I first found Snoopy in Paradise, Calif., the tiny town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that was erased by fire last fall. As a child in the late 1960s, my sister and I spent our summers there with our grandparents. We found the place to be perfectly named.
“We’re on our way to Paradise,” we would say, and “We’ve been in Paradise all summer.”
The sharp detail with which I can remember my grandparents’ house is overwhelming to me now — the room where my grandparents slept in twin beds, the room where I shared a bed with my sister. I remember the cherry trees, the line of quail that crossed the back lawn in the morning to the ground-level birdbath my grandmother kept full for them, “Family Affair” on television. Everything about those summer days is tattooed on my brain. I was an introverted kid and not a strong reader. My grandmother had a stock of mass-market “Peanuts” books she’d bought off a drugstore spinner. Titles like “You’ve Had It, Charlie Brown” and “All This and Snoopy, Too” were exactly my speed. I memorized those books. I found Snoopy in Paradise the way another kid might have found God.
Influence is a combination of circumstance and luck: what we are shown and what we stumble upon in those brief years when the heart and mind are fully open. I imagine that for Henry James, for example, the extended European tour of his youth led him to write about American expatriates.
I, instead, was in Northern California being imprinted by a beagle. When the morning newspaper came, my sister and I read the funnies together, always “Peanuts” first. Even when I was old enough to know better, I was more inclined toward “To the Doghouse” than “To the Lighthouse.” I was more beagle than Woolf. I did the happy dance, and it has served me well.
My formative years were spent in a Snoopy T-shirt, sleeping on Snoopy sheets with a stuffed Snoopy in my arms. I was not a cool kid, and Snoopy was a very cool dog. I hoped the association would rub off on me.
Which is pretty much the whole point of Charlie Brown’s relationship with Snoopy: The awkward kid’s social value is raised by his glorious pet. Anyone could see what Charlie Brown got out of Snoopy, even when Snoopy was blowing him off — he raised Charlie Brown’s social stock. But what did Snoopy get out of it? I’m guessing it was the loyalty, the dog-like consistency, which of course makes Charlie Brown the dog in that relationship. I had no problem with this. I would have been thrilled to be Snoopy’s dog.
Not only was Snoopy a famous World War I flying ace who battled the Red Baron and quaffed root beer in the existential loneliness of the French countryside, he was also Joe Cool on campus. He pinched Charlie Brown’s white handkerchief to become a soldier in the French Foreign Legion and was a leader of the Beagle Scouts, a motley crew of little yellow birds. He was a figure skater and hockey player in equal measure, an astronaut, a tennis star, a skateboarder, a boxer and a suburban pet whose doghouse contained a Van Gogh. This wasn’t just a dog who knew how to dream, this was a dog who so fully inhabited his realities that everyone around him saw them, too. Snoopy heard the roar of the approving crowd as clearly as he heard the bullets whizzing past his Sopwith Camel. Having ventured fearlessly into the world, he could come back to the roof of his doghouse and sit straight-backed in front of his typewriter, to tap out the words that began so many of his stories: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Wait, am I seriously discussing Snoopy, a cartoon dog, as a writer?
Am I believing in him as he was drawn to believe in himself? Did I want to be a novelist because he was a novelist?
I am. I do. I did.
Snoopy worked hard up there on the roof of the doghouse. He saw his own flaws. He typed: “Those years in Paris were to be among the finest of her life. Looking back, she once remarked, ‘Those years in Paris were among the finest of my life.’ That was what she said when she looked back upon those years in Paris . . . where she spent some of the finest years of her life.” Which was followed by the thought bubble, “I think this is going to need a little editing . . .”
Snoopy didn’t just write novels, he sent them out. In those dark days before electronic submissions, he taught me what it would mean to stand in front of a mailbox, waiting to hear from an editor. Snoopy got far more rejection letters than he ever got acceptances, and the rejections ranged (as they will) from impersonal to flippant to cruel.
Later, I could see we’d been building up to this. It wasn’t as if he’d won all those tennis matches he played in. The Sopwith Camel was regularly riddled with bullet holes. But he kept on going. He was willing to lose, even in the stories he imagined for himself. He lost, and he continued to be cool, which is to say, he was still himself in the face of both failure and success.
Linus rings Charlie Brown’s doorbell and says, “Ask your dog to come out and play ‘chase the stick.’ ”
Snoopy comes out and hands him a note: “Thank you for your offer to come out and play .. We are busy at this time, however, and cannot accept your offer .. We hope you will be successful elsewhere.”
I would be hurt and I would get over it. That’s what the strip taught me. Snoopy walked me through the publishing process: ignoring reviews, being thrilled and then realizing the thrill doesn’t last:
“It’s from your publisher,” Charlie Brown tells Snoopy. “They printed one copy of your novel .. It says they haven’t been able to sell it .. They say they’re sorry .. Your book is now out of print ..”
It was painful, yes, but Snoopy loved his job.
“Joe Ceremony was very short,” Snoopy types. “When he entered a room, everyone had to be warned not to stand on Ceremony.” At which point Snoopy falls off his doghouse backward, cracking himself up, only to climb up again and look at his typewriter lovingly. “I’m a great admirer of my own writing.”
Oh, beagle, isn’t it the truth? That moment when you write a single, perfect sentence is worth more than an entire box of biscuits.
I probably would have been a writer without Snoopy. I know without a doubt I would have loved dogs, though my love for writing and dogs might not have been so intertwined. Of all the “Peanuts” koans I live by, the one that contains the deepest wisdom may well be “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Thanks to Snoopy, I have ascribed an inner life to all the dogs I’ve known, and they’ve proved me right. I have lived with many dogs who were my equals, and a couple I knew to be my betters, but I’ve never been able to name a dog Snoopy. It’s a recipe for failure, because no matter how great your dog is, his ears will never turn him into a helicopter. I did, however, name the dog I have now for Charles Schulz, whose nickname was Sparky.
Sparky is a small gray-and-white rescue who comes with me to the bookstore I co-own in Nashville and stands straight up on his back legs to greet customers. Surely he has the talent and the patience to write a novel of his own; I’m just glad he’s never wanted to. I’ve accepted the fact that my dog is cooler than I am, but it would be hard to deal with if he were also the better writer. And anyway, it would take too much time away from our relationship.
Life could have been different. I could have cut my teeth on “The Portrait of a Lady” — but then again, I could have been stuck reading “Archie” comics. Fate and circumstances stacked the deck in my favor, leaving me to be influenced by a cartoon beagle. It turned out to be exactly the guidance I needed.