A Cartoon Death on Your Conscience

ByABC News

W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 4, 2000 -- In 1954, Charles M. Schulz added a newcharacter to the Peanuts gang, a loudmouthed girl namedCharlotte Braun. But she wasn’t very popular, and soon Schulzpromised a reader that he’d get rid of her.

“I am taking your suggestion regarding Charlotte Braun and willeventually discard her,” Schulz wrote to Elizabeth Swaim on Jan.5, 1955, responding to a letter she and her friends had writtenhim.

“Remember, however, that you and your friends will have thedeath of an innocent child on your conscience. Are you prepared toaccept such responsibility?” At the bottom of the handwrittenletter is a drawing of the ill-fated character, with an ax on herhead.

In April of this year, two months after Schulz died, Swaiminformed the Library of Congress that she would be donating theletter to the library.

A Final Gift

“I am now enrolled in a hospice and do not expect to live muchlonger—and want to place what might loosely be called mytreasures,” Swaim wrote. “...I would not be sending the letteruntil somewhat closer to my death, but I’d like to save my executorthe trouble of disposing of it.”

Swaim died of cancer three weeks later, at the age of 66. Heryounger sister, Kathleen Swaim, said that the framed response hadhung in Elizabeth Swain’s bathroom.

“She was very pleased that he had answered,” Kathleen Swaimrecalled. Elizabeth Swaim went on to become librarian of rare booksand archivist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Her firstlibrary job, ironically, had been at the Library of Congress.

An Unpopular Little Girl

Harry L. Katz, curator of popular and applied graphic art at thelibrary, noted that Swaim was not the only reader who wanted to getrid of Charlotte Braun.

“Nobody liked her,” Katz said. “She was a little too serious.She didn’t have the warmth or the humor of the other characters.”

Schulz’s 1955 letter is only the latest addition to thelibrary’s Peanuts collection, which also includes 15 originaldrawings of comic strips from the early ’50s, early ’60s and 1994.Schulz, who was born in Minneapolis, first published Peanuts in1950.

Two cartoons from 1961 are currently on display in the library’s“American Treasures” collection. One shows an angry Snoopykicking Linus, and then displaying a sign that says “Don’t kickyour dog. This is National Dog Week.” In the other, Pig Pen offersCharlie Brown a gumdrop that’s been in his pocket for a week.

Both are from five drawings donated by Las Vegas businessman andart dealer George Sturman. Five others were donated by Erwin Swann,an advertising executive and art collector in the 1960s and 1970s.The remaining five, from 1994, were donated by Schulz.

Young Peanuts

The early stripped-down, minimalist strips might not berecognizable to more recent readers of Peanuts. The charactersare plainly drawn, and there is no shading or other background.

“This was quite revolutionary at the time,” said Sara Duke,the library’s assistant curator of popular and applied graphic art.“No one was doing bare-boned cartoons—they were crowded withdetails.”

Katz said Schulz’s early work was a reaction against theillustrators who had taken over comics at the time. And even whenPeanuts evolved with more sophisticated drawings, Katz said,the strip refrained from commenting on topical issues.

“It was universal,” Katz said. “Also, there’s a tenderness,an innocence that doesn’t exist anymore. Today’s cartoons are rude,cynical.”

Different Times

A 1960 Peanuts cartoon in the library’s collection seems tocapture that innocence. Linus is running away from home, butCharlie Brown stops him and tries to talk him out of it.

“You’ll have to go back this evening, and then you’ll have tolisten to your mother and dad tell everyone about how you tried torun away, and you were so cute and so serious and they’ll alllaugh!” Charlie Brown tells him.

“It just doesn’t do any good. They’re way ahead of you!”

Linus ponders this for one frame, then says, “In other words,you can’t fight City Hall!”

“That’s right,” says Charlie Brown. “Now, go on home andforget the whole thing.”

Linus unhitches his sack—his coveted blanket—and drops outhis belongings: some clothes, a jar of peanut butter, a spoon and atoothbrush.

In the last frame, he clings to his security blanket and suckshis thumb, while thinking, “Whew. I was scared to death someonewasn’t going to come along and talk me out of it.”

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