Peanuts and Rice Park: A modest proposal

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Charles Schulz didn’t get much attention from his hometown of St. Paul during his lifetime. As the Bible says: “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own land.” The St. Paul papers even turned down his comic strip once. But then a few years ago someone got the bright idea of putting up plastic statues of Peanuts characters all over town. Tourists and visitors flocked to them, getting their friends or relatives to take their picture standing next to one. Of course, they could have flocked to other special attractions to get their picture taken, too, only nobody noticed, because the other places are less in the public eye. For all we know, they may be flocking to get their picture taken standing next to the poet Frederick Schiller, whose statue was erected in Como Park more than 100 years ago by our German fellow citizens. Not that there would be anything wrong with that. I may be going out on a limb here, but Schiller may rank right up there next to Snoopy as a cultural icon if those people who concern themselves with these matters are consulted.

But that’s not my point. We had a year of Snoopy, a year of Charlie
Brown, a year of Lucy, and so on. Now we have the whole gang bronzed in
Rice Park. This is considered by some to be an affront to public
dignity. Certain defenders of cultural integrity have objected to this
juxtaposition to more venerable elements, like the beautifully preserved
old buildings around the park, the Ordway Theater, and, not the least of
these, the presumably bronze statue of F Scott Fitzgerald on the
northeast corner of the park. The simple act of bronzing, in their view,
is not sufficient to expunge a faint flavor of vulgarity from the
Peanutians, anymore than bronzing your kid’s baby shoes warrants their
admission to a museum.

Maybe so. But I say, the deed is done—live with it. At least they’re not
plastic. Let’s attack this matter from another angle. We need to get the
focus back to St. Paul. Charles Schulz was from St. Paul, but where were
Snoopy, Charlie Brown and Lucy from? Probably California, although it
was never made really clear by Mr. Schulz.

But there’s one Peanuts character who really does belong to St. Paul. Who?
Thibault, that’s who. You probably never heard of him. He didn’t appear
in the strip very often. But I remember him. He was a hood. He liked to
fight. He had long black hair, combed in a ducktail. He was supposedly
named after a hockey-playing friend of Charles Schulz. But why would you
name a character who has been called “a vicious bully” after your best
friend? This is really deep, maybe even psychological. But I think I
have it figured out.

Thibault was Schulz’s stand-in for the working class in St Paul. Charles
Schulz grew up sort of on the fringes of working class life here. His
father was a self-employed barber. As a child, Schulz himself, according
to his autobiography, spent a lot of time by himself daydreaming and
practicing cartooning, and occasionally visiting his father’s shop. He
didn’t mingle with the rough and ready types from the railroad shops,
the foundries, and factories that St Paul was filled with then. He went
to Central High School and they went to Mechanic Arts. As they used to
say, he was a “baldy” and they were the “greasers”—the Charlie Browns
with cardigan sweaters versus the fellows with blue jeans and engineer
boots with cleats. And then there is that French surname, Thibault, an
echo, surely, of Schulz’s memories of the many working class people here
with roots in the French-Canadian communities of northern Ramsey County.

Thibault is a kind of scary guy in the placid world of the Peanuts gang
and he didn’t stick around long—he definitely wasn’t cuddly and
endearing. He didn’t play Beethoven on a toy piano, or give out
psychiatric advice for two cents. Thibault probably never heard of
Beethoven, unless it was “roll-over.” Chuck Berry would have been more
in his line. Psychiatry? Fuggedaboudit. But that’s how working class
folk are almost invariably depicted in popular culture—either as
menacing blue-collar thugs and criminals or as harmless comic characters
like Ralph Cramden and his friend Norton on the Honeymooners. Schulz never explained who Thibault was, or where he came from. He didn’t have to. Thibault was from the dark side, a threatening proletarian
interloper in a sweet innocent world.

Well, you may be thinking, inserting a bronze Thibault statue into Rice
Park’s Peanuts Pantheon will only reinforce this unfair caricature.
Perhaps. After all, it was none other than Frederick Schiller who said,
“Against stupidity, the very gods themselves contend in vain.”

But St. Paul is Thibault’s town. Let’s give him a chance to return from
exile and perform some community service. I think we’ll start to like
him after we get to know him.

Dave Riehle is a St. Paul labor historian and union member who writes for Union Voice. You can hear him interviewed on “Catalyst”(Tues.May 2,
11am) on KFAI Radio, archived for two weeks at http://www.kfai.org He
tells the American story of how the international workres celebration
May Day began in Chicago in the late 1800s and explores immigration and
labor issues.

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