‘…the most sincere pumpkin patch…’
Do not let the opportunity to sit before “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966) pass, this October or any other. So thoroughly evocative of its own private universe that once it’s implanted in our cortices it stands little chance of being evicted, the modest TV cartoon remains one of the great masterpieces of American television, a waist-high autumnal idyll like no other, and as evocative of a preteen universe – a place where Halloween has epochal significances, if it’s always difficult to figure out exactly what they are – as any film made in English. Of course, it’s in our genes, relentlessly rerun in October for 30 years now, but look at it again: it’s a lyric, a Frostian ode to the omens of fall, the fire of the imaginative furnace, the awkward tribal brutalities of children, the yearning for a cosmic justice in a landscape where social tension leaves unhealable scars.
What is the legend of the Great Pumpkin if not an answer to the preadolescent rule of might is right, a cry in the wilderness against “hypocrisy,” for “sincerity,” and in the name of all things unlikely and visionary and hopeful. Linus Van Pelt is the John the Baptist here, a square peg kid in a round-headed world, poignantly compelled to follow his private star, howling against the mundane greeds of America (candy!) and holding out, alone in the night, for something better, something grander and more winged, a pagan god of his own invention. Charlie Brown’s tribulations are standard-issue social nightmares, lost as he is in a world where though his contemporaries insult him to his face, unglimpsed grown-ups actually throw rocks in his trick-or-treat bag instead of candy. But Linus’s defiant stand has the markings of a grade-school Galileo, an apostate for whom the weedy lots of Middle American suburbia is the desert of the Old Testament, whipped by winds and glowering under a black-eyed sky.
It’s not a parable of faith-vs.-greed so much as a paradigm of unorthodoxy; Linus is the hero Arthur Rimbaud and Johnny Rotten wanted to be. And, in the end, he is unrepentant. Heroic.
Still, the cartoon’s greatest single passage, and arguably the most mysterious and magical sequence ever animated for TV, is Snoopy’s vivid journey through the night battlefields and barbed-wire trenches of WWI, a flight of brain energy making concrete for us finally what we knew as children, and what the single-minded Linus is too rebellious to realize: play is realer than real, and can set us free.