Once Upon a Midwest: Good grief

Thursday, July 25, 2019 - 9:45am

There are 480 million acres of Midwest, filled with 68 million unique human beings. Hundreds of rivers and lakes amble through plains and forests. No one Midwestern state is quite like the other. For that reason, it can be difficult to understand the Midwest as truly one territory. Were there a library to mythologize the Midwest, the images and ideas of what we are and want to be might astonish you. This series wanders through the stories and imagery, the myths and legends, woven into the fabric of our identities.

In 1947, the son of a Minnesota barber returned from the war. He had a single-panel cartoon published in the St. Paul Pioneer. “Sparky,” — better known by his real name, Charles Schulz — lived above his dad’s barbershop and earned $10 for each cartoon. He called it “Li’l Folks,” and the paper tucked it into the disregarded women’s section. On Oct. 2, 1950, “Li’l Folks” got a fresh coat of paint with a new name: “Peanuts.” It cropped up in nine newspapers but came dead-last in readership later that year. Yet by the late 1960s, it was running in 2,600 newspapers.

"Peanuts" is the paragon of American wholesomeness. Somehow, it has sustained almost 70 years of tumultuous American culture. This is probably not because it’s especially funny, but because its wit, sincerity and charm are completely its own. It is American by nature and midwestern at heart. Charlie Brown’s futile attempts to kick the football, Linus’s impassioned speech on the meaning of Christmas and Snoopy’s literary reveries are fundamental elements of our folklore.

The strip’s precocious characters may be a source of comfort that preserves it beyond the 1960s. In the world of “Peanuts,” adults are obscure and inconsequential. Their words are mere incompressible trombone noise, maybe clouded by the gloom of misguided adult worries. Meanwhile, the children command the narrative, openly expressing their feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression. They are candid and honest about what they feel. “Peanuts” may be known for its jazzy theme and the wacky dancing that accompanies it, but at its heart, it's about children dealing with very complex emotions in minimalist form.

After nearly 18 thousand comics and 45 television specials, the public’s consciousness of “Peanuts” goes only so far as Snoopy-themed novelties. It's as if the strip is reluctant to draw attention to itself. You can almost read each panel as an apology for intruding in your newspaper. This makes sense, for as much as Charles Schulz loved and adored Charlie Brown and his friends — many of whom were based on people from his own life — Schulz doubted his work as much as Charlie Brown doubted he could kick the football. He once said, “It’s well researched and authentically drawn, but I do not regard what I am doing as great art.”

Minnesota and all its kindness is the wallflower in Charlie Brown’s episodes, given it’s likely the setting of the strip. The gentleness, the self-deprecating humor and the celebration of winter would likely find no home in “Peanuts,” were it not a midwestern concoction. While there is some debate about where the strip takes place, a panel from February 15, 1957 features Lucy Van Pelt receiving a trophy for Outstanding Fussbudget of Hennepin County, the county where Minneapolis sits. Schulz’s own midwestern shyness — which Charlie Brown inherited — helps make “Peanuts” an archetype of who and what the Midwest is.

Doubt overshadows “Peanuts.” But this may very well be why we love it so. Charlie Brown doubts he can kick the football, but he still tries. Linus can’t seem to go anywhere without his blanket, but it almost becomes an extension of him. The characters doubt themselves, each other and the world around them. They can be selfish and unkind. Yet they still manage to love each other. We overlook the Peanuts’ more critical flaws because we can tell they’re trying. “Peanuts” has persisted all this time because it’s a sincere portrait of what we can be. We’re “good grief,” and “blockheads,” but we also know that “happiness is a warm puppy.”

During his final visit to Minnesota in 1994, Schulz went to the apartment he lived in as a child. On the wall, he drew his famous beagle. Next to it, in a shaky hand, he drew a heart. The building’s since been demolished, but I like to think that was one of the best comics Schulz drew — it certainly got the point across.