CHARLIE BROWN’S AMERICA
Author: Blake Scott Ball
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Year: 2021
Topics: War, Religion, Race, Gender and Environmentalism
WHAT IS IT?
Charlie Brown’s America is one of those rare books that delivers both great history and a satisfying read. Blake Scott Ball tells the story of Charles Schulz and his legendary Peanuts comic strip, which became an American institution over the course of its fifty-year run from 1950-2000. He shows how Peanuts reflected the cultural and political concerns of everyday Americans across these decades and gives us an entertaining and accessible book that is chock-full of cartoons, history, and insights into what made Peanuts so popular and long-lived.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Ball himself describes his book as “a biography of Peanuts’ cultural life” and that sounds right to me. Charlie Brown’s America tells the story of how Peanuts first came to prominence during the Cold War, remained relevant through the military and social upheavals of the 1960s, and gradually began to lose its hold on American imaginations in the 1980s and 1990s.
The first chapter contains a quick biographical sketch of Charles Schulz and a retelling of his early attempts to break into cartooning, concluding with his sale of Peanuts to United Features Syndicate in 1950. After this, the Peanuts gang take center stage, and later chapters usually spotlight a particular character and use that character to explore an important element of American culture. Chapter two looks at how Peanuts took shape within the existential dread of the Cold War, while later chapters feature reflections on Evangelical counterculture (Linus), racial integration (Franklin), Vietnam (Snoopy), conservation (Sally), and gender issues (Lucy and Patty).
Ball understands that Peanuts is not Doonesbury, though. He details how Schulz carefully avoided overtly contentious or political commentary in his strip, believing that his job was to entertain people and sell newspapers, not to “double-cross” newspaper editors by causing them controversy. Because of this, Schulz only dealt with politics obliquely.
Despite this self-imposed limitation, Schulz was able to deal with difficult issues in a way that allowed him to tap into the broad ideological middle of America, while lightly poking at both the left and right. Ball shows how Peanuts was at its best when it could connect with Americans across the political spectrum, and tracks how, as American thought and politics became increasingly polarized in the 1980s and 1990s, the gentle “wishy-washy” world of Peanuts lost its appeal for many Americans.
This is a comics studies book that your parents and non-comics friends would also enjoy. Charlie Brown’s America is mostly jargon-free and is a fun, fast read. It reprints a substantial number of Peanuts comics and Peanuts-related images, and these entertain readers and help illustrate Ball’s ideas. This is an excellent example of how to write good history that a general audience will enjoy reading!
The more I look at this cover, the more I love it. Caroline McDonnell has created a design that is simple, bold, and perfectly expresses the topics and tone of the book. If there is ever a United States of Peanuts, this should be its flag.
There is far more history here than you might think. Ball has folded in concise histories of important late 20th century topics such as environmentalism, war, race, and gender. He then uses these as a springboard to convey how Schulz navigated and influenced public opinion on key issues. For comic fans, the story of Franklin and the sad state of Black representation in comic strips and comic books in the 1960s will be of particular interest.
On a personal level, I was amazed how many of the things that Ball discusses had just never occurred to me when I was younger. I read Peanuts and enjoyed it, but I never really analyzed it. The World War I flying ace as a comment on Vietnam? Linus as an evangelical? The Peanuts gang as a vehicle for decentralization and individualism? It's amazing what you just do not see when you aren’t looking.
One of the most impressive elements of Charlie Brown’s America is how it presents Charles Schulz as a deeply thoughtful person and then shows how that translates into his work. Ball really does complicate the legacy of Schulz and Peanuts, but he does so in a way that enriches the strip and helps to firmly ground the seemingly timeless Peanuts gang in cold war America.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
I have to admit that as complaints go, this is a small one. But there was not nearly enough Great Pumpkin content. I was hoping for more Great Pumpkin.
WHY SHOULD YOU READ IT?
This is a fantastic popular history. It deals with big, important topics through the lens of a group of characters that nearly every American over a certain age remembers fondly from their childhood. Charlie Brown’s America serves up nostalgia, makes you smile, and still manages to make you rethink and reconsider Peanuts and its legacy. If you have any interest in how comics intersect with and impact culture, you should most definitely read this book.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
For more detail on the man behind the pencil: Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis
To track another group of beloved characters across the decades: Betty and Veronica: The Leading Ladies of Riverdale by Tim Hanley
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Blake Scott Ball is an Assistant Professor of History for Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. You can follow Ball via his website or on Twitter, but by far the best way to learn a bit about him is to watch this unabashedly adorable author interview with his daughter.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
If you can, find a local bookstore, and buy there!
This book is ©2021 Oxford University Press. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED