Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Michaelis' Schulz, Schulz's Beethoven, and the Construction of Biography

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Michaelis' Schulz, Schulz's Beethoven, and the Construction of Biography

Article excerpt

Michaelis' Schulz, Schulz's Beethoven, and the Construction of Biography David Michaelis' Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (New York: Harper, 2007), 655 pp. ISBN 978-0-06-093799-7. Pbk: $19.95.

I. Introduction

DAVID MICHAELIS' HEFTY BIOGRAPHY OF CHARLES SCHULZ has won extravagrant praise from esteemed critics in highly regarded newspapers (Rich Coehn of The Los Angeles Times), famous authors (John Updike writing in The New Yorker), revered newspeople (Walter Cronkite), beloved entertainers (Garrison Keillor in The Chicago Tribune), and online pundits (Laura Miller in salon.com). No less than twenty-one quotes of encomium fill the back cover and the first two pages of the paperback version, which was released in the U.S. and U.K. in 2008. Michaelis' head must have swelled larger than those of the oversized characters in Peanuts as the praise rolled in.

I must confess that my reading, which is quite different, has been inflected by my own relation to "Sparky" (his nickname) as an addict of comic strips since I learned to read, my work as co-curator of Schulz's Beethoven: Schroeder's Muse (the joint exhibit of the Schulz Museum and Beethoven Center), having worked with and formed my own impressions of some of the people in the book (especially Jean Schulz), and-perhaps most importantly-by my profession as a historian with a particular interest in the construction of biographies.1

I first encountered Michaelis' tome early in 2008 when researching Schulz's knowledge of Beethoven for the exhibit. Turning first to the book's detailed index - no less than twenty-three double-column pages - I was bewildered to find no entry for the composer. Where "Beethoven" should appear - sandwiched between "Beatles band" and "Beetle Bailey" - he was simply missing. Authors rarely index their own books, but Michaelis is poorly served by such a colossal omission: Beethoven is not only a recurring theme in Peanuts but was also the composer Sparky chose as emblematic of classical music.

At the time I myself was preoccupied with indexing all the Schulz strips that mention Beethoven by name, feature or include his music, or somehow relate to him; I simply didn't have time to index all 655 pages to hunt down what I needed. Accordingly, I laid the volume aside till last fall. And, as it turned out, I'm happy I drafted the exhibit labels without Michaelis' Schulz in mind.

A missing entry in an index is nothing to be peevish about, and I had long ago laid aside my frustration when I began to read. But on the first page of the preface I discovered what makes the biography both invaluable yet seriously flawed. Michaelis uncovered a tremendous number of details that easily warrants the enthusiasm with which his book has been lauded. I'd like to be able to voice equal praise for his armchair psychoanalysis of Schulz's motives and actions without Michaelis ever having met or talked to him, but he's worse at it than Lucy. Does Michaelis have formal training in psychoanalysis or psychology? This question came strongest to mind when I read his unconvincing interpretation of one of Schulz's dreams that the cartoonist reinterpreted in several of his most unusual strips (pp. 496-97). Michaelis also makes over-reaching statements (see below), doesn't bother to provide dates for far too many events and quotes, and makes far too extensive use of unidentified sources.

Ultimately, I find it impossible to reconcile Michaelis' morose portrait of Schulz "an eternally boyish, eternally lonesome man wondering whether he had been loved" (p. 407) - with the body of work itself. Michaelis' take on Schulz is that the creator of the most famous comic strip of the twentieth century was a depressed and lonely man who couldn't hug his own flesh-and-blood children and stood back from life. I can't emphasize strongly enough that the book tells the biography of Michaelis' Schulz, the facts constantly filtered through his simplistic narrative. …

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