Reading a recent life of Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts,
I came upon the names of old friends. I began graduate studies
in philosophy at the University of Minnesota, back in 1951,
when, to steal from Muriel Spark, "everyone was poor, allowing
for exceptions," I worked nights on a punch press. The people I
met then were at least as interesting as those I met during the
day on campus. There were many aspiring writers and artists
among them. I was an oddity, a philosopher, and they invited me
to Saturday night parties in a garret studio on Franklin Avenue.
Recorded jazz, beer, clouds of tobacco smoke, and talk talk
talk. It was wonderful. It was the closest I ever came to
Bohemia, save for a sad interlude in Greenwich Village some
years later. More memories. Among the Minneapolis merrymakers
was a man who had been in grade school with me, at St. Helena's.
Even as a boy, Jim had been an accomplished artist, a natural,
untaught, in class always drawing with a soft pencil in a pad
with a huge 5 on the cover (it cost a nickle); now he was held
in high esteem by the others and great things were expected of
him. Many of the artists there, as they waited for fame and
renown, worked at a place called Art Instruction. One found
advertisements for the place even on match books, A young lady's
head in profile and the invitation, "Draw me." One sent the
drawing in and if it was judged to show talent - a virtual
certainty -- one could enrol in the correspondence course.
Schulz too had worked there and it was there that he created the
characters that would become world famous and make him
enormously rich. According to the biography by David Michaelis,
Schulz considered Sasseville the better artist of the two and,
while Jim never attained the success of Schulz, the two men
apparently collaborated on projects down the years. On one of
those Saturday nights, Jim did a sketch of me that I kept it in
the Basic Works of Aristotle for years. Whatever Jim drew
was a keeper. But where is it now? Where is he?
Also at those parties was the eponymous Charlie Brown, another
Art Instruction artist whose name Schulz had borrowed for his
comic strip, and brother of the lovely Catherine with whom I
struck up a friendship. This led to Sunday afternoon touch
football games near Lake Calhoun. Charlie Brown, the real one,
now dead, apparently lived a tragic life, searching and not
finding. Once he showed up at Notre Dame, determined to become a
Brother of Holy Cross, and stopped by our house. It was the last
time I ever saw him.
Jim Sasseville based a cartoon character on Catherine Brown.
Were we rivals of a sort? Is either of them still alive? Some
of us in that grade school class got together a few months ago,
summoned by Father Marvin Deutsch, our classmate who has been a
Maryknoll missionary for over half a century. It was a small
reunion. Not everyone that might have come was reachable. I wish
Jim Sasseville had been there.
Not many of us show up even on the edges of fame, mentioned in
the biographies of the successful, a footnote to their lives,
just someone in the room. What is the nature of the delight I
felt in coming upon the names of people known so long ago, now
separated by a lifetime? T. S. Eliot, in a variation on Dante,
has a character in The Wasteland remark of those flowing
over London Bridge, "I had not thought death had undone so
many." People die, memories fade, not many books are around a
century after publication. Do those that death has undone simply
go into the dark? The people Dante mentioned in the Commedia
are still on the lips of many readers even though footnotes are
needed to identify them.
Even that is not eternity enough for us. The psalmist speaks of
those who devote their lives to accumulating money someone else
will spend, but he and Dante knew that everyone lasts. On the
matchbook of life we read 'Draw me." And He does, in several
senses of the term. May we end up in the Book of Life.