THE BEAGLE WHO BECAME AMERICA'S EVERYDOG
Neighbors of the Schulz family in St. Paul agreed that their little dog Spike was a smart pooch. Part pointer, part beagle, with black spots on white fur, Spike could ring doorbells. He fetched not just the newspaper but potatoes from the cellar. Spike seemed to have a mind, a soul, a purpose. That boy who owned him, however. . .
Charles Schulz seemed made of the Midwest. Quiet and morose, he later called himself “a nothing young man.” His only ambition was “to be as well-liked as my father,” a barber. World War II made him a sergeant, but he came home to St. Paul with just some vague dream of being a cartoonist. Then on October 4, 1950, Spike and the boy who loved him stepped forth in newspapers and Snoopy was born.
It’s easy to be jaded about Snoopy these days. The damn dog is everywhere. Entire generations know him only as a shill for greeting cards and life insurance.
But there was a time in the 1960s when Schulz’s beagle broke all rules governing cartoons and their dogs. Snoopy, before he sold out, was unlike any other dog on the planet. His evolution from loyal lapdog to World Famous Beagle “did more than change ‘Peanuts,’” newsman Walter Cronkite said. “It changed all comics.”
“Peanuts” was just another fledgling strip when Snoopy strode in, holding a flower. But he was silent, skinny, and nameless. Schulz wanted to call him Sniffy, but the name was taken by another cartoon. So the dutiful Midwestern son used a name his mother once suggested for a dog.
For its first decade, with Schroeder at his piano, Linus and his blanket, Charlie Brown and his angst, “Peanuts” did not need an existential beagle. Snoopy was just another cartoon dog, like Dennis the Menace’s Ruff. Then in 1962, he became “a warm puppy.”
Schulz’s book “Happiness is a Warm Puppy” sold millions and made Snoopy a commodity. Early fans lamented the commercialization, but Snoopy soon rebelled. “My mother didn’t raise me to be a heating pad,” he thought in one strip. In 1965, he stepped into his own and saved “Peanuts” from its own cuddliness.
For five wonderful years, Snoopy was America’s Everydog. His small doghouse had no limits and the dog sleeping atop it seemed equally unbounded. Characters stepping inside the doghouse marveled. Apparently Snoopy had a pool table, a cedar closet, a stereo, a Van Gogh. Meanwhile, Snoopy imagined himself a life. A master of imitation, he used his ears and teeth to become a piranha, a gargoyle, a vulture. . .
Then one day, Schulz’s son Monte wandered into his dad’s drawing room carrying a World War I model airplane. Schulz recalled the flying ace movies he’d seen as a boy, and Snoopy’s doghouse became a Sopwith Camel chasing Germany’s Red Baron. The comic world watched in wonder.
“What does a dog know about World War I and the Red Baron?” asked Mort Walker, creator of “Beetle Bailey.” “That’s when I realized I didn’t know anything about the comic business.”
Next came Snoopy as all-American wannabee. He was the World Famous Writer, the World Famous Skier, Skater, Surfer shouting “Cowabunga!” He was Joe Cool on campus. He was the Easter Beagle. Schulz called him “a mixture of innocence and egotism.” Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau said, “My career is all his fault.”
Suddenly Snoopy was more than a commodity. He was a national treasure. His plump face appeared on fighter planes. On a Macy’s Parade Balloon. Approaching the moon. NASA’s Apollo 10 lunar module was dubbed Snoopy, and when astronaut Gene Cernan, en route, held up a drawing of Snoopy, a billion people saw it.
Alas, fame went to Snoopy’s head. Schulz found it “difficult to keep him from taking over the feature.” In the 1970s, new characters came to “Peanuts.” Once the little bird Woodstock began flying around Snoopy’s doghouse, cuteness triumphed. “We kept trying to be amused,” one critic wrote in 1972, “but the little bursts of identification became less and less frequent.”
Snoopy now has his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Tokyo has a Snoopy Museum. But those who consider him just another pop icon should go back to the old strips, back to the days when a brilliant little beagle captured the imagination of an embattled America.
With a kiss, a leer, a joyous dance, with the flapping of an aviator’s scarf in the wind, Snoopy was the dog we all wanted to have, the dreamer we all wanted to be. He was the perfect pen and ink personification of life’s longing to be more. And the final word should be his...