Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Are there no more heroes, Charlie Brown?

It was with growing dismay that I had read the advance press on the new Charles Schulz biography, Schulz and Peanuts, and the surprise revelations it promised on the great cartoonist behind everyone's favorite loser, Charlie Brown. As a fan, I had followed Schulz's work for decades, hunting down interviews wherever I could find them. He always seemed like such a nice guy, I thought... how sad to hear that the artist behind a lifetime of Peanuts comic strips was a creep, who didn't seem to care about his family, especially the welfare of his own children.

Another toppled hero, it seemed.

Well, not so fast.

Now we find out, through some correspondance his family have been leaving at a cartoon site discussing the new book, that the biography is the worst kind of projected nonsense being passed off as history. The writer, David Michaelis, had a story he wanted to tell, and immortalized it in print, whether it fit the actual facts or not.

From a thread of over 180 comments (as it stands at this posting), comes letters from the artist's son, Monte Schulz, and daughter Amy Schulz Johnson, expressing their many reservations about the new book. The negative biography is gathering a lot of approving publicity, sanctifying its contents; will the family's disappointment and disagreements with the author's pronouncements receive the same amount of attention..?

10/15/07 11:53pm Monte Schulz

[Michaelis] cherry-picked quotes, put ones together that did not belong together (getting my sister Amy in a section about how Dad was unaffectionate to his children to say that she had to learn to hug from the Mormon church. Actually, she told me that she explained to David how when she was younger, she hated people invading her personal space, but when she joined the Mormons, people were always coming up and hugging her, so she had to learn to do so, as well. But she said that story had nothing to do with Dad at all). Yet David conflated the ideas together.
For my part, Dad was a wonderful parent, reading to me, teaching me to throw baseballs, watching movies with me, driving me to school for years, taking me down to SF for doubleheaders, hitting fly balls to me for hours, teaching me how to shoot marbles, sharing his books with me as I grew older and began to write, flying out to Minnesota with me to help buy sheets and pillows for my dorm room, picking me up at the airport each time I flew home, and even in the last six months of his life, staying up late at the ice arena, well past his bedtime, to watch his 49 year old son play hockey games. None of that is in the book.

10/16/07 11:29pm Monte Schulz
...Talking tonight with my stepmother, [I] did tell her that it occurs to me now that had [Michaelis] described more fully my relationship with my father, many of his assertions about Dad as a parent would’ve been contradicted. I believe he left me out deliberately for that reason...

10/17/07 8:45pm Amy Schulz Johnson

...It is important to me for fans to know that David’s book is more fiction than fact. When David came to my home to spend time with me, learning about who my father was, he distinctly gave me the impression that he wanted to learn and write the truth.

David committed the ultimate “sin of omission” by leaving out what would have been many, many chapters of what a wonderful father and friend my dad had been. From the time each one of us was little, to his dying day, my dad devoted large amounts of time to us. There is no way he could have been a more involved and loving father. As for being a friend, it would be extremely difficult to record all the good that he did and the time that he spent with each person that he had the chance to meet and spend time with. There are too many people, not enough time, and it would take volumes of books, not just one.

Having said that, I believe David had the sacred obligation to compile this information as best he could and lend credence to it. Leaving out the generous man that was my father, David ends up publishing a book about someone else, not Charles Schulz

In the grand scheme of things, an untrustworthy biography on a popular cultural figure counts as small potatoes, I know. Yet it is such a common sight nowadays, to see people of great goodness twisted into caricatures of themselves, making the very idea of goodness itself into a fantasy.

The fantasy is to pretend that goodness does not exist. Great men walk the earth, doing great things. There are heroes. Not gods, perfect and faultless; but heroes, nonetheless. There are also villains, burning with envy, seemingly determined to spare no effort at befouling even a small corner of light that may dare illuminate our dark world.

Good grief.


truepeers said...

As you say, this kind of thing is all too common today: biographies that set about to rip famous people apart, to show all their moral failings (judged by today's guilt-ridden standards), and making all kinds of insinuations about their sex and family lives. It is all a willful desire to destroy faith in anything but shared resentments of success. How contemptible that this has become the way to sell books, of all things.

It's not small potatoes to set the record straight. Thanks.

tiberge said...

@ charles

Apologies for this belated comment. I just got around to reading this fine post.

It sounds as if the biographer should be taken to court. Any idea why he was chosen for the job? Was the family close to him, or was he pushed onto the family by the publisher?

I remember when I read the biography of Marilyn Monroe by (the late) Norman Mailer. It held my attention, but it was clearly sleaze. And I thought: "Pick your own biographer before you die."

Not that it would help. Once a person is dead, he becomes fodder for the cormorants of the publishing world. The biography of Marlene Dietrich by her daughter was superb, a fascinating look at Hollywood and her mother's intimate life. But I have no idea what was true and what was revenge, or bitterness. In both of these bios much of the information was certainly true, but the vision we are left with is two women who did a lot of sleeping around. That is what is stressed.

Vastly superior is the biography of Lincoln by Carl Sandburg that I'm reading slowly - inch by inch! Sandburg knew Marilyn and it would have been nice for him to write a bio of her, but I doubt that he would have cared to.

Charles Henry said...

thanks Tiberge.
If I read the story correctly, the family were asked to participate by the publisher, which had chosen this guy to write the book. It took him six years for the project to come to fruition, and during that time he won over the family, individual by individual, only to turn everything they told him on its head.

What's shameful is that the book will be read by so many people, fiction will live as fact, and those that know otherwise have to contend with the mistaken beliefs ths book will propagate. Years from now, who will remember the controversy? Only the book will remain... and its lies.

I envy you reading Carl Sandburg! I've seen his Lincoln books in our library for years, and have forever remarked "one day I must take a closer look at these..."
I've heard him interviewed in some old radio programs, and his modest wit and eloquence were of such a charming nature that it's made me immensely curious to follow up with his biographies.