived archaeologist reading this book 1,000 years in the future, the outcome of these attempts will not surprise you. Two of these strips (released roughly a year apart) are so similar they almost suggest a lack of imagination. In one, Charlie Brown expresses his belief that people have the ability to change and deserve the opportunity to do so (and then he breaks his back). In the other, Lucy compliments Charlie’s faith in human nature (moments after his back has been broken). This is the reassuring, hypereternal, death-and-taxes aspect to Peanuts: The children don’t grow up and the conflicts don’t change. The pigskin’s omnipresent unkickability is the Sisyphean symbol for the whole of Charlie’s life and the pivotal metaphor behind why he matters so much to so many people. It is the apex of his failures. But failing is not what makes Charlie Brown my fictional friend and personal protagonist. It’s his reasoning for placing himself in a position where failure is inevitable: “I must be out of my mind,” he says to himself. “But I can’t resist kicking footballs.”
He can’t resist kicking footballs.
Even though he never, ever does. He still can’t resist. Resistance is futile.
From Chuck Klosterman X. Used with permission of Blue Rider Press. Copyright © 2017 by Chuck Klosterman.