The Peanuts characters are among the most iconic kids in American culture, right up there with the March sisters and Tom Sawyer. But kids, really? Most college-educated adults I know would be thrilled to attain Linus’s level of erudition; he is, after all, conversant with the writings of Dostoyevsky, Orwell, and the apostle Paul. Then there is the business of Schroeder playing Beethoven on his toy piano, and Lucy moonlighting as a psychiatrist, and Sally raging in one strip against “middle-class morality,” and pretty much all the characters’ impossibly articulate access to their every passing emotion. And I am only scratching the surface of Peanuts’ absurd precocity.
Charles Schulz did not create Charlie Brown and Linus and Lucy to talk—or act—like normal children. He created them to be funny, and to act out what became a deeply personal theater of cruelty. But it is kids, real or unreal, that he put front and center, and it is kids who have been among his most avid readers, my own younger self very much included. I suspect that school-age children, who have to be shamed out of their natural inclination to laugh at others’ misfortune, enjoy Peanuts’ harshness as a subversive, vicarious thrill. I know I did. It helps that most of the jokes, references to Dostoyevsky and Beethoven notwithstanding, are accessible at a fairly early age, if not the deeper resonances of Schulz’s wit (such as the implication that adults also like to laugh at other people’s misery and pratfalls). It helps, too, that the strip’s surface concerns are children’s: friendships, pets, baseball, kite flying, thumb sucking, schoolyard crushes. Schulz met kids on their own terms, but then wrote up to them.