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Good Grief ! Family members very unhappy with new Charles M. Schulz bio

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Good Grief ! Family members very unhappy with new Charles M. Schulz bio

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Boy, I wish that I could be less wishy-washy when it comes to deciding how I feel about "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography" (Harper, October 2007).

I mean, when I originally read David Michaelis's 672-page opus, I have to admit that I enjoyed the hell out of this hardcover. All of the great insights that this book provided about Charles M. Schulz, the deepily unhappy man who created those extremely lovable comic strip characters -- Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy and Peppermint Patty -- made it an immensely entertaining & informative read.

And given the seven years that Michaelis spent pulling together "Schulz and Peanuts," all the interviews that David did with Charles' friends & family, the months he spent burrowing through Schulz's personal papers at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center ... Well, all that research gave this reader reason to believe that this book was everything that it appeared to be. The first full-length, in-depth biography of "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz. A thoroughily researched, carefully-thought-out book.

 Copyright 2007 Harper. All Rights Reserved

But then came the stories that the Schulz family was unhappy by this biography. That they felt that David had painted Charles as being far too cold & unfeeling, when the father that they remembered was warm and supportive. Schulz's son, Monte, even went so far as to list many of the factual errors that he said David had made while writing "Schulz and Peanuts."

Does any of this sound familiar to you Disneyana fans out there? It should. How many of you remember what happened back in August, when Diane Disney Miller came out against "Walt Disney : The Triumph of the American Imagination" ? Calling Neal Gabler's ambitious biography " ... a monstrous piece of libelous junk"?

Mind you, Diane wasn't this book's only critic. Among the most vocal was animation historian Michael Barrier. Who -- even as he was out doing promotion for his own Disney biography, "The Animated Man : A Life of Walt Disney" -- Michael was compiling a list of the errors that Neal made while writing "Walt Disney : The Triumph of the American Imagination."

Copyright 2007 University of California Press.
All Rights Reserved

Given these comments, you'd think that I'd instantly be dismissive of these biographies. But here's the thing : "Schulz and Peanuts" -- just like "Walt Disney : The Triumph of the American Imagination" -- is a very ambitious book. And given that it gets so many of the big things right (i.e. What drove Schulz as an artist. How his personal life provided fodder for the strip), it's tempting to overlook the little things that Michaelis and Gabler got wrong.

Now please don't misunderstand. It's not that I'm finding fault with Monte Schulz or Diane Disney Miller for attempting to defend their parents. For speaking out against a book that they feel puts their father (And -- in the case of "Walt Disney : The Triumph of the American Imagination" -- Diane's mother) in a very bad light. To be honest, I find their behavior to be quite admirable and understandable.

But that said ... I wonder if it's really possible for any child to accept a warts-and-all portrayal of their parents. To not see their mother or father through the loving eyes of a family member, where most mis-steps are overlooked and every faux-pas forgiven. But -- rather -- through the cold, indifferent eyes of an outsider. Where all actions are stripped bare of their unlying emotion & motive.

 Copyright 2007 Vintage. All Rights Reserved

Biographies that are written in this style -- even though they may actually be even-handed & honest -- don't always paint the most flattering portraits of their subjects. Which is why I'm thinking that the Disney family & the Schulz family have been so vocal about their dislike of "Walt Disney : The Triumph of the American Imagination" and "Schulz and Peanuts : A Biography." Because it genuinely upsets them to see their parents portrayed in this manner.

And while I'd like to pretend that Diane & Monte's complaints (coupled with Michael Barrier's list of errors for the Gabler book) haven't colored the way I now perceive "Walt Disney : The Triumph of the American Imagination" and "Schulz and Peanuts : A Biography" ... That's really not the case. After reading through all of the Disney & Schulz children's comments, I can't help but think now ... Did I get it wrong? Were these biographies actually not as good as I originally thought they were?

What do you folks think? Is it wise to factor in family members' complaints as you try & form a definitive opinion about a new biography? More importantly, is it unrealistic to expect a son or daughter to remain open-minded as they read through the bio of their Mom or Pop?

Your thoughts?

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  • Interesting article, JIm. I'm sure the new biography isn't a perfect portrayal of Schulz - any more than Gabler's book is a perfect portrayal of Walt - but that's still not going to discourage me from reading it. Like it or not, both biographer and subject are human. In the course of any book that is neither a full-fledged hatchet job or a hagiography, the book is going to expose a few things that are going to tarnish the subject's halo in the eyes of his family and his admirers. It's also going to have some passages that aren't 100% accurate or reflect the mistakes or the bias of the biographer. Neither of these things makes the book a bad book.

    I tend to side with Jim on the idea that the subject's family is never going to be happy with any biography; this is also true of the greatest admirers of the subject.

    The folks are going to have their own notions of what the subject was like, and they're not going to be happy with total strangers pointing out the subject's hypocrises, biases and idiosyncrasies -- particularly when they're laid out in the open for everyone to see.   I think it's ironic that both the Disney family and the Schulz family insisted that they didn't want a book that was a sugar-coated portrayal, yet complained - once the book was published, mind you, not before when they could have demanded changes or insisted that the book not be published - about aspects of the portrayal being negative. You can't have it both ways, guys.

    As far as Michael Barrier, I don't doubt that he makes some valid points about Gabler's book - I found a few items in the book I knew myself to be wrong - but Barrier's complaints come across more as sour grapes about the fact that Gabler got access to the Archives and the family and got the full power of a major publishing house's publicity machine behind his book and Barrier didn't.  It strikes me as hypocritical to acknowledge that when writing a biography you'll never get all the facts right (as Barrier did when he talked about his own book) and then criticize someone else for getting the facts wrong.

  • No heros today. Heros threaten Joe and Janet Public's self esteem. They can't measure up. What they want to see and read is celebrities who have to pay a horrible price for their fame or accomplishments.

    So the author is just  doing his job and writing a book that will fit in and sell in the present  postmodern culture.

  • No biography will ever capture what every side of a person.  That said, I would suspect a family member would almost always have a softer, gentler view of a family member.

    The author of this biography actually responded to the comments from the family at the end of the podcast on NPR:  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15296428

  • I thought Gabler's book was a welcome antidote to the trend in Disney biographies (and I HAVE read almost all of them) to be either haggiographies or hatchet jobs.  While members of the Disney clan might disdain the book, it actually dispels many scurrilous myths about Walt Disney.

    Walt Disney was a creative genius, but was also at times a demanding and distant character.  And a complicated guy.  He could be generous and sentimental but at other times he could be alarmingly insensitive.

    One of the things that has always fascinated me is that he polarized other brilliant creative talents.  Some loved working for him; other couldn't stand working for him.  He was simply not the easy-going, avuncular wizard he portrayed on his TV show.

    In my mind, that TV image gets in the way of most people truly understanding the depth of this creative genius.  He was named one of the 100 most influential people of the 21st century, yet his PR image might leave most people wondering why.

    I'm really wondering what the Disney family found most problematic.  For me, I found the book extraordinarily insightful.

    If I had to recommend Disney biographies to people, my choices would be:

    Neil Gabler, "Walt Disney:  The Triumph of the American Imagination"

    Katherine and Richard Green, "The Man Behind the Magic"

    And for a really good study on a portion of Walt's life:

    Brian Burnes, Robert W. Butler, Dan Viets, "Walt Disney's Missouri:  The Roots of a Creative Genius."

  • >>I'm really wondering what the Disney family found most problematic.  For me, I found the book extraordinarily insightful.<<

    Diane Disney Miller was quite clear on this in her comments to Michael Barrier, reprinted on his website.  While critics of the Gabler book (myself among them) tend to complain of his overwrought and largely unsupported "insightful" assessment of Walt's motivations, Diane was most upset at the portrayal of Mrs. Disney as cold, distant, unfeeling, and unsupportive.  It should be noted that Diane had apparently not read Barrier's book, and might have had some of the same criticism if she had.

    As far as the mistakes in Gabler, they are so blatant and numerous that I have to side with Barrier on that one, whether he has a competing book out or not.  His incorrect descriptions of the content of the animated features, for example.  How do you write a book about Disney without watching, or even checking with people who have watched, the movies you're writing about?  

    I caught a few new mistakes myself, which have since appeared on Barrier's list (Spike Jones was a trumpet player?).  A few mistakes are forgiveable, but a book full of them indicates a shoddy job of fact-checking.  Gabler also used Marc Eliot's discredited scandal-rag "Walt Disney - Hollywood's Dark Prince" as one of his sources.  That's unforgiveable any way you slice it.

    Barrier also has a nice long list of mistakes he made in his own book, so at least he's fair about it.  http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Barrier_Books/animated_man_errata.htm

  • I believe the reason that "warts & all" biographies come across to the families as so unbalanced is that a child or widow has a larger scope to consider than just the warts, and books are by nature incomplete and therefore unbalanced.

    During Schultz's 77 years, he had highs and lows, good points and bad (like all of us). But the book spends a larger percentage of its pages on the troubled corners of his life than in the full scope of reality. Of course, that's what a reader wants, because conflict makes a better story. The point of any book is to sell them to as many people as possible. This isn't history, it's entertainment.

    You could write a book about me and spend a chapter on the nasty bout of flu I had in 1984. It would be a funny chapter. It would be a true and factual occurrence. It would take up only 4% of the book, the same as the chapter on my elementary school years; however, it was not 4% of my life. Nor did it impact the course of my existence (that I am aware of). A casual reader might assume that I was sick all the time, hated the world and hoped in vain for a relief that never seem to arrived. It was a nasty flu.

    Readers need to constantly remind ourselves that a biography is not an encyclopedia nor is it a eulogy; that it is imbalanced and opinionated, for better or worse. An author is an artist and therefore has a point of view that he brings into his work.

    Is this book awful and to be avoided? Nah. But hopefully it won't be the final word on Sparky's* life. There will be another bio or two that, when read with this volume, will offer a more balanced view.

    (* for the uninitiated, "Sparky" was Charles Schultz's childhood nickname.)

  • Wow, I've never seen the integrity of the historian's profession just so completely thrown out for the sake of a buck.  Are you people kidding me?!  This isn't about the family at all!  This is about two authors who didn't do enough fact checking for their books and took the lazy approach to writing.  I just graduated with a history degree and one of the things that was drilled into me is that a historical piece lacks merit if it wasn't fact checked and properly sourced.

    I simply cannot believe that Jim would just excuse all the many errors that Micheal Barrier found in Gabler's book.  How am I supposed to take his work seriously at all if he can't even get the animator of Pinocchio right?  It's not the fact that these are minor errors, it's the QUANTITY of errors.  When you have access to ALL of the Disney archives you have no excuse for this level of sloppiness and if your work lacks academic legitimacy then everything in it is tainted, therefore I'm inclined to side with Diane.

    As to the Schultz biography, if you check the link Jim posted and read the comment Monte Schultz left in the comments thread here:  http://www.cartoonbrew.com/books/more-on-the-schulz-book#comment-34417  then you'll find that his complaints have nothing to do with how his father is portrayed but rather the factual errors that seem to be all over this book.  Again, this kinda garbage is fine if you want to some sort of over-analytical jerk who likes to revision history but if you want to do a serious study of the subject you better have some strong integrity to your work and be factually correct.  I hate garbage like this where historians shape facts and quotes to make their argument instead of letting the story of someone's life tell itself.

    This isn't about the families, this is about crappy writing.

  • I have some very strong opinions in support of the surviving family members. If I were writeing a a biography about Walt or Charles Schulz, I would deffinately want the family to be happy with the finished product. Then again as far as the Disney's go, my cousins knew Walt and Lillian and maintain a friendship with Ron and Dianne Miller so I'm probably a bit prejudiced. As far as biographies on Walt, I think people need to see what the family has released. The computer CD had interviews with people who didn't like Walt and thus I think the family has been very fair and open minded. Thus when the Disney family says something is junk, I think it probably is just that. (Then again I am prejudiced)

  • Hey Jim.  

    As you well know, I’ve been one of the more vocal critics of the Gabler tome on Walt.  My major complaint has always been that Gabler’s thesis was over-reaching – a blatant attempt to draw conclusions that are sensational and topical and which he fails to support with credible evidence.   As petty as it may seem, and you and I have had a healthy exchange over this, I find a perfect example in Gabler’s concluding paragraphs where writes “In sum, Walt Disney had been not so much a master of fun or irreverence or innocence or even wholesomeness.  He had been a master of order.”    This summation seems more fitting for a jury judging Eisner than Disney.  Then just three paragraphs later, in his final words on his subject, Gabler characterizes the statue in the garden of the Disney family plot at Forest Lawn as being that of Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid – referring to the famous statue in the Harbor in Copenhagen – and says “And it was here that he fulfilled his own destiny, too, for which he had striven so mightily and restlessly all his life.  He had passed beyond the afflictions of this world.  Walt Disney had at last attained perfection.”  These operatic, tragic overtones are so absurd that they’re laughable.  The Mermaid reference is just one in a long series of attempts to bring the modern Disney era to bear with crushing irony on the founder’s legacy (simple fact is that the statue is nothing like the famous Mermaid statue and is merely a charming figure of a contemplative young woman, placed there when Lilian died, not Walt.) The pop-psychology that supports Disney as a man weighed down by his own human frailty is sophomoric tripe.  This arch attempt at cuing up the violins and shaking his head in mock pity is what irks me to no end about the Gabler book.  It’s schlock, and from a writer whose previous works were truly well crafted, which only added to making it a terrible, overly long, over-priced let down.  

    The Schulz biography is hardly any different.   In his comments on CartoonBrew.com, Schulz’s son Monte points to Michaelis’s absurd over-reaching psychoanalytical editorializing, and wonders about the countless interviews with Schulz colleagues that went discarded because they didn’t support Michaelis’s thesis.    He writes of one interview – the ONLY interview – with Schulz’s daughter Amy that  he got “my sister Amy, in a section about how Dad was unaffectionate to his children, to say that she had to learn to hug from the Mormon church. Actually, she told me that she explained to David how when she was younger, she hated people invading her personal space, but when she joined the Mormons, people were always coming up and hugging her, so she had to learn to do so, as well. But she said that story had nothing to do with Dad at all”    Michaelis, like Gabler, stops being a biographer in moments such as this and turns into something less than a tabloid journalist looking for a book award.   The sort of “a-ha!” moments typically reserved for bullies, talk show pundits and Geraldo Rivera standing in front of an empty vault with 58 minutes left to fill.

    I don’t know where one goes to get the real Charles Schulz.  I suspect it’s in the comic strips themselves.  But as for Walt, Michael Barrier’s book “The Animated Man” is the superior contemporary work that should be getting all the press and the praise.   Barrier started with a more intelligent thesis, for one thing, and the result is a confidently crafted work that clocks in at half the time.  (Yes, I know, a complaint about length from a guy who couldn’t edit “how lovely to see you” down to “Hello” to save my life.)  Barrier’s book, like his blog, is littered with some controversial and critical editorializing, but it’s never disguised as anything other than his own very strong opinion. Barrier has always had the courage to acknowledge the difference between facts and opinions, and opinions never get in the way of solid scholarship and sensible conclusions.  

    Frankly, I don’t think it takes family members to say that the emperor has no clothes in the case of either Gabler or Michaelis.   A careful and critical eye and a good dose of common sense allows the smart reader to dismiss the books as self-serving junk.  You are very wise to reconsider you initial thoughts, Jim.   Very wise, indeed.

    Rhett Wickham

  • Ok so this biography is interesting but the real question is Where is Jim Hill and why isnt he talking about whats going on with every news site and disney site across the web... why are you not reporting on the billion dollar expansion and renovation for california adventure... Id really rather hear Jims take on this..

    www.disneylandnews.com  has a great press release and some concept art

  • Today, to have a best selling mainstream book about a deceased person who no longer commands the public's attention like Paris Hilton does, you have to make an edgy statement about them that reflects today's cynical violence-deadened, envelope-of-taste-pushing entertainment world. This approach opens the door to a major publisher, endless access to research materials and interview subjects, and major exposure in the media when the book is published.

    It's a formula that works. Best selling autobiographies tend to create a thesis that sums up the person completely and include all the supporting quotes and anecdotes possible. It's a narrow way to do things, but people don't have time to bother with drawing their own conclusions. If they can have microwave popcorn, they want someone else to tell them, once and for all, what "Rosebud" was and how it sums up Charles Foster Kane (which by the way was exactly the opposite of what Welles was saying).

    Your other option as an author is to write something that celebrates someone's life, warts and all, but stresses the positives. These kind of books, though, generally don't generate buzz, don't get major publishers ("nice doesn't sell"), don't get talk show bookings and sell only moderately well because there aren't big marketing bucks helping the public know about them.

    The decision of which road to take is not so much about research or even the caliber of the writing, but of approach and marketability. "The DaVinci Code" became a sensation not because of the strength or weakness of the book itself but because it took the best-selling book of all time -- The Bible -- and attempted to debunk it with a nebulous blend of supposed fact and fiction. It was brilliant marketing plain and simple.

    I've interviewed many, many people and could easily create a selfless soul or an arrogant jerk with the same quotes. The moment you write a sentence, you are making an editorial decision. As Herb Tarlek said on WKRP in Cincinnati, "Nothing you see on TV is real, not even the news!" All media is filtered through its creators.

    I have not decided whether or not to read the new Schulz bio. I have read the Gabler book and discovered a lot of interesting things, but was also able to use my own filters -- all the other Walt books I've read and websites like this and Cartoon Brew -- to sift what may not be so.

    If I do read the new book, it won't be the first book about the great Charles Schulz I've read nor will it be the last. I'm sure that's true for just about everyone reading this right now. As for the general public, maybe it's enough to read only one book, letting someone else tell them what to think, and reach for a new can of aerosol cheese.

  • I'm surprising myself with the strength of my memory here, but I do recall the news story that came out when Schulz divorced his first wife. She said and I quote, "It's not easy being married to a man who thinks happiness is a warm puppy."

    In light of those Snoopy-at-the-ice rink strips, which apparently were a message to Schulz's paramour, the comment takes on a whole new meaning...

    On another note, I wonder if any mention is made in the book about how bad the comic strip got near the end of Schulz's life. Really, it pretty much stunk the last 20 years of its existence. I have no doubt that kids reading the later strips reprinted in many newspapers today wonder what all the fuss was about. And the TV specials won't clue them in either, with the possible exception of "A Charlie Brown Christmas". Ah well, time marches on...

  • Gigglesock that would be the last twenty years I've been reading Peanuts and loving it.  Maybe you should have some doubt.

  • Jim, I'm surprised at the lack of details in the article.  I can't judge the Schulz book with the little info I have, so I guess I'll just answer the one general question you posed at the end.

    We have to be careful when judging a bio on the opinion of the subject's children.  I'm sure Attilla the Hun's kids thought Dad was portrayed in an unnecessarily negative light.  Opinions are subjective, but facts can be measured.  If there are too many facts that are plain wrong or misconstrued, it throws the whole book into question - children's views or not.

  • Well, Tuckenie, maybe you should check out some bookbound collections of the strip's earlier days - which is how I was introduced to the strip when I was a kid. I couldn't believe the difference in quality. During the last 20 years the strip devolved into being all about the dog and bird. I started out as a Snoopy fan, but when I read the later strips in other books and followed them in the newspaper, I got thoroughly tired of that beagle. It's like Schulz's connection to angst eventually went away and he had nothing more to say. He should have quit while he was ahead, as did Gary Larson and the Calvin and Hobbes guy. Leave 'em laughing, not snoring, IMO...

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