Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Charles Schulz: Melancholy and Laughter

Last week there was an article in the “New York Times” about the spat between David Michaelis, the author of the biography of Charles M. Schulz (creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip) released this week by HarperCollins, and the Schulz family, who are a tad miffed that their father (or relative) is portrayed as a depressed, anxious man.
When Michaelis was questioned by the press if he got the story straight, the biographer answered: “Absolutely. No question.”
From the NYT article:


Mr. Michaelis referred to numerous interviews throughout Charles Schulz’s life in which he talked about his own “melancholy” and anxieties. “I have this awful feeling of impending doom,” he said on “60 Minutes” in 1999. “I wake up to a funeral-like atmosphere.” Many portraits of Schulz pick up the same theme. Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s 1989 biography, “Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz,” similarly describes him as depressed and plagued by panic attacks, despite a large family and mammoth financial and critical success. Nor does it seem that Mr. Michaelis made a secret of his perspective. He wrote an appreciation of Schulz in Time magazine in December 2000 after his death at 77 in which he clearly laid out the thesis he expands on in his 655-page book, sometimes word for word.


Mr. Michaelis’s biography, “Schulz and Peanuts,” which HarperCollins is releasing next week, is one of the most anticipated books of the fall publishing season. Schulz’s cartoon panels are interspersed with the text, and Mr. Michaelis uses them as revelations of the artist’s emotions.
“He was a complicated artist who had an inner life and embedded that inner life on the page,” Mr. Michaelis said in an interview. “His anxieties and fears brought him Lucy and the characters in ‘Peanuts.'”
“A normal person couldn’t have done it,” he said.

I love that last line, and may hang it on my frig with “Peanuts”: “A normal person couldn’t have done it.” In other words, God, for once, thank you for my unconventional brain!
And there’s a lesson in the rest of the story, as well, as it seems that what began as depression and anxiety for Schulz ultimately became laughter.
It’s true that Charles was “melancholy,” said Jean Schulz, his second wife. But “it’s not a full portrait. Sparky [Schulz’s nickname] was so much more. Most of the time he loved to laugh.”


“Part of what puzzles people about Sparky was that he talked about the actual physical sensation that he had from being anxious, the ‘sense of dread’ when he got up in the morning. But he had a Buddhist acceptance of life and its ups and downs. He functioned perfectly well.
“David couldn’t put everything in,” she said, but added, “I think Sparky’s melancholy and his dysfunctional first marriage are more interesting to talk about than 25 years of happiness.” She quoted her husband’s frequent response to why Charlie Brown never got to kick the football: “Happiness is not funny.”

P.S. Thanks to Beliefnet editor Lilit Marcus who has two very cool websites herself– and–for directing me to this article and so many pop culture pieces. Between she and Larry Parker sending things to me, I think I’m covered regarding current events.

  • Larry Parker

    Anyone who has read extensively from Schulz’s early, 1950s Peanutes strips (as opposed to the happier, 1970s and later strips that came after the animated TV show royalties made him rich beyond his dreams) would see Schulz had a dark view, not only of human nature, but also of childhood in particular. Schulz was unafraid (at least then) to show in their full ugliness the playground cruelties we’ve all, if we are honest, either experienced or caused.
    IMHO, I think Schulz saw the anecdote of Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown as a metaphor for life. As would (not that any of us are doctors and capable of diagnosing Schulz postmortem) anyone of us with depression.
    PS — Cartooning is a tough life, with the most brutal deadlines imaginable. No wonder Schulz’s protege, Lynn Johnston of For Better or For Worse, has just gone into semi-retirement (and Aaron MacGruder, who once was going to be the African-American Garry Trudeau, burned himself out within a few years).

  • Lilit Marcus

    Wow, thanks for the mention. I’m really flattered. And thank you for your warmth, candor, and ability to make any situation relatable.

  • lapatosu

    Ah, the Shutlz biography. I heard an interview with the author and one of Shultz’s sons on NPR last week.
    “it’s not a full portrait. Sparky [Schulz’s nickname] was so much more. Most of the time he loved to laugh.”
    It is frustrating to hear how people think that clinical depression is just a matter of being happy (lauging) or sad (depressed). I’m glad
    Michaelis stuck to his convictions and wrote about the man he saw, and not the man his second family wanted to sugar-coat.

  • cathy

    Even in Schulz’s pencil- and pen-driven lines, you can see his appreciation for tentative, unformed feelings. When one of his characters brooded in gloom, there was so much life brewing inside those lines* that you could feel hope and imagine that the character could come to some sort of acceptance or realize a transformation of mood or spirit.
    My husband, year-and-a-half-old daughter, and I went to the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa last year, after a really hard trip to Northern California for a wedding. It was the shining moment of the trip. We all — even the little one — felt free to be ourselves there amidst the drawings, letters, quotes, comfortable furniture, and fun 3-D art. We felt in the company of a kindred spirit and then realized we were really okay, too — vacation trauma and all.
    * inside those lines… an artist would call that the “negative space,” which is a really interesting concept for people dealing with depression and other mood disorders.

  • Margaret Balyeat

    Cwnruries ago, Hipporates wrote an essay bow called “Hippocrates Lament” in which he decried the fact that the “best and brightest” (especialy in terms of creativity were so frequently bipolar, so it no longer surpises me to discover that prolific icons such as Charles Shultz suffered from our common afflictio nor were at least occasional visitors to the “deep, dark hole.” I actually find that observation to be the one POSITIVE in terms of suffering deep depressions; at least we’re in good company! Now if we as a society can (FINALLY) reach the point where our loved ones (such as Mr. Shultz’s widow and sons) don’t feel the need to “defend” our darker sides!

  • Frank

    Yesterday was not my happiest day. We lost a high school classmate to cancer. I was particularly saddened as I read my other classmates tender and loving comments about our friend. But then, I realized that our sadness was a testimony to a life that had been well-lived and meaningful. His life made a difference. I like the idea of seeing my friends in the glow of truth and in their shining glory – warts and all. It makes the good things they do so ‘good’. They are able to outshine the dark and that is indeed a good thing. Thus is my impression of Charles Schultz. He brought smiles, many smiles. The biographer is not besmirching Charles Schultz’s image in any way – no more than my friends have done so as they honored Pecos with true memories of a friend.

  • BGG

    Your post reminds me of the following Buddhist story:
    A water bearer had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
    For two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water to his master’s house. The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, of delivering a full portion of water. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was only able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
    After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the cracked pot spoke to the water bearer and said “I am ashamed of myself.” “Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” “I have been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said.
    The water bearer said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of his path. The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”

  • Larry Parker
    “He [Michaelis] says the bossy Lucy was inspired by his first wife, Joyce, who had no patience with his worrying and used to tell him during his bouts of melancholy, ‘Snap out of it.'”
    Oh … my … G-d.
    I **MARRIED** Lucy. What a blockhead!!!!

  • Pingback: The Pathological Germ Can Be Creative Too | Life on the Fun Side

Previous Posts

Seven Ways to Get Over an Infatuation
“Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I” wrote US songwriter Lorenz Hart about the feeling of infatuation. It’s blissful and euphoric, as we all know. But it’s also addicting, messy and blinding. Without careful monitoring, its wild ...

posted 12:46:43pm Feb. 19, 2014 | read full post »

When Faith Turns Neurotic
When does reciting scripture become a symptom of neurosis? Or praying the rosary an unhealthy compulsion? Not until I had the Book of Psalms practically memorized as a young girl did I learn that words and acts of faith can morph into desperate ...

posted 10:37:13am Jan. 14, 2014 | read full post »

How to Handle Negative People
One of my mom’s best pieces of advice: “Hang with the winners.” This holds true in support groups (stick with the people who have the most sobriety), in college (find the peeps with good study habits), and in your workplace (stay away from ...

posted 10:32:10am Jan. 14, 2014 | read full post »

8 Coping Strategies for the Holidays
For people prone to depression and anxiety – i.e. human beings – the holidays invite countless possibility to get sucked into negative and catastrophic thinking. You take the basic stressed-out individual and you increase her to-do list by a ...

posted 9:30:12am Nov. 21, 2013 | read full post »

Can I Say I’m a Son or Daughter of Christ and Suffer From Depression?
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, we read: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” What if we aren’t glad, we aren’t capable of rejoicing, and even prayer ...

posted 10:56:04am Oct. 29, 2013 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.