It’s the Intentional Fallacy, Charlie Brown

Friday, 19 October 2007 — 2:58am | Comics, Literature

One day, I’ll make it big as a travelling salesman of amazing k-coloured dreamcoats, and some biographer will dive into this weblog fathom by fathom looking for dirt. Let the hypothetical biographer know this: the most singly monumental cultural influence on my childhood was Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. It’s not even a contest.

It is naturally with great amusement that I discovered this video of a radical Islamist Charlie Brown Christmas, and with even greater interest that I received news of a reportedly scintillating Schulz biography by David Michaelis, released this week. Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson wrote an eloquent review for The Wall Street Journal, which is, to the comic-strip enthusiast, like Beethoven writing about Bach. Some of Watterson’s subtler remarks on the connection between the art and the artist are important, and I’ll return to them further down.

As with any biography that begs to scintillate, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography has generated a storm of controversy: the Schulz family, none too pleased with what they allege to be Michaelis’s selective fudging of the evidence, has openly responded with their grievances at one of my daily stops, Cartoon Brew—instantly transforming the thread into a thought-provoking debate on the ethics of biographical writing.

I haven’t read the book, but I’ve been given this impression: great biographical narrative, poor historical scholarship. I’m not a reader of biographies in general, so I have to wonder: is this the industry norm?

Nat Gertler, prominent Schulz collector and proprietor of AAUGH.com, raises some level-headed criticisms of both sides, and I agree with practically everything he has to say. Some of the Schulz family’s complaints (minor sins of omission) are to be expected with any biography and not too significant on the surface, while others (the systematic exclusion of extensive interviews in order to advance an obviously prefabricated hypothesis) cast serious doubt on the validity of Michaelis’s broad claims, while not necessarily taking away from the additive value of the wealth of previously undocumented facts he brings to the table. But if we’re going to question his research methodology, why shouldn’t we question those purported facts as well?

Gertler also identifies a concern that is dogging me on a more personal level of decision-making:

There is also the practical ethics of deciding to buy the book. If you do suspect that Michaelis purposely manipulated the book to paint the picture of Schulz he wanted to put forth, are you rewarding bad behavior by purchasing it? Or can you really make an objective decision about that without having read the book? And will purchasing even a flawed book show a market for Schulz biography that will encourage the production of Schulz biographies that take a different angle? Or will it just encourage other negative portraits of other people, and lower the level of discourse?

As a consumer, I’m a firm believer in voting with my pocketbook; but when the bone of contention is the content of the product itself, this presents an inherent tension with the principle of not judging a book by its cover, let alone by what everyone else is scrawling on said cover. Then again, the university library could always order a copy, and I’ll consider the problem solved.

I think we should turn our attention to another question: as readers, what’s the central interest in reading biographies anyway?

Unless you’re one of those celebrity tabloid junkies who like to see the rich and famous humiliated in order to feel good about yourself (and I’m not saying Michaelis does anything humiliating; my impression is that he is “consciously restrained in his reverence”), the simple answer would be that biography fulfills a wish to attribute causes to effects. So do history and science, for that matter—and religion, if you dig that kind of thing.

In the case of an artist like Schulz, the claim that is open for research is the critical ideology that a work of art is first and foremost the product of an individual’s psyche and experience: in short, that art is autobiographical.

All the indications that I’ve read about Michaelis’s biography, and I emphasize once again that everything I say should be taken lightly until I’ve actually read it, is that he treats this claim as an a priori assumption and devotes his research to constructing a portrait of Schulz consistent with the comic strip’s trademark tone of innocence and melancholia. In the limited context of a biography that aims to entertain, there’s nothing wrong with that: it provides a space for the same kind of fan-pleasing trivia as knowing how George Lucas came up with the name “R2-D2”. But as a work of history, one should definitely take issue with the logical circularity of the project. And as literary analysis, it holds little to no water at all.

I said earlier that I would return to a remark that Bill Watterson makes in his Wall Street Journal review. Let’s take a look:

Undoubtedly the most fascinating part of the book is the juxtaposition of biographical information and reproduced “Peanuts” strips. Here we see how literally Schulz sometimes depicted actual situations and events. The strips used as illustrations in “Schulz and Peanuts” are reproduced at eye-straining reduction and are often removed from the context of their stories, but they vividly demonstrate how Schulz used his cartoons to work through private concerns. We discover, for example, that in the recurring scenes of Lucy annoying Schroeder at the piano, the crabby and bossy Lucy stands in for [Schulz’s first wife] Joyce, and the obsessive and talented Schroeder is a surrogate for Schulz.

If anything, I wish Mr. Michaelis’s biography had devoted more space to analyzing the strip on its own terms as an art. Knowing the sources of Schulz’s inspiration does not explain the imaginative power of the work.

Well put, Mr. Watterson. The appeal of a biography, and its insight into an artist, is its implicit promise of insight (direct or indirect) into the art itself, but that’s precisely what biography is unable to fully deliver so long as it limits itself to psychoanalysis and authorial intention.

I may have overlooked another major source of a biography’s appeal, because it doesn’t speak to me. A biography puts you in vicarious personal contact with someone, as if you actually knew the fellow. But it is in this very respect that the Schulz children are voicing their objections: they want to draw attention to the distance that remains between the reader and the subject because of the biographer’s selective intervention.

In the interest of balancing the discussion, I’d like to provide a few choice links to Michaelis’s own remarks. In Derrick Bang’s interview at the Peanuts Collector Club, conducted before the Schulz family’s objections became public, Michaelis reflects on the limitations he knew he would encounter with any ambitious biographical project, and defends some of the choices he makes; he admits that the accounts of Schulz’s life (particularly the later years) were irreconcilably pluralistic, but holds strongly to the belief that a biography is no better off when the author knows the subject on a personal level.

The Editor & Publisher article on Michaelis’s book—an excellent and balanced story, by the way—also contains this revealing remark, which you can take for what you will:

One way Michaelis learned about Schulz was by reading every “Peanuts” comic from 1950 to 2000. He knew many of the strips would be autobiographical, but said he was “stunned they were THAT autobiographical.” One example: When Schulz’s first marriage is ending, Charlie Brown rids his baseball team of the bossy Lucy, who was partly modeled on Joyce. “Without Joyce there would not be Lucy, and without Lucy there would be a lesser ‘Peanuts,'” said Michaelis. “Schulz’s life and work would have been markedly different without Joyce.”

(It’s kind of funny, because if I remember correctly, the last biography I read was a book on Winston Churchill, which I mined for evidence that he would never have gotten anywhere without his wife Clementine. The Sir Winston Churchill Society subsequently put my name on a trophy.)

And to close, I’d like to highlight some additional remarks from the Cartoon Brew comment thread that I found to be of special interest.

From Steven Withrow:

It seems to me that what Michaelis has done in this biography is not so different from what a screenwriter might routinely do with the script for a biographical film: Conduct research, and then sift through the details to develop an overarching theme (or “central conflict” is probably closer to the point) and structure a “story” and “character arc” around that primary conflict.

The “biopic” is not a journalistic piece or an historical document, a mere catalogue of seemingly random occurrences; it is a constructed fiction supported by *some* selected facts. The biographical screenwriter’s art—and the movie’s dramatic significance—rests in how well the writer weaves together these occurrences to create “events”—moments of change in perception or behavior—revealed and ordered as the story dictates.

This common approach to biography, in the end, has more to do with the character created than with the person who actually lived. The audience’s empathy and identification with the character are paramount, and unflagging accuracy is neither possible nor preferable. (I’m not saying this as a value judgment, but simply to point out something many of us accept readily in a different medium.)

And the biographical prose writer must weigh carefully whether to play academic historian or popular storyteller. Michaelis clearly has chosen the latter.

From Chris H.:

There is a pretty strong argument in Herbert Butterfield’s “The Whig Interpretation of History” that seems to apply here. A ‘Whig Interpretation’, in Butterfield’s book rather than in contemporary use, gives a progressive account of history by taking present political divisions and mapping them on to history. Butterfield was concerned about historians who cleave history into the heroes and opponents of progress, drawing a clear causal line from Martin Luther to modern freedom and the secular state as if these results were where Luther was secretly heading all along, the idea of complete freedom of religion a deep, dark, secret aim of original Lutheranism. The problem is that the present is the product of a complete history, not of some strand of discrete events that either occur in a vacuum or would have occurred more quickly has the rest of history not gotten in the way. The ‘Whiggish’ sort of interpretation gives us a means to summarize history and to create a narrative, but the summary is poor because the justification for the narrative is circular–if we start from the narrative, and validate which facts are significant and which are not on the basis of the narrative, and then by that set of validated facts come to the conclusion of the truth of the narrative, then all we have done is used the narrative to justify itself.

So, back to the present topic. If we construe the Michaelis book as a unconnected pile of facts about a historical figure (Monte, Amy, Jill: sorry for calling your dad a “historical figure.”), then there is no harm in even the systematic omission of other facts. Of course, if the book contains more than just facts—if it is a narrative and a historical analysis—then even unsystematic omissions are a clear sign that the narrative and analysis are misleading. It is easy to come to history with a story in mind and then cherry-pick facts to make the story work, but the result still isn’t good history—it is a Whig Interpretation. The real job of a historian is to give a summary which accommodates ALL the facts.

And there’s this nugget, from the “Bad” column of a capsule review by Chris L.:

Michaelis thinks he’s skilled at psychoanalyzing Schulz, but his insights are rarely much deeper than the psychiatric opinions of a certain little girl who owns a psychiatric booth.

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