'Peanuts,' warts and all

biography | Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, By David Michaelis, $34.95, Harper

The night of Feb. 12, 2000, was an important one in the career of the cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the cast of Peanuts. It was the night before his final comic strip would appear in thousands of Sunday papers. It was also the night he died in his bed at the age of 77.

In David Michaelis' new biography "Schulz and Peanuts," the evening is treated with great delicacy, but one short sentence captures the attention of a reader who spent his childhood reading Peanuts:

"Conversation passed along around him. He sat thoughtfully awhile, then said, 'Forgive me,' got up and headed a little uncertainly into the living room ... It was a dark night, pouring rain."

Michaelis' description of Schulz's final "dark and stormy night" is emblematic of this careful, well-written, moving biography. Michaelis is generous but honest in his characterization of Charles Schulz, faults and all, and he steeps his book in the atmosphere and language of Peanuts to make it clear how fruitless it would be to try to separate Charles M. Schulz and his famous creation.

Sparky Schulz was born in St. Paul, Minn., in 1922, but spent the majority of his life in Northern California. Melancholy, depressed, unable to understand why anyone might love him, desperately fearful of travel, convinced of his own inadequacies even as he fiercely protected his work from outside influence --Schulz was born to be a cartoonist.

Members of Schulz's family have recently objected to Michaelis' biography, claiming it portrays him as more depressed than he actually was. It's impossible to say with certainty without ever having known the man, but to this reader Michaelis seems astonishingly evenhanded -- perhaps even slightly kinder to Schulz than the frustrating, aloof cartoonist might have deserved.

His strip was a pure expression of his own personality, and of his relationships with those around him: a long-running masterpiece, a tricky blend of hard-heartedness and sentiment, a blessed daily grind that shaped Schulz's life to the extent that he, unlike many cartoonists, legendarily never once handed a strip off to an assistant. "I am all of the characters because everything that I am goes into the strip," he said early in the life of Peanuts. He later undercut a jolly post-show coffee with the cast of the San Francisco production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" with the honest admission that without the strip, "I would be dead."

"Schulz and Peanuts" is actually three books in one. The first, which tells the story of Schulz's life from birth to his wedding day in 1951, is a somewhat overlong but empathetic telling of a sensitive young person's creative and romantic struggles, filled with stories of professional defeat and familial discomfort. The third, which zips shallowly through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, seems defeated by Schulz's overall contentment in his second marriage -- a satisfaction that also defeated Schulz's own work, rendering Peanuts pedestrian where once it was a daily dose of genius.

The middle section, though, is a masterpiece of literary biography, expertly sketching Schulz's middle-age psyche and portraying the 22-year marriage whose fault lines were mapped in nearly every panel of his mid-century work. Schulz married Joyce Lewis in 1951. The fiery young woman had been married once before to a layabout who fathered her daughter, then disappeared without a trace. Rejected by her own family, the headstrong Joyce fell for Sparky Schulz and then pulled him west, west, west, away from St. Paul -- from his quiet barber father, from the memory of his dissatisfied mother, who died while Sparky was a soldier. The two settled eventually in California, and Sparky never quite forgave her.

Michaelis is adept at exploring the ways that long-running gags in the strip echo Schulz and Joyce's marital dynamic; in particular, he makes an extended metaphor of Lucy's longstanding crush on piano-playing Schroeder. In this formulation, Joyce is the abrasive, irritating, desperately-in-love Lucy, while Schulz is Schroeder -- hunched over his instrument, forever focused on his work, unwilling to extend even the slightest courtesy to the girl who loves him despite herself.

The marriage ended in 1973, after Schulz pursued a younger woman -- a romance that made itself bluntly and painfully known in the strip, as Michaelis deftly points out in many of the well-chosen reprinted strips in the biography. "Stop making those long-distance telephone calls!" Charlie Brown yells at a love-struck Snoopy, even as Schulz himself was racking up hours of phone calls to his girlfriend in Redwood City, the evidence that would eventually lead Joyce to discover the affair.

"Schulz and Peanuts" abounds with such thorough research and thoughtful conclusions. If Michaelis occasionally overreaches in his analysis of Schulz's personality, it's not surprising, considering how deeply he clearly dug into his subject's life. This is a biography written by an author convinced he knows his subject, perhaps even better than Schulz knew himself, and after reading it, you may well be convinced he's right.

The morning after he died, Schulz's final Peanuts strip ran in newspapers around the world. From the black zigzag on its front cover to its final words, Schulz and Peanuts offers a downtrodden success story, portrays an artist whose life "entwined with his art." We miss him, even as we can be glad we didn't have to live with him. Good grief, indeed.