The Peanuts Gang
with signed drawing
Charles M. Schulz
October 2 marks the birthday of Snoopy and the Peanuts gang... Lucy, Woodstock, Linus and more....and of course, Charlie Brown. The literary world's quintessential loser. Before you take offense, consider the meaning of the word. I'm not talking about a jerk or a bad person, though most people use the word loser synonymously with those terms. I'm talking about the bumbling, well-meaning characters in life and literature who try their best, with the best of intentions, and still can't manage to get it right.
In Charlie Brown's case, he's not a jerk at all. He's a really nice guy. But he's a loser nonetheless, and the hearts of readers everywhere have been constricting painfully for him since 1950 when the first Peanuts strip ran nationally in eight newspapers across America. And that's what set Charlie Brown apart from the strips that ran alongside him. We're accustomed, as readers, to reading about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things: saving babies from burning buildings, being bitten by radioactive spiders, foiling evil, curing cancer and getting the girl to boot. But not Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown's claim to fame consisted of doing exactly what the rest of us do - living his life each day the best he could. And the experience of reading about an ordinary, underwhelming life in a comic strip was a strange one.
While he could be found on the cartoon pages and sometimes it was hard not to laugh, it was harder not to cringe. For a comic strip, Peanuts offered a remarkably insightful social commentary, and one to which almost everyone could relate. Charlie Brown is the champion of nice guys finishing last, and mostly elicited sympathy and even empathy from the stoniest of hearts as we watched him wistfully loving the little red-haired girl from afar, conjuring entire conversations between them in his imagination, but never getting the courage to bridge the distance between fantasy and reality.
We watched him trust, again and again, each time warier but still desperately hoping that this time Lucy would not pull the football away at the last moment, that he would not run full tilt, determined to kick, but end up flat on his back, wondering why he'd fallen for it again. He loved and cared for his peculiar dog, but had to withstand the torment that even his beagle had a social life more vibrant and fun than his own, a rich imagination full of flying fighter planes and seducing various sweeties, and an action-packed life, often centred around trying to find his mother at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm or his brother Spike. Charlie Brown was the one stable constant, always present, reliable and dependable, standing with a dish of food promptly at suppertime.
His relationships all seemed to have an element of pity mixed with affection. Lucy duped him repeatedly, shouted at him relentlessly, but freely dispensed amateur psychiatric advice and came through in the crunch. His little sister Sally was often mortified and frustrated by him but occasionally displayed the worship and admiration befitting a big brother. His friends were short-tempered with his efforts, calling him a blockhead, ridiculing and belittling his strangeness, his shyness, his tendency to worry. But they recognised the goodness in him, and when Charlie Brown, undaunted by the commercial materialism of everybody else at Christmas, picked the smallest, spindliest tree to take home so it could fulfill its Christmas destiny, his friends recognised the love behind the gesture and came through in the spirit after all, helping decorate the little tree.
And therein lies the difference between the unkind usage of the word loser and the meaning which I intend here; the kindness, and the good intentions. When considering losers in literature, I thought about The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield, or A Confederacy of Dunces' Ignatius J. Reilly. But Holden Caulfield was whiny and perpetually dissatisfied, disappointed in the world around him. Ignatius J. Reilly was a pompous ass with an intense dislike for...well, everything. Neither had the spirit of goodness, hope and dignity found in the everyman that is Charlie Brown and his counterparts.
There's a kind of dignity in Charlie Brown's refusal to give up, to change who he is. Surrounded by talented friends - Schroeder is a musician, many of the other children excel at their games - Charlie Brown himself failed at most things he tried. He was a terrible baseball player, but continued to doggedly practice and play. He seemed to carry with him an air of hope, as if he woke up every morning, yesterday's failures dissolved overnight, with a renewed sense that today might be the day he finally wins.
And one always got the feeling, as a reader, that it would turn out that way for Charlie Brown. Despite the unusually mature strips in which he, an eight-year-old boy, lay awake in the dark plagued by worry, despite the repeated failures, despite the best of intentions and worst of luck, we kept that sense of hope that Charlie Brown the loser might win, if only now and then. And we knew he'd never stop trying.