by William H. Benson
October 1, 2009
On October 2, 1950, Charles Schulz first published his Peanuts comic strip, featuring Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy, and the others: Lucy, Linus, Sally, Schroeder, and Peppermint Patty. Schulz exaggerated all of his characters’ heads and then dwarfed their bodies, using what cartoonists call a “minimalist style,” primitive and simple, or as Schulz said, “Less is more.”
The humor was soft, centering about Charlie Brown’s disappointments, his resentments, his inability to understand as quickly as did Lucy, and his feelings of humiliation. Schulz’s comic strip caught on and eclipsed all others. Over the course of the next 49 ½ years, he drew17,896 strips, almost up to the day he died, February 13, 2000.
Along the way, he added books, television programs, and even music, until Schulz’s business was indeed very big, and yet strangely, he belittled all these accomplishments.
To an interviewer, Schulz commented once: “What a waste of time. Well, you know: what have you done? Drawn a comic strip. Who cares? Now, I’m seventy-five years old.” The interviewer suggested that Schulz had built a “lasting legacy because of his achievement.” Schulz responded, “I think I’ve done the best with what ability I have. I haven’t wasted my ability. I haven’t destroyed it. I haven’t misused it in any way.”
Known as a guy with a melancholy disposition, perhaps even a depressive, who harbored lifelong grudges originating from his childhood, Schulz had dared to admit what he, and others like him, have discovered: that in America, becoming a celebrity does not convert a commonplace, ordinary individual into a hero or even into greatness.
The historian Daniel Boorstin explored this thought in his 1961 book The Image, in which he wrote the following: “We seem to have discovered the processes by which fame is manufactured. In the U.S., a man’s name can become a household word overnight. The Graphic Revolution suddenly gave us the means of fabricating well-knowness.”
“Discovering that we—the television watchers, the movie goers, radio listeners, and newspaper and magazine readers—and our servants—the television, movie, and radio producers, newspaper and magazine editors, and ad writers—can so quickly and so effectively give a man ‘fame,’ we have willingly been misled into believing that fame is still a hallmark of greatness.”
In other words, a woman or a man writes a book, the book becomes a screenplay, the screenplay becomes the movie, the movie includes music, the music is heard on the radio, and the magazine and newspaper writers submit the news of it to their readers. The forms of the media circle back upon themselves, and celebrities, who are long on luck or ambition but short on talent, are created, this way it seems everyday in America.
But, Boorstin argued, it is all a hall of mirrors propped up only to reflect upon each other, without substance or reality at its center.
“Movies and books mirror each other,” wrote Boorstin. “Both give us the fantastic, unreal image that which we wish to believe of ourselves. Music becomes a mirror of moods. Experience becomes little more than interior decoration.”
What Charles Schulz did with Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Walt Disney did with Mickey Mouse, and what Jim Henson did with Miss Piggy and the other Muppets.
And that is just the entertainment industry. Might we extend Boorstin’s arguments into other arenas: into politics, into religion, into business, or into government? Whom, among all those diverse viewpoints, do we trust? The Democrats or the Republicans; Catholic, Protestant, or Fundamentalist; business leaders; or government leaders? The mirrors that each holds up reflects back upon the other, and substance seems strangely missing. We believe some. We disbelieve others. We hope. We lose hope.
On October 2, 1959, The Twilight Zone first premiered on television, and Rod Serling, the show’s host, began with these words: “There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
We live today in a kind of Twilight Zone, where, on one side promises are trumpeted and fears are discounted, and on the other side, calamity and despair are shouted from the rooftop, and we lurch back and forth between them. Whom do we trust?
At the end of the day, inside this hall of mirrors, this fifth dimension of imagination, we can applaud Charles Schulz’s created fictional world by shouting, “You’re a good man, Charlie Brown!”