When a warm puppy is not enough

SchulzCoverReviews are beginning to appear for Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis, and they are renewing an age-old question among fans of Schulz: What did Schulz believe about God? Newsweek deals with the question in this paragraph:

The portrait of the artist as flawed human being has become a cliche, and Michaelis admirably steers clear of it. What he gives us instead is both a dynamic character study and a penetrating literary analysis. For the first, he dispels the myth of "Saint Charles," recounting -- with great sympathy, considering -- how a father who created the best-known cartoon children in the world almost never kissed his own goodnight, how an evangelical Christian (he even did sidewalk preaching) cheated on his first wife and how the most successful cartoonist in history threatened to sabotage a competitor's strip. This is not the Schulz of "happiness is a warm puppy."

In a longer-form review for The New Yorker, John Updike has the space to explore the question more fully. He mentions that Schulz joined the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), "becoming a tithing pillar and part-time preacher. In the raffish, New York City-centered brotherhood of cartoonists, he was an antisocial, teetotalling, non-smoking oddity."

Updike also offers this:

Schulz's own religiosity seems to have quietly faded in the California sunshine, though he continued to contribute a cartoon panel to the Church of God magazine and for a time taught Methodist Sunday school in Sebastopol. His manifold newspaper interviews trace a gradual withdrawal: "I'm not an orthodox believer, and I'm becoming less of one all the time." Robert Short, the author of the immensely successful "The Gospel According to Peanuts" (1964), admitted, "Sparky . . . could sound like the conservatives, but . . . there was always this very humanistic liberal strain that was beneath the surface." In Schulz's strip, the Great Pumpkin episodes verge on travesty if not blasphemy, and in his life he diffidently accepted his children's lack of interest in Sunday school. His daughter Amy, who eventually became a Mormon, complained, "He never read [the Scriptures] to us kids and he never took us to church. He didn't share it with us."

While he was on staff with the journal Religion in the News in 2000, Dennis Hoover wrote a still more thorough study of the cartoonist's beliefs, contrasting them a few times with the "fundamentalist evangelicalism" of fellow cartoonist Johnny Hart (creator of B.C.):

Tactful Schulz may have been, but wishy-washy he was not. "Humor which does not say anything is worthless humor," he once told Decision magazine. "So I contend that a cartoonist must be given a chance to do his own preaching." In an interview last year he told the Ottawa Citizen's John C. Davenport that he was confident his religion-themed strips "really dipped beneath the surface. They haven't been just silly things ... I feel very deeply about it and I feel it should be handled well."

Hoover gives the closing words to Hart:

In his foreword to the 1968 Peanuts Treasury, Hart wrote, "I sometimes, with growing understanding, resent the laughs that God must surely enjoy at the expense of his clumsy, faltering children. He shares, of course, an equal amount of sorrow, which I do not choose to get into. Charles Schulz does get into this. He gives us our pathetic side, and we laugh with dewy eyes."

I stopped reading Peanuts about three decades ago, when I lost my interest in cute overload, Snoopy's typewritten philosophies and Charlie Brown's Sisyphean efforts to kick a football. For people who devoured The Gospel According to Peanuts, however, this new biography sounds like essential stuff. Happy existentialist reading to all.

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