Inspiring Young Readers
Charlie Brown, Snoopy and all that crew
I’m a fan of the prickly, contentious, provocative Joe Queenan and I will often go to his columns to find an entertaining, dissenting voice – he’s the kind of writer who will outrage you just for the fun of doing it. Grazing across some of his older articles for The Guardian I noticed one he’d written back in 2010 about Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoon strips entitled Why I Love Peanuts.
To be honest, this eulogy to the world of Charlie Brown and Snoopy rather put me on the back foot. You see, I’ve never liked Peanuts and I sort of assumed neither would Queenan – but how wrong I was. The article is quite a lengthy one and makes a really robust case for Peanuts as a sort of counter-cultural icon operating inside the whale:
"Unlike so many other venerated objects in US pop culture, it was sweet without being stupid, reassuring without being infantile. In the dark era in which it began, it served much the same function as I Love Lucy. The difference was it had brains."
Many of the things I so disliked about Peanuts are the very things Queenan himself acknowledges but he is able to see the other side of the argument. Yes, it can be dopey and anodyne but, he claims, that’s just what was needed at the time:
"Peanuts, so endearing, so harmless, so good-natured, was a daily antidote to this atmosphere of fear and loathing, in the same way that the arrival of the Beatles in the US a few months after John F Kennedy's assassination helped to bring young people back to life. Throughout the Red Scare of the 50s, the desegregation wars in the deep south, the Kennedy assassinations, the murder of Martin Luther King, the war in Vietnam, the hostage crisis in Iran and – well, you get the idea – Peanuts was always there as a touchstone and a balm."
But surely he must agree that it’s just too cutesy, too sweetly cloying to be anything more than irritating? Well yes, but:
"It is generally agreed that Schulz's heyday was in the 60s and 70s, that toward the end the strip became a bit too saccharine and predictable. That said, it had a nice run before it became little more than a merchandising vehicle, the marketing arm of a much larger empire."
But what I really hate most of all about Peanuts is the way its fans talk about it as DEEP. They claim that the characters have a world view that is in some way intellectually or even academically significant but I’ve just never been able to see it. A few sardonic comments, dopey losers as winners, the sort of knowing nudges it gives that seems to say ‘well, aren’t we all like this really?’ just infuriates me.
To his credit, Queenan acknowledges this tendency:
"Eventually, it became fashionable to find more in Peanuts than was really there. American academics are always offering courses in such things as the philosophical subtexts implicit in The Simpsons, or what Mad Men says about the American psyche because academics can never leave well enough alone. I find this sort of stuff first-class bilge, an inability to accept a popular art form on its own terms. No amount of blather can turn U2 into Bach, and the fact that Charles Schulz produced a larger body of work than Rimbaud doesn't put him in Rimbaud's weight class."
But I think the ultimate stumbling block for me and Peanuts is that it is so very American and just oozes a particular kind of American sensibility and world view. Ultimately these characters mean very little to a boy raised in a poor, working class inner city of the UK. Sure, I can intellectually understand what Schultz was all about but, unlike Queenan, I can’t tune into its finer vibrations or understand it at an emotional level.
"It was like the sky: pleasant, visually appealing, reliable. Peanuts had a Picture of Dorian Gray quality; you kept getting older and more decrepit and more cynical, but it didn't. By the time you started reading it, you were already older than the characters in the strip, so it immediately made you nostalgic for childhood. Not necessarily for your childhood, but for the childhood Lucy and Charlie and Linus were having.
The name Peanuts is derived from the term "peanut gallery", which describes the cheap seats in a theatre. The name was assigned to the strip by the syndicate that began to run it in 1950; Schulz himself hated it. Yet in retrospect, it seems altogether perfect in the same way that The Great Gatsby is a far better book title than F Scott Fitzgerald's original suggestions: Trimalchio in West Egg, The High-Bouncing Lover, On the Road to West Egg, The Gold-Hatted Gatsby."
So in the end I’d much rather have The Bash Street Kids than Peanuts. The likes of Plug, Fatty, Wilfred and Smiffy still have more to say to me than Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus or Peppermint Patty. At a pinch I’d settle for Lord Snooty and his Pals – they would at least give me a headstart on trying to understand the British class system!