Features Australia

Beagle love

70 years of unrequited cartoon lust

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

There are various ways for a man in an extramarital affair to clandestinely communicate with his paramour — from furtively tapped texts and hormonally-charged email to the old fallback of discreetly couriered flowers or surreptitious phone calls. Another strategy is to get it on in full view. That last gambit is a high-risk move, however, relying as it does on the counter-intuitive ploy that few would suspect something so potent bubbling underneath something so obvious.

Memoirs abound with instances of all of the above. As far as we know, though, only one middle-aged man ever chose to bare aspects of his soul for a woman 23 years his junior by way of a floppy-eared mutt who couldn’t speak but whose thoughts were avidly followed by 335 million fans in at least 21 languages spread out across 75 countries, not least here in the South Seas.

Charles M. Schulz, who died 20 years ago this month, was that kind of man, and Snoopy was that kind of dog.

And Tracey Claudius, the 25-year-old office worker with whom Schulz was having it off in the early 1970s, was that kind of recipient, according to David Michaelis’s 2007 spiky biography of the Peanuts creator, whose legacy is set for oodles of fresh appraisal in 2020 with a slew of events and exhibitions this coming year to mark its 70th anniversary.

Unfortunately for Schulz, his spouse, Joyce, was that kind of wife. She quickly twigged to what was going on and confronted him. He agreed to end the affair. Paw on heart. Alas, the cartoonist’s best-known canine creation had other ideas.

Soon enough a sad-eyed Snoopy was back on the romantic case, perched atop of the doghouse, bawling, ‘What do you do when the girl-beagle you love more than anything is taken from you, and you know you’ll never see her again as long as you live?’ Difficult question. Snoopy, shiny nose now in a food bowl, characteristically answered it with eminently sound advice: ‘Back to eating.’ The cartoonist’s first marriage ended shortly afterwards, as did his affair with Claudius, whose first words to him had been to girlishly enthuse about the unalloyed pleasure she got from ‘that stupid beagle’.

Perhaps Schulz had been a bit stupid himself, or at any rate careless, in his own affections.

Snoopy was anything but. Indeed, of the famous Peanuts gang — crabby Lucy, neurotic Linus, bittersweet Franklin and all the rest — he not only was the most memorable but the one who still has the most to say in 2020.

Part of that relevance has to do with Snoopy not being like any other dog. Oh sure, he comes billed as a beagle, but he looks absolutely nothing like a beagle and only ever appears to have been called one in the first place because his creator found ‘beagle’ an amusing word.

Beagles don’t effectively keep humans (and a tiny bird named Woodstock) as their own pets. Nor are they autodidacts who, over the course of nearly 18,000 four-framed newspaper strips, teach themselves to walk on two paws before going on to assume any number of alter egos — here a World War l pilot, moon explorer or a college hipster, there the Easter bunny or a hack writer who fancies himself to be a right Dogstoevsky, but never gets much beyond perching himself atop of the doghouse and tapping out, ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’.

Yet Snoopy always reverted to a dog in the end, because a dog is what he had to be to channel his most striking alter ego of all: Charles Schulz.

Their alchemy created a mirror for readers everywhere. One of Snoopy’s many inspired touches is how he only communicates in thought bubbles. This always allowed somebody in Perth or Auckland (or indeed Honolulu, in the case of lifelong fan Barack Obama, who took a break from running the world a few years ago to pen a snappy tribute to the strip’s ‘exquisite pain of unrequited love’) to hear the character in their own accent rather than that of the artist’s native American Midwest.

Small wonder that the further you get from the United States the more the lonesome dog tends to be regarded as the star of the Peanuts show.

Schulz was well-placed to bring a world of loners together. The son of a barber, he appears to have had an emotionally-isolated suburban upbringing, a dislocation that was compounded in the army and possibly vouchsafed by having been in the army division that liberated the Dachau concentration camp. He once admitted that in high school he failed ‘everything’ and felt perpetually lonely, give or take a family dog, Spike, whom he was attached to.

But isolation can be a genuine friend of art, as much so as a constant emphasis on belonging can be its creative enemy. Just this past month, the latest winner of the Christopher Hitchens prize for writing, the American journalist George Packer, put his finger on this in an acceptance speech lamenting the global trend for artists to now be expected to identify with this or that ‘community’ and to produce their work as some kind of hired cultural gun rather than simply reaching out to a world of individuals.

‘When we open a book or click on an article,’ Packer complains, ‘the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to. The group might be a political faction, an ethnicity or a sexuality, a literary clique, [and] the answer makes reading a lot simpler.

It tells us what to expect from the writer’s work, and even what to think of it.’ This altogether lamentable impulse saves us a lot of trouble by doing our thinking for us.

Ah, but not if you’re a maestro dog. And even at the end of his life, his famously bold lines crushed by the effects of colon cancer, Schulz used him one more time to deliver his parting words as unto a lover. ‘It has been the fulfilment of my childhood ambition,’ Snoopy offers tearfully. ‘How can I ever forget?’ How can any of us?

Actually, Shultz already had forgot. Even as this final strip was rolling off the presses, on February 12, 2000, he slipped into a coma and died at his home. It was a dark and stormy night. But never mind. ‘Stop worrying about the world ending today,’ one of his best pieces of kennel-spun wisdom enjoined us. ‘It’s already tomorrow in Australia.’

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