Saturday, December 8, 2012

American Kite Flyers

            There are two famous kite flyers in American culture, and they stand in contrast to one another.  The first is Benjamin Franklin.  The image of him flying a kite in a thunderstorm has become iconic for a number of reasons.  It is a symbol of curiosity and courage.  It contains the idea of flight and play.  The key is important as Franklin, through ingenuity, unlocks nature’s secrets about electricity.  He is the common man who makes discoveries about the universe using things around the house.  It doesn’t require expensive equipment.  It doesn’t require living in a cultural capitol or having a university education.  It requires a DIY sensibility and an active mind.
            Franklin goes from being an indentured apprentice to one of the most important figures of his time. The exemplar and representative of the self-made man, he is a founding father, diplomat, business person, journalist, inventor, writer, craftsperson, philanthropist, community organizer.  There is little he is not able to do.
            The second American kite flyer is Charlie Brown, and he is not nearly as successful.
            Whenever Charlie Brown tries to fly a kite, it gets eaten by a tree.  Nature, malevolent nature, continually defeats him.
            Growing up I read Peanuts collections like You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown over and over.  I loved Charles Schulz's work. Perhaps I instinctively understood I knew these people.  In my thirties, when I went to Brooklyn for the first time, I recognized for the setting of Sesame Street, and, I realized urban kids might have a different understanding and relationship with the show.  The environment of “Peanuts” is Midwestern.  They don’t go hiking in the mountains; they don’t boat or ski.  They don’t live in high rises. The speech is flat, and the land is flat.  They are the solid, flat children of American, struggling to find some kind of meaning and purpose.
            In college, however, I began scorning the strip as "cutesy." I felt it was feel-good humor as opposed to hard-hitting satire.  I became too hip and too intellectual for Charlie Brown.  I lumped "Peanuts" together with those other archaic strips:  "Hagar the Horrible," "Beetle Bailey," "Dennis the Menace," and "Family Circus."  They were a stale, even fossilized, humor.  I still read comics, but my tastes ran to the seemingly more sophisticated "Bloom County," "Calvin and Hobbes," and "Doonesbury." 
            Then, one day, I began glancing at "Peanuts" again, and I noticed the strip was full of oblique humor and non-sequiturs.  I joked to friends that it was improving as Schulz became senile. In a strip I taped to my computer printer, Sally asks Charlie Brown, "Are the days getting longer or shorter?"  He responds, "Actually they're getting narrower.  Some mornings when you get up, the day is so narrow you can hardly squeeze in."  In the last panel, as Sally says "I never know what you're talking about," Charlie Brown notes, "Today seems to be pretty wide."
            Re-watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, with its portrayal of a world of commercialism which reveres pink aluminum Christmas trees, I realized Schulz wasn’t changing; the subtle surreal satire had always been there.  I looked seriously at the strip and began to appreciate the wordplay of miscommunication and non-communication, the unthinking cruelty and self-centeredness of some characters, and the poetic loneliness of others. A sadness permeates his work, and nowhere is it more evident than in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Charlie Brown and Linus try to connect to an authentic emotion.
            Far from being sentimental, Schulz draws characters who are flawed, cruel, deluded, materialistic, and egotistical.  They are vain, dirty, and loud.  They have irrational beliefs, such as The Great Pumpkin, and obsessions.  They are, in short, us.

            In a PBS documentary, Ralph Lerner points out that Franklin never tells us something important in his Autobiography.  He never tells us that he’s a genius.  Consequently being like him is impossible.
            Charlie Brown stands in contrast.  “Peanuts” composed one strip at a time over decades is a monument to failure or, as Schulz said, “rejection” and unrequited love.  It’s key figure, Charlie Brown, cannot fly a kite, cannot kick a football, cannot win a baseball game, cannot get the little red-haired girl to notice him.  No one respects or believes in him.  He could be any of us.
            Ironically, in offering this vision, Schulz, himself, becomes an astounding American success story.  By the end of his life, he has created a beloved cultural institution and a financial and artistic empire.
            Benjamin Franklin flew a kite once and in his autobiography gave us an inspirational story, one that suggested who we could be.  Charlie Brown failed to fly a kite over and over, and in his work Shulz’s gives us a funny, sad, beautiful, story, one that shows who we are.

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