Category Archives: peanuts

Dark and Stormy Nights

Today, I came across this piece in the Daily Telegraph, which begins with this literary accusation:

One of the worst lines in literature is widely regarded to be “It was a dark and stormy night”, which first appeared in Washington Irving’s 1809 work A History of New York. It became the catchphrase for awful writing and one which authors are warned to avoid.

Whether you believe these are really the “worst lines in literature” is a matter of taste (and of some discussion). But one thing that isn’t really true is that the phrase originated with Washington Irving–or at least not the phrase that became the cliched opening for bad novels.

Washington Irving did use the words in that particular order in a revised edition of his mock history of New York City, A History of New-York. The book was originally written in 1809 when Irving was 26-years-old, and revised periodically throughout his life. In one of the revised versions (not in the 1809 original), Irving writes:

It was a dark and stormy night when the good Antony arrived at the creek (sagely denominated Haerlem river) which separates the island of Manna-hata from the mainland.

200px-Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

Edward Bulwer-Lytton

That’s a perfectly useful sentence, and not at all one of the “worst lines” in literature.

It would actually be a contemporary of Irving’s, the Romantic English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, to use the phrase as the opening of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Here’s Bulwer-Lytton’s opening:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies) rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Again, whether that’s a clunker of an opener is up for debate; for a bit of English Romanticism, it does the trick.  It is a bit purple, however, which is likely what made it ripe for satire–most notably by Charles M. Schulz, who regularly used it in Peanuts:

Snoopys-Dark-and-Stormy-Night-Second-Line

So, is Irving the true creator of “It was a dark and stormy night?” Not really. While he used the words in that particular order in his History, it would be Bulwer-Lytton who would dramatically use them as the opening of his novel* — and Charles M. Schulz who would turn them into a modern-day punchline.

* And inadvertently spawning the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest at San Jose State University, where entrants are encouraged to write “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.

Trip Report, Day 1: Stuffed!

Hello there.  I’m presently camped out next to the fireplace in the restaurant of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, watching as dozens of men and women in dark suits sit huddled in padded chairs at round tables, speaking business-ese in low voices. Even at 10 in the morning, many of them have their jackets off already, slung over the chair as they shuffle through papers with colleagues.  I’m not certain exactly what they’re doing, but it makes for great people watching. It’s like a slightly bizarre Agatha Christie novel.

The snow that fell on Tuesday night was more a pretty snow than an inconvenient one — and even with six inches of the stuff on the ground, the roads were clear. Not that it mattered to me that much — taking Barb’s advice, I had stayed at the Microtel near the airport, meaning I only had to make the mile-long sprint to the train station. I headed for the station at 8:15 or so, lugging a full box of books that had been presold for the Thursday night event, and cramming the rest into my suitcase, so that it was more full of books than clothes.

The tracks at BWI station looked good.

The train tracks were clear — though a speeding southbound Acela still kicked up an enormous cloud of snow and ice as it hurled past on its way to Washington, DC — and the Northeast Regional trains were running just as casually on time as ever, which means they were running about five minutes late. As I always do, I headed for the quiet car, threw my suitcase and the box of books in an overhead bin, and slouched down into a window seat on the left side of the train.  (I always sit on the left side, because I like the good view I get of the bridge in Trenton, NJ, with the sign declaring that TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES). Naturally, it didn’t take long for the quiet car to be infiltrated by loudmouths who had no idea they were in the quiet car — one gentleman perched himself on the back of a seat to engage his two colleagues in a loud conversation, only to be kidney punched by a conductor who shooed them all into a rear car.  Apart from that, things went smoothly.

I arrived at Penn Station only 20 minutes late, giving me a bit more than an hour to make it to the 1:30 lunch I’d set up to chat about Project Blue Harvest. It was meant to be a casual lunch — I had e-mailed My Friend last week, mentioning I would be in town and offering to take him to lunch. But he threw me a change up and very generously offered to take me out instead. His restaurant of choice? Morton’s.  “I hope you like steak,” he said to me in an e-mail, and was therefore unable to see me wiping drool off the keyboard.

I took a cab to my hotel — the Roosevelt, as I mentioned above, one of New York’s grander of the old hotels, and still oozing with, appropriately enough, Roosevelt-era charm — only to learn that my room was not yet ready.  The clerk checked me in anyway and steered me to the bellman’s stand, where I could have my suitcase and box stowed until I returned after lunch.  My bags were taken by a stooped Italian bellhop, who winked that he would take special care of my bags and had me follow him downstairs to a storage room that he swore was some sort of secret chamber in the basement that held the bags of only the most special of guests. I swallowed hard as he moved my bags into a cold, garage-like area, uncertain whether I would ever see them again. Not wanting to appear ungrateful, I then tipped him way too well.

The Roosevelt's lobby.

I made my lunch meeting in plenty of time — it was a three-minute walk from my hotel — and actually arrived at the restaurant before My Friend did.  I was waiting in the bar, watching New York through an enormous plate glass window, when I suddenly developed one of my Famous Spontaneous Nosebleeds. I ran sniffing to the restroom, where it took about twenty minutes to get the darn thing under control. When I finally emerged and walked back toward the bar, I spotted My Friend sitting at a side table.  I slid into a chair across from him, we shook hands warmly, and spent the next two hours talking about politics, television, travel, and debating exactly why cable news sucks.  Oh yeah, and we even talked about my project, too.

We also stuffed ourselves to near explosive levels.  Steaks, baked potatoes, crab cakes, shrimp cocktails, green beans, carmelized onions (one of My Friend’s favorites), creamed spinach . . . it just seemed to keep coming.  Turns out My Friend’s a semi-regular, and the waiters, waitresses and management checked on us regularly, very kindly keeping drinks filled and clearing plates away, sometimes even as we were still taking the last crumbs from them.  All in all, it was a terrific time.

I walked back to the Roosevelt, where I claimed my bags (to my relief, they were just fine), picked up my room key, then dropped into an armchair to have a quick chat with Barb, and then with Agent J.

I had a couple of e-mails I needed to send, so I fired up the laptop only to discover that this upscale hotel doesn’t offer free wireless. Really, Roosevelt? Fourteen bucks a day?  Yeah, I bit — but aren’t we getting to a point where wireless should be among the basic amenities in a hotel?  Most of the cheaper hotels seem to have gotten there (the Microtel in Baltimore, for example, had free wireless, though it was a bit slow).  As a pal of mine pointed out, there’s an inverse relationship between the cost of the hotel and the availability of free wireless, because the more upscale the place, the more likely it is that a visit is being expensed.  Unfortunately, it’s ME expensing it.

Was that a rant? Sorry.

Anyway, around 5:40, I started the 30-block walk up the island toward the Lexington District, where I was meeting Mark Bartlett, the head librarian for the New York Society Library, for dinner and drinks at an Irish pub. I made it by 6:30, and found Mark already enjoying an adult beverage at a back table, away from the noise of the bar. We talked for 90 minutes about books, college basketball, Peanuts comics, and J.D. Salinger; Mark dined on fish and chips, while I tore into a delicious shepherd’s pie. We had two beers each, and there was much rejoicing.

Yeah, I was stuffed.  Again.

Despite my protestations, Mark insisted on picking up the check (I owe you when you come to DC, my friend) and we walked back along 77th until Mark ducked into the subway. I walked the thirty blocks back to the hotel, strolling slowly down Park Avenue, sleepy from good food and beer, but determined to walk all the way back rather than hailing one of the many cabs that seemed to taunt me as they rolled past at each street corner. I finally made it back to the hotel around 9:15, struggled to keep my eyes open for at least another hour and finally failed at about 10:30. A good day.

As I sit here now the next morning — whoops, make that afternoon now! — in the hotel restaurant, I’m texting Barb and Madi, who are coming up for the event at the St. Nicholas Society tonight.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bill Melendez (1916-2008)

If you love Charlie Brown, you loved Bill Melendez. But you probably didn’t know it.

Back in the 1960s, when it came time to turn Charles Schulz’s hyper-successful Peanuts comic strip into the animated cartoon that would eventually be called A Charlie Brown Christmas, animator José Cuauhtemoc “Bill” Melendez was the man hand-picked by Schulz for the job. Taking Schulz’s almost impossibly simple lines and turning them into moving images was tough, but Melendez — who had cut his teeth at an upstart animation studio called Disney in the late 1930s — figured out the mechanics of making the images work.

“Charlie Brown has a big head, a little body and little feet,” Melendez told the LA Times in 2000. “Normally, a human takes a step every 16 frames — about two-thirds of a second. But Sparky’s [Schulz’s] characters would look like they were floating at that pace. After several experiments, I had them take a step every six frames — one-fourth of a second. . . . It was the only way that worked.”

Melendez’s fingerprints were all over the first Peanuts television specials — as well as the first full-length film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown — giving initially-skeptical studio heads confidence in the characters as a viable animation franchise. More importantly, Melendez gave life to characters that had previously existed only on the comics page, and created some of the most influential, and iconic, bits of animation in popular culture. (Listen to the jazz riff “Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas and see if you can do it without immediately thinking of various characters dancing goofily, shoulders out, heads lolling from side to side. You can’t, can you? I’ll bet you even did those dances yourself.)

Technical prowess aside, Melendez also gave voice to Snoopy, providing him with the now-familiar groans, yips, and laughter.

Bill Melendez died on September 2, 2008, at age 91.

Good grief, indeed.

First Books: Peanuts Treasury (1968)

The 1968 Peanuts Treasury — a collection of late 1950s to mid-1960s Peanuts strips — is, perhaps, one of the most influential books of my life.

It was given to me for my fifth birthday, and I remember laying on my stomach in an armchair in the den, my head hanging down over the front of the seat, looking down at the book on the floor. Right away I was fascinated by the panel on the front cover that showed Charlie Brown standing on the pitcher’s mound with his head simultaneously facing two directions at once as he watched the conversations taking place around him. Why does he have two faces? I wondered — and then suddenly, in one of those Eureka! moments I’ll never forget, I understood what it was that Schulz was doing.

It was my First Contact With The Genius of Charles Schulz, certainly, but it was so much more.

The Peanuts Treasury was the place where I learned you could tell a story with words and pictures, though in a way that was different from the Little Golden Books. Each page was filled with four-paneled cartoons — reprinted in glorious black and white — each of which had its own little drama and a punchline. Each was wonderful on its own, but when taken as a whole, they created something remarkable — a complete universe with its own continuity and characters.

To my five-year-old mind, Schulz was writing these just for me. Characters yelled at each other, threatened to slug each other (or, my favorite, knock your block off!), watched television, played baseball, and read comic books. It was like a soap opera starring kids, for kids — except, of course, that Schulz wasn’t just writing for kids, but for everyone. The fact that he could make you think you were his target audience is part of what made him so terrific at what he did.

But there was more. The Peanuts Treasury was where I first puzzled my way through words and concepts like “grief,” “psychiatrist,” “Beethoven” (which I pronounced “BEE-thuvven”) and “humanity.” There were references to people I’d never heard of, like Sam Snead, Dr. Spock and Gordie Howe, and to odd concepts like “new math.” I learned friends could be fickle — playing with you one day, laughing at you the next — and that basic human decency, like Charlie Brown’s, almost always prevailed.

I was particularly fascinated by Snoopy and the range of characters he played: a sinister vulture, a mountain lion, and my favorite, the helmeted World War I Flying Ace (which I always pronounced in my head as “World War Eye Flying Ace”). I was proud that I knew the name of his doghouse plane (the Sopwith Camel!) and I had my mom sing the song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” slowly and deliberately for me so I could remember it, since Snoopy’s Flying Ace seemed always to be singing it in some lonely European pub that existed, I knew, only in his imagination.

Snoopy, in fact, was my hero for years. I learned to draw by drawing Snoopy, with that big looping head, the floppy ears, the button nose, and the slashed dots for eyes that had to be placed juuuust right. I drew my own comic books in which Snoopy — dressed in a Batman costume, of course — fought crime and drove the Batsnoopymobile. Snoopys of every size covered my notebooks at school and every classmate asked me if I wanted to draw Snoopy when I grew up. I would smile and nod enthusiastically and say that I did.

Alas, I never did get to take over the Peanuts comic strip. But I’m pleased to say today that I can still draw a pretty mean Snoopy.