Oct. 2, 2011


by Maxine Kumin

Before he died
Archduke Franz Ferdinand,
gunned down in Sarajevo
to jump-start World War I,
bragged he had shot three
thousand stags and a miscellany
of foxes, geese, wolves, and boars
driven toward him by beaters,
stout men he ordered to flush
creatures from their cover
into his sights, a tradition
the British aristocracy
carried on, further aped
by rich Americans
from Teddy R. to Ernest H.,
something Supreme
Court Justice Antonin
Scalia, pudgy son of Sicilian
immigrants, indulged in
when, years later, he had
scores of farm-raised birds
beaten from their cages and scared
up for him to shoot down
which brought him an inner joy.
What happened
to him when he was a boy?

"Game" by Maxine Kumin, from Where I Live: New and Selected Poems. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1950, the comic strip Peanuts, written and illustrated by Twin Cities native Charles M. Schulz, (books by this author) was first published.

Schulz was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1922 and grew up next door in St. Paul. His kindergarten teacher had told him, "Some day, Charles, you are going to be an artist," and when he got to first grade and discovered that he had a knack for drawing Popeye, he decided that he would become a cartoonist. Young Charles, or "Sparky" as he was then known, skipped two and a half grades of grammar school, and so always found himself the youngest and smallest in the room, rebuffed and ignored by his schoolmates in much the same way that his protagonist, Charlie Brown, would later be. He became a shy, timid teenager, failing at least one subject every year of high school, saying later that he was sustained only by the desire to draw. Utterly discouraged, Schulz abandoned the idea of college and enrolled in Art Instruction, Inc. of Minneapolis as a correspondence student, to avoid having to face any of his instructors in person.

Following a brief period as an Army draftee and machine gunner in Europe at the end of World War II, Schulz took a job as an art teacher with Art Instruction, Inc. and began producing some early comic strips. In 1950, he approached a large U.S. syndication service with the best of his work, and was given a syndication of eight local papers in a variety of U.S. cities, his strip under its new name, Peanuts.

The strip was an almost immediate success that expanded from its original eight newspapers to more than 2,600 papers in 75 countries at its peak. Peanuts grew into dozens of original books and collections, Emmy Award-winning television specials, full-length feature films, Broadway musicals, and record albums. Schulz's 1963 book, Happiness Is a Warm Puppy, sold more that year than any other hardcover book for children or adults, and in 1969, NASA named the lunar and command modules of its Apollo 10 mission Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

The series and its creator won award after award, and Peanuts was lauded for its deft social commentary, wry wisdom, and the satirical eye that Schulz would train on any subject from the Vietnam War to school dress codes to the New Math movement of the 1960s. Schulz would not address issues like equality explicitly, but rather assumed that both gender and racial equality were self-evident — that Charlie Brown's baseball team was co-ed was at least a decade ahead of its time.

Schulz began every morning with a jelly doughnut, sitting down to think of an idea that might come after minutes or hours. He would produce all aspects of Peanuts by himself, from the original script to the final art and lettering, refusing to hire an inker saying, "It would be equivalent to a golfer hiring a man to make his putts for him." During the life of the strip, Schulz took only one vacation — five weeks off to celebrate his 75th birthday.

On the evening of February 12th, 2000, Charles Schulz died at home in his sleep. The following day, the final Peanuts strip of all time ran in the papers, showing Snoopy atop his red doghouse, his typewriter in front of him, musing over a farewell letter from Schulz, who had written to say: "I have been fortunate to draw Charlie Brown and his friends for almost fifty years ... Unfortunately, I am no longer able to maintain the schedule demanded by a daily comic strip. My family does not wish "Peanuts" to be continued by anyone else, therefore I am announcing my retirement ... Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy ... how can I ever forget them."

The award-winning cartoonist, poet, essayist, journalist, and composer Shel Silverstein (books by this author) was born on this day in Chicago, Illinois, in 1932. He is perhaps best known for The Giving Tree, a book that blurs the line between children's fantasy and adult philosophy, and the 1981 poetry collection A Light in the Attic, which held its place on the New York Times Bestsellers List for more than two years.

Silverstein grew up in a small Midwestern town where, by the age of 12 or 14, he was a lousy baseball player and a flop with girls, but good at drawing and writing. He would later declare that he had been lucky to be relatively unaware of other cartoonists and writers so that instead of copying he developed his own cockeyed style and view of the world. And it turned out to be fortunate that the girls did not want him, because art and writing became his focus, instead of the usual adolescent pursuits.

After high school, Silverstein studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and then Roosevelt University but dropped out in 1953 to join the Army. He served at several American military bases overseas and began producing a series of military-themed cartoons that, following his return to Chicago, would be published as his first book, Take Ten.

Back in Chicago, Silverstein started submitting cartoons to various magazines, eventually attracting the attention of the editors of Playboy, who hired him in 1957 as one of their leading cartoonists and sent him to far-flung locations to produce Around the World, an illustrated travel journal that included trips to Japan, Russia, and Africa, as well as the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, the White Sox training camp, and a nudist colony.

Critics have referred to Shel Silverstein as a Renaissance man — a designation that seems rather appropriate when one considers a record of his work. Not only did he illustrate his own essays and poems, he also produced a large number of plays and comedic stage shows, played numerous instruments and composed dozens of pop and country-western songs, including most of the songs recorded by the rock band Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show. He recorded numerous albums and performed on the Dr. Demento radio show. Silverstein composed Johnny Cash's Grammy-winning single "A Boy Named Sue" and in 2002 was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His book of children's poetry Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of the best-selling volumes of poetry of all time.

Silverstein believed that written works needed to be read on paper, that there was a correct paper for every particular work, and would select the type, size, shape, color, and quality of paper for his books, refusing to authorize paperback editions for most on the grounds that the work would be diminished. In a 1963 interview in the humor magazine The Aardvark, Silverstein explained that "Craftsmanship is something that's really going out now. The young people have no patience with craftsmanship any more. They think, therefore they am [sic]. It's not enough. You don't think, therefore you are. You do, therefore you are, or else you aren't."

Today is the birthday of English writer Graham Greene (books by this author), who was born in Hertfordshire in 1904 to Protestant Canon Charles Greene and his wife, Marion, first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson. Graham, like his three brothers, was educated at the Berkhamsted School, where their father was headmaster, and found essentially his whole childhood, and especially his schooldays, unhappy. In his 1939 travel account, The Lawless Roads, Greene would write, "One met for the first time characters, adult and adolescent, who bore about them the genuine character of evil," and was so tormented by their bullying that Graham's parents sent him for psychoanalysis, which only served to set him in a feeling of terrible, pessimistic boredom — of which he notoriously tried to relieve himself by playing Russian roulette.

At Balliol College, Oxford, Greene studied history, began contributing to literary journals, and produced a volume of poetry, Babbling April, which in his adulthood he would anxiously try to suppress. After graduating, Greene became a journalist, got married, and as a result of his marriage was received into the Roman Catholic Church. He later described his conversion as "a purely intellectual one," but it was certainly a change that had a profound effect upon his work. Greene thought of his work as being divided into two categories: serious, literary novels, which included his epic Catholic books like The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair; and "entertainments" — Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, The Third Man — thrillers, spy novels, and books of suspense and intrigue. His writing was considered among the most cinematic of 20th-century writers, and most of his novels and many of his plays and short stories would eventually be adapted to film or television.

John Updike considered Greene's 1939 The Power and the Glory his finest novel, one in which Greene's particular vision of corruption, his "Greeneland," is fully realized in its paradoxical ethics and almost heretical fascination with sin and evil. Fourteen years after its publication, on November 17, 1953, Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo wrote to the Archbishop of Westminster denouncing the book. The eminences of the Holy Office made clear that Greene had failed "to bring out the victory of the power and the glory of the Lord in spite of man's wretchedness," that human wretchedness had carried the day in The Power and the Glory to an extent that it injured "priestly characters and even the priesthood itself." As a result, the Holy Office begged the Archbishop of Westminster, who was a friend of Greene's, to use his "accustomed tact" — presumably a diplomatic way of asking the Archbishop to lean on the novelist a little — to exhort the writer to "be more constructive from a Catholic point of view in all his writings, as all good people expect him to be," and to make major changes to the book in all future editions or translations.

The Archbishop duly corresponded with Greene and a week later the novelist wrote back to say that his friend, the novelist Evelyn Waugh, was indignantly angry on his behalf — saying that Greene had not requested an imprimatur, and so if the Catholic Church wanted detailed alterations then it was their responsibility to make themselves ridiculous by doing so. Waugh concluded in disgust that, since the Church had taken 14 years to react to the book, Greene should take 14 more to respond to their request.

The matter was deeply upsetting for Greene, and while he shared the Holy Office's correspondence with other members of the priesthood — including Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who would become Pope Paul VI — asking for other comments and opinions, Greene answered the letter from Cardinal Pizzardo with an explanation that all he could do, so long after publication, was give them the list of publishers who held the rights and assure them of the profound respect that he felt for "any communication that emanates from the Sacred Congregation."

Many years later, in a letter to a fan who'd written to tell Greene of the attack of scruples she'd felt while reading The Power and the Glory back in the 1950s, Greene replied affectionately, "Thank you for what you have to say about my books, and I am sorry that twenty years ago you had scruples! ... Perhaps I ought to tell you what Pope Paul said to me in a private interview when I pointed out to him that among the books of mine he had read was The Power and the Glory, which had been condemned by the Holy Office. His reply, was: 'Parts of all your books will always offend some Catholics and you shouldn't pay any attention to that.'"

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