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The meaning behind the Woodstock character in ‘Peanuts’

Charles Schulz, creator of the comic strip “Peanuts,” was anything but a hippie.

Still, he named the beloved yellow bird character in “Peanuts” Woodstock after the famous counterculture music festival that was attended and celebrated by the younger generation who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, including many who saw themselves as hippies.

The question is why, says Michelle Ann Abate, author of the new book Blockheads, Beagles, and Sweet Babboos: New Perspectives on Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts.

Based on her critical analysis of the strips featuring Woodstock, Abate said she believes the character can be seen to represent the young people of the time in a positive and affirming way.

The way Woodstock was portrayed suggests Schulz didn’t share the sentiments of many others of his generation, who often criticized and sometimes reviled the Woodstock generation, said Abate, who is a professor of literature for children and young adults at The Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology.

“Charles Schulz saw the young people of the time in a different light than many other people of his generation,” she said.

“I believe you can view the character Woodstock as his critique of how young people were judged by adults of the time.”

Although the little yellow bird had appeared in “Peanuts” since the 1960s, Woodstock was first given the name in a June 22, 1970, strip.  While Schulz acknowledged that he named his character after the music festival, he was cryptic about his reasoning behind the name, Abate said.

But Abate believes there is little doubt that he was meant to represent the young adults of the time.  In fact, Snoopy even called Woodstock “a bird hippie” in several strips, she noted.

And it was telling how Schulz depicted this “bird hippie.”

“Of all the characters in ‘Peanuts,’ Woodstock is arguably the kindest, sweetest and most unassuming,” Abate writes in the book.

The character Woodstock is not portrayed in the way many adults viewed the young people who attended the music festival.

“The little bird is presented as innocently childlike, not immaturely childish,” Abate wrote. “Both in his relationship with Snoopy and his interactions with other characters, Woodstock is good, kind, gentle, sweet and caring.”

Another clue that Woodstock may represent the younger generation of the time was how he communicated in the strip.  His speech was shown as “chicken scratch” in the strip, and the only character who could understand him was Snoopy.

Abate noted that older generations often complain that they can’t understand younger people and talk about how they “speak a different language.”  That’s literally true of Woodstock in “Peanuts.”  It’s telling that Snoopy was the one who could understand him, given that he calls himself “groovy” in the strip, she said.

“Snoopy is a very sympathetic character in ‘Peanuts’ and is able to blur the lines between animals and humans, between different generations and different mindsets,” she said.

The connection between Snoopy and Woodstock was apparent even before Woodstock was given the name.

In 1964, Schulz published a sequence of strips where the little yellow bird and his feathered friends engaged in a series of demonstrations.  What the birds are protesting is not made known – their signs simply show punctuation marks or symbols. But after two full weeks of weekday strips, Snoopy declares that he always supports the “underbird.”

Schulz had a soft spot for the underdogs and their struggles, including young people, Abate said.

When “Peanuts” first started in 1950, it was about the struggle of young people growing up during that time, which was very different from the issues faced by those growing up in the 1960s and ’70s.

Abate said Charlie Brown and his peers might be called the “dour children,” while the Woodstock Generation were often called “flower children.”

“In the ’50s, Schulz was presenting kids as being depressed, being anxious, being philosophical, being anything but carefree and innocent,” Abate said.

“Initially, it was radical to suggest that young people weren’t all cute and innocent.  And then by the ’70s it became radical to say they were.”

But in both cases, “Peanuts” challenges mainstream beliefs about youth and youth culture, she said.  Woodstock played a big role in that after he was introduced.

“In the same way that the hippie movement was short-lived but enjoyed a long legacy, Schulz’s bird was physically small but had a big thematic impact … He changed one of the core messages in ‘Peanuts’,” Abate wrote.

Abate doesn’t offer a new view of just Woodstock in Blockheads, Beagles, and Sweet Babboos.  She devotes chapters to other major and minor characters, including Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Lucy, reconsidering them in new lights.

Even though the last original “Peanuts” strip was published in 2000, the impact of the work has lived on. “Peanuts”-related shows continue to air on television and fans still buy a wide variety of “Peanuts” merchandise.

“‘Peanuts’ has really kept a foothold in popular culture, even 20 years or so after Schulz’s death,” Abate said.

“And more than that, it still is relevant. It is hard to imagine there is a cartoonist working today who has not been influenced in some way by Schulz and his work.”

 




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