- - Monday, March 9, 2020

Twenty years ago this month, the last-ever “Peanuts” comic strip was published. Following the wishes of its late creator, Charles M. Schulz, no cartoonist will be allowed to take up the mantle to continue this iconic masterpiece.  

Nevertheless, the cultural impact of “Peanuts” is still felt today. Part of this is because several animated TV specials, comic books and Golden Globe-nominated “The Peanuts Movie” (2015) have been made since Schulz’s death. But the more significant reason why is because Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the whole “Peanuts” gang have often explained life’s adventures and challenges far better than we ever could.      

Literary agent Andrew Blauner’s “The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life” is a wonderful anthology that illuminates the brilliant simplicity of “Peanuts.” Thirty-three writers and cartoonists explore some of the powerful messages contained within this important comic strip. They explain why “Peanuts” means (or meant) so much to them — as well as faithful readers, both young and old, from every corner of the globe.     

Eight essays and one comic strip have been published before.

This includes the late philosopher Umberto Eco, who suggested in “Arriva Charlie Brown!” (1963) that “Peanuts” characters are children who “affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: they are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of industrial civilization.”

Joe Queenan’s 2010 Guardian op-ed described the strip as “so endearing, so harmless, so good-natured … it was sweet without being stupid, reassuring without being infantile.” And Sarah Boxer’s November 2015 piece in The Atlantic suggested Snoopy’s character had transformed from hilarious to narcissistic and become “fundamentally rotten … whose charm was based on his total lack of concern about what others thought of him.” 

Most of the work in this anthology is original. It contains interesting theories, unique angles and several outside-the-box interpretations.

Adam Gopnik proposes “what we value most in Peanuts, perhaps, is how instinctively, with how little effort, Schulz makes the big preoccupations of serious literature and spiritual crisis into an unforgettable set of daily comic parables.”

Indeed, this is a comic strip world where a “Pascalian intellectual” like Linus, “Beethoven worshipper” like Schroeder, “Holden Caulfield six or seven years before he runs away from school” like Charlie Brown, and Lucy, “the least fit person to offer psychiatric advice in the history of fiction,” are somehow able to co-exist. “What makes Peanuts great,” writes Mr. Gopnik, is “Schulz arrived at his black comedy by much the same compass as the more literary humorists, if on a more demotic path.”

There’s gentle wisdom in Schulz’s strip. “[T]he strip sometimes functions like a fable, the characters as archetypal, when viewed with a blurring squint, as the donkeys, lambs, wolves, and lions that populate Aesop,” Bruce Handy notes. “I now think the strip also had a hold on me in a moral primal way, somewhat analogous to the way traditional fairy tales enthrall children by helping assuage unconscious fears about growing up and finding a place in the world — real anxieties exaggerated and made grotesque.”

Some contributors to “The Peanuts Papers” identify with specific characters and themes. Elissa Schappell saw herself as Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, who “suffers from ADD” and keeps “bashing on ahead, trampling on the English language like so much crepe paper, out of a subconscious desire to name her experience.” Mona Simpson focuses on Schroeder and Lucy’s relationship, which she initially believed was a “template for extremely unrequited love” — but later realized was “complicated love … [t]hey are in a triangle, a threesome with Schroeder’s toy piano.”

Meanwhile, the cartoonist Gregory “Seth” Gallant feels “Peanuts” was “a poem to unrequited love” and “ode to failure and loneliness,” where the “very best of the individual strips read like polished haikus.” Chris Ware, another cartoonist, observes “[w]hereas the haiku daily strip enabled the characters’ personalities to mature, the Sunday — double the size and numbers of panels, and in color — allowed for an expansion of the strip’s time and space.” Rich Cohen delved into religion, noting that Linus, “a searcher with a security blanket which he carries as a preacher carries a Bible,” is the one who believes in The Great Pumpkin, a deity created by Schulz “out of thin air, possibly as a parody of Christmas, possibly a metaphor for belief.”

Has Mr. Blauner’s anthology helped contribute to a greater understanding of all things “Peanuts?” Good grief, yes — and I’m sure that Schulz would agree.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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Edited by Andrew Blauner

Library of America, $24.95, 352 pages

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