The Meaning of Life: The Enduring Legacy of ‘Peanuts’

Over a span of 50 years, Charles M. Schulz created a comic strip that is one of the undisputed glories of American popular culture – poignant, funny, and often philosophical. The simple four-panel comic strip, Peanuts, continues to resonate with millions of fans worldwide, the stories of the characters offering lessons about happiness, friendship, setbacks, perseverance, and life itself.

Portrait of American cartoonist Charles M Schulz (1922 – 2000), creator of the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip, sitting at his studio drawing table with a picture of his character Charlie Brown and some awards behind him. Schulz created the comic strip in 1950. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Remembering Schulz: An essay by George Saunders

Award-winning writer George Sanders (b. 1958) reflects on the deeper truths of Schultz’s deceptively simple comic and what Peanuts mean to him. Sander’s essay one of several collected in a recent volume, The Peanut Papers (2019) to celebrate the enduring legacy of Schulz’s masterpiece. I’ve edited parts of the essay for brevity.

“If you try to imagine, say, three kids sitting against the side of a suburban house on a summer afternoon, something interesting happens. What were originally three generic placeholder children will gradually, via the process of imagination and reimagination, evolve into three distinct children …

If these characters are allowed to grow up and leave the suburban lawn and get jobs and fall in love, this is called a novel, and you, the creator, are called a novelist.

If the imagined children are not allowed to grow up but are confined to the suburban lawn, where they continue for the next fifty years to be rich manifestations of their creator’s psyche, and if this creator’s imagination is supple and energetic enough never to tire of reimagining the children on the suburban lawn and never to make us tired of observing the children on the suburban lawn, this is called Peanuts, and the creator is called Charles Schulz, whose passing in 2000 left me with this gut-sinker of a thought: Charlie Brown will never again do something new.

Much has been written about Schulz: his happy, austere childhood in St. Paul, his loving barber of a father, whose frugal routine (days off were spent cleaning the shop) was brightened by a passion for comic strips. Young Schulz was nicknamed Sparky and as a teenager, enrolled in a correspondent art course, where he earned a C minus in the division called Drawing of Children (a mother of ironies if there was ever one).

His mother died of cancer just before he left her for World War II, one of several reasons often cited for his lifelong feelings of loneliness, another being his early jilting by the young woman who would become the prototype for the Little Red-Haired Girl.

Schulz was by all account a wonderful man – a Christian in the very best sense of the word, a kind husband and father and a generous mentor to countless younger cartoonists, a man who fought off his depression with humor and common sense and devotion to his craft.

Reading Peanuts back in the 1960s, having just learned to read, sitting there in the dank basements and mod parlors of the time, poring over the compilation volumes my friends owned, I for the first time experienced the heady sensation of seeing the world I lived in represented in art. The strip was set in a new-lawned and new-treed and under-furnitured suburb much like the one where I lived. When I walked out into that suburb, certain vignettes – a single leaf falling down, a pearly-black late autumn sky, a picket fence, a concrete stoop – set off a delicious cross-firing in which the world seemed more beautiful because I had just seen it stylized, in Peanuts. Likewise, in its moral tone – I recognized Charlie Brown as the tender loss-dreading part of me, Linus as the part that tried to address the loss-dreading part via intellect or religion or wit, Lucy as the part that addressed the loss-dreading part via aggression, and Snoopy, via joyful absurdist sagery.

At Christmastime, I sometimes found myself unconsciously mimicking the Charlie Brown posture (face turned beatifically upward, hands jammed into the pockets of my car coat) while watching snowflakes fall past a streetlight. It was always a little startling to see a picture of Schulz himself – how could this man, who looked like one of my father’s friends, know so much about the very private and alternately depressed and euphoric nine-year-old me?

… Peanuts was great not because it was joyfully unconstrained, but because it managed to be so joyful under constraint. Peanuts comprised a killer introduction to minimalism, to the idea that, to cover vast emotional territory, art need not be catalogic or vast. In book form, the complete Peanuts (18,250 strips) would comprise some five thousand pages. Charles Schulz left us this fifty-year novel to remember him by. It is a beautiful thing, whimsical and bitter, neurotic and hopeful, proof that, despite his protestation (that he was not doing ‘Great Art’), he was a very great artist indeed.”

About the author

George Saunders is the author of eight books, including the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, winner of the Man Booker Prize, and the story collections, Pastoralia and Tenth of December. In 2006, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2013, he received the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

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