Religion & Liberty Online

Charles Schulz, Peanuts, and the power of community

(Image credit: Associated Press)

This year we celebrate the centennial birthday of the creator of the Peanuts gang, which has endured as a much-beloved comic strip since its debut in 1950, not least because it tackled the most enduring of Western maladies: loneliness.

Read More…

Charles Schulz believed that life was hard and lonesome.

That is why he believed that life was best experienced with others. Only through the sharing of burdens and triumphs and fears and joys could a person navigate the immense challenges of life. This was the truth at the heart of five decades’ worth of Peanuts comic strips. This was the message at the core of the landmark television special A Charlie Brown Christmas. This belief in community was central to who Charles Schulz was.

Understanding the immense cultural legacy of Peanuts requires us to delve back into the life and times of its cartoonist. Charles Monroe Schulz was born in St. Paul, Minn., on November 26, 1922. He was the only child of a local barber and stay-at-home mom. Growing up he loved two things: sports and comic strips. Any spare time he had, it seemed, he was doing one or the other. As he finished high school, his mother enrolled him in a correspondence art program. Initially, he completed his lessons at home in the safety of isolation. But as he received more and more positive feedback on his developing drawing skills, he soon began making the short trip to Minneapolis to take his courses in person.

World War II interrupted everything, though. He received his draft notice on November 1942, just days after he had turned 20. Little did he know, his mother had also received terrible news from her doctor about a rapidly advancing cancer diagnosis. Schulz’s parents hid the truth from him, not wanting to worry him any further. For the rest of his life he remembered the awful day his commanding office ordered him to hurry to the mess hall at midday. There he found his father weeping. His mother had passed away.

The fog of the funeral left young Schulz with one sobering thought. His father was the last person he had in the world. He worried for his father throughout his three-year service, not wanting to lose him, too. As Schulz put it, those three years “taught me all I needed to know about loneliness.” Some days he feared the war might never end, that he might never get back home to his dad and his dream of being a cartoonist.

Community saved Charles Schulz.

The community of brothers in arms taught the young soldier that he was able to do things he never imagined he could do. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of staff sergeant. He had become a man and found his courage. He documented these years away at war in a sketchbook he titled “As We Were.” Inside he drew many scenes from the daily life at war: French cottages, broken down trucks, fellow soldiers shaving or ironing.

By the time Schulz returned home to Minnesota, the loneliness had returned. His father had remarried. He now had no soldiers next to him for camaraderie. Feeling adrift back in domestic life, Schulz found a new community in the church. “I accepted Jesus Christ by gratitude,” he would later write. His particular church was a part of a small holiness denomination called the Church of God of Anderson, Ind. He became deeply devoted to his church, read his Bible regularly, and donated his time and skills for decades to provide original art for their publications and to teach Sunday school (Many years later, Schulz stopped attending church, however. By the 1990s, he referred to himself as a humanist but never stopped reading his Bible.)

Back home and better grounded, Schulz returned to pursuing his dream of being a cartoonist. His first job in the profession came when he was hired to do lettering and finishing work for comic books published by the Catholic Catechetical Guild Educational Society. Soon after, he was hired as an instructor at the art school where he had trained. Here he found a community of fellow artists chasing the same goal he was. This provided the young artist with the feedback he needed to refine his work. In 1948 he was able to land a weekly cartoon called L’il Folks in the local St. Paul Pioneer Press. The next year he managed to sell several cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post. And in 1950, Schulz accomplished his dream: a national syndicated strip that his editor renamed Peanuts (Schulz resented the dismissive title for the rest of his career).

For readers of Peanuts in the 1950s, the comic strip resonated as a quirky existentialist tract. Charlie Brown faced a big, anxiety-ridden world. It could be terribly lonesome. “Hello, operator?” the lonely boy asked through the telephone receiver in late 1950. “Can you tell me a story?” This deep-seated sense of alienation resonated with postwar culture, which was covered with similar expressions in the sociological work of C. Wright Mills and David Riesman and popular literature like J. D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye (1951) or Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). But it was this extreme sense of isolation in Peanutsthat set the stage for Schulz’s most consequential commentary.

The stories of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Pigpen, Peppermint Patty, and all the rest were five-decades-long discourses on community. You could find it all over Schulz’s work. Lucy’s psychiatry booth, while spoofing the explosion of therapy and self-help culture in postwar America, was about the importance of having someone to talk to. Even despite years of humiliating defeats, Charlie Brown’s baseball team still took the field to back him up.

And this companionship was not only reserved for fellow humans. Charles Schulz also penned one of the most culturally significant and enduring narratives about the importance of pets in modern literature. Charlie Brown’s relationship with Snoopy is the stuff of legend. The two griped about one another, of course, but there was never any doubt of the bond between the two. That relationship sparked the idea for Schulz’s bestselling children’s book, Happiness Is a Warm Puppy (1962). Even in the animal kingdom of Peanuts this companionship was crucial. Snoopy and Woodstock became inseparable by the 1970s. The little yellow bird brought along with him a whole bird community to bring out the best in Snoopy as Beagle Scout leader.

Peanuts fans felt themselves part this community. In a 1966 story that mirrored a fire that destroyed Schulz’s art studio, Snoopy’s red doghouse caught fire in the middle of the night. Letters and postcards flooded in from across the country. Some were from entire grade school classes that had taken up a change collection to help Snoopy rebuild his home (the loose change is still taped to their letters held today in the Charles M. Schulz Museum archive). Others were from adult carpenters who offered their services to their favorite beagle.

To challenge racism and segregation persisting into the late 1960s, Schulz introduced a new child into the community. Franklin first appeared in the summer of 1968 as a kind friend Charlie Brown met at the beach. The two boys spent the week building a sandcastle together. That fall, Franklin visited his new friend’s neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, Franklin moved to town and became a student at school with the Peanuts gang. When some southern critics threatened to pull Peanuts from their newspapers in the early 1970s, Schulz never blinked. Franklin was, he believed, an essential part of the community. The children treated racial integration as no big deal. It was good and it was welcomed.

Schulz’s love for community and his personal faith were on full display in perhaps Peanuts most long-lasting achievement, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). This televised Christmas special was unconventional in so many ways. The only action in the program took place in the open credits as the children ice skated. The characters were voiced by amateur child actors. The soundtrack was subtle piano jazz. Perhaps most challenging of all, the third act centered on Linus reciting an extended portion of the Nativity scene from Luke 2. The message to fellow Christians was clear: The real meaning of Christmas was the perfect communion of God with man at the manger in Bethlehem.

But there was a second and equally community-focused message for those not deeply connected to the Christian theme. In the close of the special, Charlie Brown tries to make the most of the pitiful little tree he found. It is not until Charlie Brown’s friends see his earnestness and embrace the tree themselves that it becomes complete. It was the love of the community that transformed Charlie Brown’s best efforts at Christmas into something truly marvelous.

For nearly 50 years, until his death on Feb. 12, 2000, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts was an appeal to modern man never to lose sight of his need for community. This was a difficult message to communicate in the rush of post-industrialism and the ideological fights against the nation’s communist enemies. As a stubborn and, at times, counterproductive individualism pervaded the culture, Peanuts reminded Americans they were not alone. Friendship, empathy, and caring for others were American values, too.

Charles Schulz never let us forget that.

Blake Scott Ball

Blake Scott Ball is assistant professor and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Huntingdon College. He is the author of Charlie Brown’s America: The Popular Politics of Peanuts. His writing has also appeared in The Washington Post and The Bulwark.