Five Cent Psychiatry

The Troubled Legacy of Charles Schulz

A BiographyDavid Michaelis probably didn’t see it coming. When he set out to write Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography with the support of the cartoon legend’s family it should have been simple. Research, review, revise, publish. But somewhere between revision and publication last October the family bailed and the resultant book – a fascinating if dogmatic take on a much-loved figure and his groundbreaking work – became a focal point of commentary about what constitutes biography and an author’s right to interpret a subject.

One of the more curious facts about the book’s launch is that it drew Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, out of his self-imposed seclusion to write a review in the Wall Street Journal, of all places. Watterson covered the book somewhat favourably, pointing out its value along with its limitations. John Updike gave it a long, penetrating review in the New Yorker. Other reviewers took it on face value as a relatively definitive account of Schulz’s life. But Patricia Cohen, writing in the International Herald Tribune, pointed out opposition from the Schulz family. Why all the fuss?

Michaelis covers Schulz’s life from early childhood to the end of his troubled first marriage, skipping over his long and happy second marriage and weaving the story around biographical interpretations of Charlie Brown, Lucy and Snoopy, amongst the other members of the Peanuts gang.

Here’s Michaelis speaking about the writing process.

A biography is hardly a blank chronicle, but equating Charlie Brown and Snoopy a little too much with Schulz himself, and Lucy with his first wife Joyce, is far more clumsy than it would seem. Especially later in the book, it verges on Lucy’s own hypercritical five cent psychiatry.

lucy-van-pelt.jpgSo, too, do the responses from the Schulz family. Defending his father in an interview posted on the Panels and Pixels blog, Monte Schulz points out with obvious exasperation the book’s factual errors and omissions, especially its failure to cover his own long and loving relationship with his father. “He makes judgements, he interprets, he mythologizes, he psychoanalyzes. David really didn’t have an interest in telling dad’s life story”. In the International Herald Tribune article his sister Amy is quoted a little more pointedly: “the whole thing is completely wrong”.

In initial comments posted on the Sans Everything blog, Schulz’s widow Jeannie provides a detailed list of factual errors and what she considers misinterpretations, some of which run counter to information she provided the biographer herself. She concludes:

Did I tell all these things to David Michaelis? Of course. Did he choose to use them? Apparently not.

Thus we come to the crux of the matter – the biographer’s right to select and interpret. In introducing the widow Schulz’s comments, Jeet Heer claims of the biography: “it’s a big book and a challenging one, given the way it mixes facts (or apparent facts) with interpretation. In a later post he writes that

Michaelis isn’t the type of writer that just accumulates facts, he has a strong point of view which guides every word in the biography, and if you disagree with his perspective there is much in the book that will grate and annoy.

Heer’s problem, and he both appreciates and lambastes the book, is similar to what Monte, Amy and their stepmother Jeannie Schulz have to say – interpretation takes over the life. Heer writes in another post that biographers have two paths: the somewhat dreary factual and the selective, even thematic. Michaelis, he says, tries to cut his way through this selection ‘conundrum’ with “sheer writerly bravado, not to say overbearing presumption”.

So the amateur psychiatrist has spoken, in great detail if you read the associated posts. A biographer must not presume, interpretation must give way to fact. How, then, do we achieve critical analysis? Who ‘owns’ the truth of Charles Schulz’s life?

Biography is a sub-discipline of history, from the Latin historia or a narrative that allows one to learn, from the Greek histor, a wise man, a judge. Written history is a judgemental narrative, and biography by extension is a judgement made on a single life amongst many. To understand the past in any way is always to interpret. The important question to ask is not how much the book reveals of David Michaelis’ wayward intention, but how credible it is as a version of Charles Schulz’s life.

Read the book, the reviews and the blogs to judge for yourself. They’ll give you an insight into the heavily contested, and contestable, world of celebrity biography. And it’s certainly a puzzling world.

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