Good Grief!

Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown, died on 13 February, taking a bit of the American idyll wi

It has been 20 years since I thought of Charlie Brown. Oh, there were occasions when, visiting my native country, I glimpsed Peanuts in the Sunday paper. At Christmas, Snoopy, the black-eared beagle, first-world-war flying ace and aspiring novelist who thought in aphorisms, couldn't be avoided in cheap cloth or even cheaper plastic. And if I noticed any passing references to Charles Schulz, the only ones that stuck with me were about his penchant for litigation against anyone who co-opted his "children" - Lucy, Linus, Pigpen, even Beethoven-playing Schroeder - without due remuneration. But that was about it: no wistful evocations of childhood, no fondness for lost years and "home", not even the animus that I could work up against Mickey, Donald, Pluto and the other lackeys of Disney Inc.

Charlie Brown and I parted on bad terms in the 1970s. My best friend was a cartoonist who could, in moments, bring out both the charm and the horror of one's distinguishing features - in my case, an ill-advised Afro and the absence of a chin. Compared to this talent, Schulz's kids were a one-dimensional neighbourhood: round-faced, squat and (except for one very minor, belated addition) white. They were distinct only because of hair colour and an accessory: the zig-zag horizontal stripe on Charlie Brown's shirt, Linus's security blanket, Pigpen's dirt-cloud, Schroeder's piano. The "stories" were variants on themes that had been fresh decades earlier: how many times could Lucy pull that American football away just before Charlie Brown kicked it, leaving our hero forlorn on his back? How often would Snoopy start the Great but Unfinished American Novel, "It was a dark and stormy night . . ."? And would the gang ever see the Great Pumpkin at Halloween? Peanuts wasn't funny and, to worldly high-school students, Snoopy definitely wasn't Joe Cool.

But, as I read in Schulz's obituaries yet another platitude elevating Charlie Brown to Everyman, I have to admit that our separation wouldn't have been so memorable had Peanuts not been an important part of my life. The importance, I hasten to add, was not because it was a "favourite", even in my years of innocence before high school. While it benefited by comparison with some truly dreadful strips - the sub-soap opera of Mary Worth, the hyperglycaemic platitudes of Love Is and so on - I always preferred the action of Dick Tracy and the shenanigans of military life in Beetle Bailey. No, Peanuts was part of my life because it was part of my parents' lives.

On my father's dresser was a model of Lucy in a wooden booth, dispensing advice over the sign, "THE DOCTOR IS IN - 5 CENTS". My father was a preacher, a strong but gentle speaker with messages usually on the theme of "Be nice to each other". On one occasion, the church elders half-joked with him that he would be fired if he used Peanuts yet again in his sermon; the next Sunday, he opened with the story of Charlie Brown's eternal infatuation with the little red-haired girl. When life imitated Lucy's booth and he became a marriage and family counsellor, my father decorated his office with Peanuts posters. My mother, who taught high-school psychology, remembers the slogans on her posters - Charlie Brown complaining: "I've been nervous so long that, when I relax, it makes me nervous" and "Even my anxieties have anxieties".

Every occasion was a Peanuts occasion. At birthdays and Christmas, my sisters and I scrambled to get the best presents for my father: Snoopy golf socks were always a good bet, but I think the final winner was a Snoopy telephone. One day, Walker, a friend of my parents, was badly injured in a plane crash in Germany. My father wrote as Snoopy to say: "Watch out for the Red Baron and return safely." Walker kept the framed letter on his wall until the day he died. And then, during a rough patch for my family, there was the card from my father to my mother telling her how important she was and ending, "5 cents, please".

Thirty years and 4,000 miles away, I can offer an academic explanation for the appeal of Peanuts to my parents and many thousands like them. The strip debuted on 2 October 1950, three months after the outbreak of the Korean war, eight months after Joe McCarthy waved a piece of paper with the names of 205 non-existent communists in the State Department. The United States might be a prosperous country, but it was also a very nervous one.

At a time when US comics were being criticised at home and abroad for their violence and deviancy (even the relationship of Batman and Robin was considered suspect), Schulz's kids succeeded because they provided nicer, more manageable neuroses. Instead of worrying about the Bomb, we could suffer with Charlie Brown's perpetual clumsiness and his pangs of unrequited love. Forget about the Reds, it was Lucy's high-handed tormenting of Charlie Brown and her brother Linus that made us shake our heads. And who among us didn't dream with Snoopy of rising above the mundane?

With no knowledge of existentialism, we could play with existential angst because, in the end, there was the illusion of innocence and the permanence of hope. Charlie Brown, much like Forrest Gump 40 years later, was the simple, confused, trusting boy to whom bad things happened but who, in the end, maintained his faith that all would end well. He would kick that football, he would win the baseball game, he would capture the heart of the little red-headed girl.

We had a "philosophy", even a religious belief. The Reverend Robert Short packaged it for us in the books, The Gospel According to Peanuts and The Parables of Peanuts. Beyond the surface image of frustration and despair, the philosophy might not be a fancy one - learn from experience but never lose hope, follow your dreams but don't lose sight of "reality" - but it fits the image of "common sense" that many Americans liked to uphold in an era when the bestselling book was The Power of Positive Thinking. There have been many imitators of this wisdom - recent versions including the bestseller Chicken Soup for the Soul and the offerings of Oprah Winfrey and her rivals - but none has captured the simply drawn community of Peanuts.

Of course, Schulz could not disturb his world by referring to current events. This detachment would become more marked in the 1960s. There would be turmoil over civil rights; violence and bombings would erupt in Birmingham, Alabama, where I lived with my parents; but it would not touch Schulz's all-white world, where no one fretted about the Berlin Wall, civil war in the Congo, or Soviet missiles in Cuba. Yet, far from hindering the strip, this detachment only enhanced its popularity. In 1965, B-52s were carpet- bombing Vietnam, but readers were more interested in Snoopy's battles with the Red Baron. As US ground troops celebrated Yuletide, CBS television aired A Charlie Brown Christmas, notable for Linus's rendition of the Nativity tale as Charlie Brown's hapless sapling was transformed into the prettiest Christmas tree in the world. It is possible that more Americans have heard the story of Jesus's birth from the programme, broadcast every December for the past 35 years, than from church services.

As the present grew increasingly uncomfortable for Schulz - his most notable encounter with the 1960s was Snoopy telling a "bird hippie": "No one understands my generation either" - he reached his largest audiences by retreating into a sanitised past. A Charlie Brown Christmas was followed by, among other television specials, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which reinforced my childhood of whites sharing turkey with "Indians" rather than killing them. The final destination was So This is America, Charlie Brown, which reduced 212 years of history to Captain Pugwash-style animation and a series of "great presidents": Abraham Lincoln saved the Union; Teddy Roosevelt saved the environment; and Franklin Roosevelt saved the unemployed.

Peanuts finally suffered because, amid the traumas of a lost war and Watergate, its kids were left behind as America painfully grew up. Schulz did pilfer from the changing society, lifting Snoopy's sidekick, Woodstock, from the counter-culture and incorporating the scourge of disco into Snoopy's incarnation as Joe Cool. But his world was a hermetic one. (It is telling that, when the Broadway play You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown was revived last year, Schulz was uncomfortable about multi-ethnic casting that included a "black Schroeder": "I did the whole thing and now you're going to come in and show me how wonderfully open-minded and liberal you are.")

And in the 1970s, alternatives to that world were emerging. Readers could now turn to the direct comment of Doonesbury and the surrealism of The Far Side. Peanuts even had, in Bloom County, a warped alter-ego. Charlie Brown was now the hapless Opus the Penguin, and Snoopy had been transformed into the drug-addled CIA agent and rock star, Bill the Cat. Mad Magazine spoofed cultural icons and reduced the cold war to "Spy v Spy"; National Lampoon was now required reading for its irreverence towards all things social and political.

Eventually, this sharper dissection of all that a previous generation had assumed sacred finally emerged from the wasteland of TV animation. Where Charlie Brown, Peppermint Patty et al worried about being underachievers, Bart Simpson basked in it, to the public disgust of George Bush (a president who also couldn't see the humour in Doonesbury). Even here, though, family values would survive: The Simpsons and later series such as King of the Hill ultimately revolve around a faith in home and nation far richer than the proclamations of Peanuts. It is South Park that has excelled in blowing that faith apart: at the end of every episode, politics, households, religion, even Barbra Streisand, lie in ruins.

But, having constructed this academic explanation for the rise and fall of Peanuts, I find that it does not work. Peanuts did not fall. It might have lost its originality, its insight and its humour; my arrogance was to believe that, since I had left it, it had lost its following. In the eulogies for Schulz, the depth of the tributes from colleagues past and present went beyond the mandatory, Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau calling Peanuts "the uncontested goal- standard for comics". And the well-prepared frenzy of the media - Schulz, suffering from colon cancer, had announced the retirement of Peanuts last autumn; the last strip was set for publication on 13 February - could not obscure a genuine sense of loss. "My best friend the cartoonist" and "a kinder person than I" captured it perfectly. Peanuts might no longer be funny, but it was part of America's cultural furniture: "It was important because it was there. You might not pay attention to it but, once it was gone, you'd notice."

And why not? For there is a constancy in American life that goes back to 1950. All the talk of multiculturalism, all the supposed scrutiny of foreign policy post-Vietnam and post-cold war, and especially the wise-ass cynicism of South Park, cannot push aside the "mainstream" view. Americans fight the constant struggle between believing in an exceptional superiority and worrying whether they are liked at home and abroad. Yet to carry that struggle into considered evaluation of, say, Iraq or Kosovo might be very unpleasant; it is bad enough having to wring hands periodically over drug use and gun control, as nothing very significant is likely to be done about either. Peanuts is a safe way, pre-Oprah and pre-Jerry Springer, of self-regard, both of ourselves and of our nation.

I spoke with my parents last night. We never talk politics, apart from ritual denunciation of Bill Clinton; conversation revolves around their grandchildren and my father's golf game. But last night, for 30 minutes, they talked Peanuts with me, recalling letters to injured friends and slogans from posters and offering an analysis of Charlie Brown that I would happily plagiarise. My father and mother, the psychologists, hadn't just read and evaluated Peanuts, they had used it in every facet of their lives. Schulz would have been proud: he always claimed that it was "experience", rather than the "experts", that guided his work.

Five cents please.

Scott Lucas is head of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham. His most recent book, "Freedom's War: the US crusade against the Soviet Union, 1945-1956", is published by Manchester University Press

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul