All In The Family: Charlie Schulz

He gave us some of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time, including everyman Charlie Brown. While the artist and his creation share the same first name, they have a lot of other similarities. Both were in love with the Little Red-Haired Girl based on Schulz’s real-life obsession with someone he met while working at an art correspondence school. She turned down his proposal to marry another man. And while Charlie Brown has Snoopy, Schulz had a pointer named Spike. In fact, the first cartoon Schulz ever sold was to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and it was of his dog Spike, who he claimed “eats pins, tacks and razor blades.” He was 15 years old. The drawing is signed “Sparky.” The nickname—a reference to a racehorse named Spark Plug in the popular comic strip, Barney Google—was given to him by an uncle on the day after he was born, and it stuck his entire life.

Though he would become a household name, Schulz never let fame go to his head but remained true to his humble beginnings as the only child of Carl and Dena Schulz. By all accounts, Schulz was proud of his father for making something of himself despite the fact that he only had a third-grade education and pitched hay in Nebraska one summer to make enough money to go to barber school. The family resided in an apartment over the barbershop Carl owned on Snelling Avenue, also known as Minnesota State Highway 51. Aside from a stint in the Army during World War II, Schulz lived in that apartment until he got married. In those rooms, he and his father shared a Sunday morning ritual: reading the funnies together. While Schulz agreed to move to Sebastapol, California, at his first wife Joyce’s behest in 1958, he may have left his heart in Minnesota. “Dad used to say that if he could go back to any time in his life it would be when the whole family was together in that apartment above the barbershop,” says Schulz’s oldest son, Monte, a novelist and composer, whose novel, Crossing Eden, will be published by Fantagraphics this month. 

Set in towns on the Middle Border (what we call the Midwest today); a fictional city called Metropolis; and a small town in East Texas, the novel covers a big landscape of American life in the spring and summer of 1929, when America was on the cusp of becoming an urban nation. It is by all definitions a literary novel—big, philosophical ideas rendered in beautifully evocative prose that captures every nuance of life as it unfolded all across the nation nearly a century ago: “Under hazy autumn skies we gathered field crops and stole our neighbors’ gates at Halloween. Each winter brought sled riding and Yule trees, frost and oranges. Spring breezes filled our nostrils with the scent of blossoms from Eden and the promise of a new earth. By summertime while boys and old men fished through the long hot lazy afternoons, youth courted beauty by the river.” 


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Schulz spent 10 years researching and writing Crossing Eden, which is based partly on correspondence between Schulz’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Dorothy Halverson, though his paternal grandfather appears in the Epilogue, which is set in 1964. “My grandfather came to visit us in Sebastapol that year and died the night he arrived,” says Schulz, who wrote that scene almost verbatim into the novel. He’s grateful that his father was able to read an early draft of Crossing Eden before he died, and while he allows that his father would have been proud of him if he’d written a series of crime novels, he says he was pleased that he chose to write a literary novel. “He told me I was raising the level of art in the family,” says Schulz, who is only half-kidding. What his father created after all, and in four panels, was an American treasure. “A seed planted in fertile soil sprouts prodigiously, root and vine,” Schulz wrote in the Prologue to Crossing Eden. He could have been talking about his own family.