In the end, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz’s departure was an eerie case of life seeming to imitate art. Schulz died last Saturday on the eve of the final appearance of his Sunday strip. (Like the last original daily strip, which ran in newspapers in January, it featured a farewell message from Schulz, who had been diagnosed with cancer in November). The coincidence was so striking that many people confessed to a sense of its having been scripted — as if by the hand of some giant, unseen, cosmic cartoonist of uncertain benevolence.
Life, of course, doesn’t work that way, and neither does death. Schulz’s death, though early, was not unexpected, and the fact that it came just hours before Snoopy typed that last affecting message from atop his doghouse was fitting, but hardly surprising. Charlie Brown and the gang would also be the first to agree that there is little point trying to fathom the significance of such coincidences, especially not in a quest for consolation. One of the things we learned from them over the years was that there is, in this world, much sadness and little comfort and we might as well get used to it.
The death did, however, prompt a second wave of public grief and praise — the first having come last December, when Schulz announced he could no longer continue the phenomenally successful comic strip he had drawn day in and day out for nearly half a century. On both occasions, Americans naturally mourned the loss of a national icon. For many, there had not been a day in their lives when the round-headed kid philosophers had not appeared in the daily newspaper.
But Peanuts belonged to the rest of the world, too. Perhaps the most telling tribute this week came from France’s culture minister, Ms. Catherine Trautman, who said simply, “We shall miss Charlie Brown. He had become a familiar character, close to all of us.” Incredibly, given that she spoke for a government to whom American popular culture has long been anathema, Ms. Trautman also acknowledged that Schulz’s style and philosophy had “inspired many French authors, who share his acute vision of our surroundings.” Charlie Schulz, wherever you are, take a bow. If you conquered France’s heart, you must have conquered pretty nearly everybody’s.
Including Japan’s, as anyone who has ever spent five minutes here will know. Not only through the daily strip, but on television (where the gang speak faultless Japanese) and through the mass marketing of Peanuts-related merchandise, the world of Schulz was long ago woven into the fabric of Japanese life. Hapless Charlie Brown, mean Lucy, brave, lovable Snoopy (especially Snoopy), anxious, trusting Linus, goofy little Woodstock and all the rest have not only been among the United States’ most effective ambassadors to this country, they have become honorary Japanese citizens. Japan will miss Charlie Brown, too — or at least his fresh misadventures.
The truth is, Charlie Brown will be around for a long time, even though the last original Peanuts frame has been drawn, the last football pulled away, the last kite eaten. Reruns and spinoffs will continue for years. If not, that is all right too. Dissenters were hinting even this week that it was high time Peanuts bowed out anyway. By the early ’80s, they claimed, if not much earlier, the strip had lost its edge, bogging down amid stale gags and a growing wackiness.
It strikes us as ungracious to be saying such things at this time, when common decency calls for focusing on Schulz’s achievements rather than his shortcomings, but they suggest a truth. Nobody can keep genius going indefinitely. Peanuts was, at its height, a daily sliver of pure genius. After 50 years, maybe, the spark was flickering. Now that its “onlie begetter” has gone, that little world passes complete into the pantheon, where — like every other work of art — it provides less gifted people with something to disparage. That is the way life works. One can be sure that Schulz, the ultimate sober realist, would expect nothing else.
In the meantime, this week’s grief is a good grief, as Charlie Brown might say, since there is so much more to celebrate than to mourn in the life just ended. Everyone has been recalling their favorite strip. Here’s ours. Remember the sequence in which Snoopy falls ill and his brothers gather round his hospital bed for a week or so, fearing for his life and pondering the meaning of it all? Rallying momentarily, Snoopy feebly wonders who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. “Do fish go to heaven?” he asks. “Not if they’ve been a bad fish,” says Olaf. There is Peanuts in a nutshell: the innocence, the comeuppance, the hopefulness without the sentimental compromise. Snoopy, of course, is a good fish. On the evidence of his life’s work, so was Charles Schulz.
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