Good, good grief

May 30, 2009

peanuts1960scollectionI just read — for the purpose of reviewing it — a book called “Security Blankets: How Peanuts ® Touched Our Lives.” This is a collection of about 50 stories from people who feel their time on earth has been enriched somehow by the comic strip, the books, the TV specials, the tchatchke, or by some encounter with Charles Schulz himself.

It appears to me that the book is an attempt to reinvigorate the trade in stuffed Snoopy dolls (referred to repeatedly in the book as “plush”) or other “collectibles.” Maybe the Peanuts market is suffering from the combined effects of Schulz’s absence, the aging of the Peanuts Generation, and the paucity of disposable income.

 

THE RED BARON

THE RED BARON

That’s not to say that there aren’t some good stories here. One of my favorites was submitted by a man whose father was not only a World War I flying ace, but who piloted a Sopwith Camel and, in August 1918, actually outran the Red Baron himself. 

Several of the people whose little essays appear in this book said, in one way or another, that their own cares or frustrations became a little easier to bear when they realized that others shared their feelings. Of course, the “others” were fictional cartoon characters, although many a Tuesday night meeting in the basement of a Unitarian church might have provided the same kind of support, except in flesh and blood rather than pen and ink. The writers in “Security Blankets” may have been unwittingly identifying with the often solitary and unfulfilled artist behind those characters rather than with the characters themselves.

 

MICKEY MANTLE

MICKEY MANTLE

Still, these stories reminded me of a book I read that contained a collection of letters that had been written to Mickey Mantle whose family published them after his death in order to raise money for an organ-transplant program. The letters told Mantle how much he had meant either to the writer or to someone in the writer’s life — a father, perhaps. Mantle, I have read elsewhere, was always mystified by sentiments of this kind. He felt, I suppose, like Louie DePalma — the “Taxi” character — who said of his girlfriend: “She sees something in me … something that’s not there.” 

But both cases may be related to an idea I passed along to my students last semester — that once a writer has published a story, a poem, or an essay, he no longer owns it. Once he has published it, it belongs to the reader — and to each individual reader in a unique way. Neither the writer nor the writer’s critics can tell the reader what the reader can infer from the work. Maybe that’s true of cartoonists and swtich hitters, too: that once they have led their lives, they cannot control, nor contradict, what people infer from them.

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