A Cartoon Death on Your Conscience

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

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

“Remember, however, that you and your friends will have the death of an innocent child on your conscience. Are you prepared to accept such responsibility?” At the bottom of the handwritten letter is a drawing of the ill-fated character, with an ax on her head.

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

A Final Gift

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

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

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

An Unpopular Little Girl

Harry L. Katz, curator of popular and applied graphic art at the library, noted that Swaim was not the only reader who wanted to get rid 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 the library’s Peanuts collection, which also includes 15 original drawings of comic strips from the early ’50s, early ’60s and 1994. Schulz, who was born in Minneapolis, first published Peanuts in 1950.

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

Both are from five drawings donated by Las Vegas businessman and art 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 be recognizable to more recent readers of Peanuts. The characters are 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 with details.”

Katz said Schulz’s early work was a reaction against the illustrators who had taken over comics at the time. And even when Peanuts 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 to capture that innocence. Linus is running away from home, but Charlie Brown stops him and tries to talk him out of it.

“You’ll have to go back this evening, and then you’ll have to listen to your mother and dad tell everyone about how you tried to run away, and you were so cute and so serious and they’ll all laugh!” 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 and forget the whole thing.”

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

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