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In creating the Land of Oz in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), L. Frank Baum earned a special place in the history of juvenile literature. Children’s books have just not been the same since Dorothy first went to the Emerald City. Indeed, oz has a reality not even its creator could have imagined. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion have entered the collective consciousness of childhood. Even those boys and girls who have never heard of L. Frank Baum know Dorothy and her odd companions. Although Baum wrote much more than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it is as the Royal Historian of oz that he has been most affectionately remembered.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Frank Baum seemed to have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. Frank (as he was known to his friends) was born into the wealthy family of Benjamin Ward Baum, a barrel maker and sawyer who had made a fortune in the Pennsylvania oil fields during the Civil War. Since the young Baum suffered from a weak heart—a defect that forced him to lead a sheltered childhood—he was tutored at home, on the family estate of Roselawn outside the city of Syracuse, New York. An attempt to have him schooled at Peekskill Military Academy failed; young Baum had a seizure that was diag nosed as a heart attack, and the trauma left him with a lifelong distaste for educators and the military in general.
Searching for Success
Frank Baum’s life exhibited a ”boom and bust” cycle, a pattern that began in his youth and lasted for the rest of his life. When he acquired a small printing press in 1870, he showed immediate enthusiasm, producing a small newspaper, The Rose Lawn Home Journal, and several other periodicals publishing news on subjects ranging from postage stamps to fancy chicken breeding. Still later, he displayed a passion for the stage, acted for a while with a Shakespearean troupe, and then wrote a five-act Irish melodrama titled ”The Maid of Arran.” The drama was financed in part by his father, and Baum took it on the road in 1882, even performing it with moderate success in New York City. While still acting in his play he married Maud Gage, the youngest daughter of the noted women’s rights campaigner Matilda Joslyn Gage.
The Baums left the theater in 1883, and Baum opened an oil store and helped found Baum’s Castorine Company. It was at this point that bad fortune struck. As a playwright, he proved unable to repeat the success of ”The Maid of Arran.” The company that manufactured his family’s lubricant, ”Baum’s Castorine,” suffered financial hardships in the late 1880s. Baum moved west to be near his wife’s family, but the store he opened in Aberdeen, South Dakota, closed after only a year (partly because of his liberal credit policies), and the newspaper he edited, the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, folded early in 1891. He then moved his family from South Dakota to Chicago, where he took a job as a newspaper editor, a job that lasted less than a month. In the mid-1890s he proved moderately successful as a traveling crockery salesman.
Mother and Father Goose
The one occupation in which Baum seemed to excel was storytelling. In the evenings at home, Baum was in the habit of relating original stories based on Mother Goose rhymes in order to amuse his sons, and his mother-in-law eventually suggested that he should try to sell them. In 1897 the firm of Way & Williams published Mother Goose in Prose, Baum’s first book for children. The volume sold reasonably well, although the author later admitted that the illustrations by Maxfeld Parrish—who became one of America’s most popular artists—were more attractive than the text.
”Baum had spent many years feeling his way uncertainly,” reported David L. Greene and Dick Martin in The Oz Scrapbook. ”Now, in his early forties, he had a certain sense of his own future; he would earn his living as a writer.” In November of 1897 he started The Show Window, a magazine for window dressers that proved very successful and provided Baum with a steady income, as well as allowing him time to write other children’s books. Working with W. W. Denslow, an artist acquaintance, Baum produced a volume of children’s verses with poster-like illustrations, which he called Father Goose: His Book (1899). The book met with much acclaim—although, according to Michael Patrick Hearn in The Annotated Wizard of Oz, Baum once again attributed its popularity to the pictures rather than the verses—and it quickly became the best-selling juvenile picture book of 1899.
The success of Father Goose led Baum to complete another story, which he called variously The Emerald City, From Kansas to Fairyland and finally The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It tells of Dorothy Gale’s journey from her Kansas prairie home to the land of Oz, the strange friends she makes there, and the adventures they have while trying to send Dorothy home. Published by the George M. Hill Company, a small Chicago press, in September 1900, the book earned Baum ”a special place in the history of children’s literature,” wrote Hearn in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, for its decor as well as its story. ”Even today,” Hearn continued, ”the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an impressive piece of bookmaking”; like Father Goose, it was lavishly illustrated by Denslow, sporting two dozen color plates and over a hundred textual illustrations.
Success Found in the Land of Oz
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was greeted with the same enthusiasm that met Father Goose; according to Hearn in The Annotated Wizard of Oz, the first printing of ten thousand copies ran out about two weeks after publication, and by January of 1901 the Hill company advertised that it had published around ninety thousand copies of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Although The Wonderful Wizard of Oz proved very popular, it was not as financially successful as Father Goose had been. However, in 1902 Baum helped adapt the book into a stage musical, which was a smash hit and ran on Broadway for a record 293 performances. The production was graced with many attractive sets and astonishing (for the time) special effects. In order to conform with theatrical tastes of the period, however, Baum and his collaborators had to make some drastic changes in the plot: Dorothy became a teenager, and she was provided with a lover, a poet named Sir Dashemoff Daily, and a pantomime cow named Imogene instead of her little dog Toto. Gag writers turned the comedy team of Fred Stone and David Montgomery—as the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman—into the stars of the show. The prosperity of the stage ”Wizard” encouraged many imitations; among the most successful was Victor Herbert’s ”Babes in Toyland.” Herbert went on to feature Montgomery and Stone in his operetta ”The Red Mill.”
Work in Stage and Film
The stage Wizard had considerable influence on Baum’s future writings as well as the American musical theater. Although the production proved lucrative, Greene and Martin reported that ”expenses and continued financial bad luck offset his income from books and from the play of The Wizard to such an extent that in 1903 … Baum was insolvent.” In 1904, after many requests by children for more adventures of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, Baum produced The Marvelous Land of Oz. Hoping that the new book could be turned into a musical as successful as the Wizard, Baum introduced many elements from contemporary theater into his plot, including an army of pretty girls in tight uniforms, another pair of comic grotesques in the form of Jack Pumpkin head and the Woggle-Bug, and changing the leading boy into a girl at the story’s end. The book was very successful; however, when a stage version was produced under the title The Woggle-Bug, it failed. Baum was never able to repeat the dramatic success of The Wizard, although he continued to put theatrical elements in many of his later Oz books.
Popular demand and financial difficulties forced Baum to return to Oz again and again. In 1908 he had invested in the “Fairylogue and Radio Plays,” a combination slide and motion picture presentation about Oz, which, although popular, left him with large debts. In an attempt to save money, the Baums moved to Hollywood, California, in 1910. Baum tried to end the Oz series that year with the publication of The Emerald City of Oz, but circumstances intervened; in June 1911, the author declared bankruptcy. In 1913 Baum published The Patch work Girl of Oz and, taking the title of ”Royal Historian of Oz,” resigned himself to producing a new Oz book each year.
Living in Hollywood, Baum soon became involved in the nascent motion picture industry. With some friends, he formed the Oz Film Manufacturing Company and produced several films based on his Oz books and some of his other novels. Although marked by very good special effects, most of the films were not commercially successful, and the company failed in 1915; fortunately, Baum had not invested his own money in the venture and escaped the collapse without financial damage. His failing heath, however, curtailed these activities. An operation left him bedridden for the last year of his life, without strength to do much more than answer letters from children. ”When the Royal Historian of Oz died on May 6, 1919,” declared Allen Eyles in The World of Oz, ”he was the most celebrated children’s author of his time.” ”The Royal Historian,” Eyles concluded, ”was going home.”
Works in Literary Context
At the end of the nineteenth century there was a rise in literature written for children in Britain and the United States. In 1872, for example, Scottish writer George MacDonald (1824-1904) published The Princess and the Goblin (1872), a children’s fantasy novel, and many other fantasies and fairy tales, including The Wise Woman: A Parable (1875). E. Nesbit (1858-1924) wrote over sixty books for children, many of them fantasy tales, including The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1898). In the United States, Howard Pyle (1853-1911) was well known for his many books for children, including The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). A few years after the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, J. M. Barrie created the character of Peter Pan, the boy who would never grow up, resulting in a stage play and two novels, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and Peter and Wendy (1911). The literary ground at the turn of the century was thus fertile for children’s fantasy literature. Baum had his own ideas about what would best entertain the children of his time. He wrote the following in an introduction to his best-known book:
The old-time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as ”historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer ”wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident. Having this thought in mind, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.
Although The Wonderful Wizard does use some traditional fairy-tale trappings—witches, wizards, and magic—the novel is more remarkable for the changes it introduced into the genre. ”Most fairy tales are universal because they occur in distant times and places,” Greene and Martin explained. ”Baum achieved universality by combining the folk tale with elements familiar to every child—cornfields, things made of tin, circus balloons.” Edward Wagenknecht wrote in Utopia Americana,
Baum taught American children to look for wonder in the life around them, to realize even smoke and machinery may be transformed into fairy lore if only we have sufficient energy and vision to penetrate to their significance and transform them to our use.
Baum’s book broke new ground in other ways as well. ”The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Hearn explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, ”pooh-poohed the old Puritan belief that literature must teach; Baum’s book was revolutionary in that it was written ‘solely to pleasure children of today. But . . . the principal reason The Wonderful Wizard of Oz survives is that it is an exceptional story.” The book, Greene and Martin explained,
was published during a time of populists and progressives and Utopian schemes based on an optimistic view of man that, after two world wars, is attractive today precisely because it is so hard to accept. In Oz, good motives, ingenuity and trust in oneself always win, although the way to victory is often rough. Oz is a proving ground in which Dorothy and the other child heroes and heroines develop these quintessentially American ideals.
Works in Critical Context
”L. Frank Baum is dead,” the New York Times stated in an editorial after the author’s death in 1919,
and the children, if they knew it, would mourn. The endless procession of ”Oz” books, coming out just before Christmas, is to cease. … there will never be any more of them, and the children have suffered a loss they do not know.
This was more tribute than Baum had been used to in his day, when his books, although read by children, were shunned by librarians and neglected by scholars of children’s literature. However, over the course of the twentieth century, scholarly interest in Baum’s work increased, and the Oz books have recently received a healthy burst of critical attention. Nearly every current critical trend, from populist to Marxist, psychoanalytic to feminist, has been applied to Baum’s famous children’s stories. Indeed, perhaps more is being written today on Baum’s work than on that of any other classic American writer of books for boys and girls.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
The traditional view of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as merely an entertaining fantasy for children changed in the 1960s, when high school teacher Henry M. Littlefield published an essay in American Quarterly claiming that Baum’s charming tale concealed a clever allegory on the populist movement, the agrarian revolt that swept across the Midwest in the 1890s. In an ingenuous act of imaginative scholar ship, Littlefield linked the characters and the storyline of the Oz tale to the political landscape of the Mauve Decade. The discovery was little less than astonishing: Baum’s children’s story was in fact a full-blown ”parable on populism,” a ”vibrant and ironic portrait” of America on the eve of the new century.
The reaction to Littlefield was, predictably, mixed. Scholars and teachers, who saw the allegorical reading (as Littlefield himself had) as a useful ”teaching mechanism,” tended to be enthusiastic. Many among the Oz faithful, however, were not impressed, including Baum’s great-grandson, who curtly dismissed the parable thesis as ”insane” (Moyer 1998, 46). Although neither side produced much evidence, Littlefeld’s interpretation gained widespread currency in academic circles, and by the 1980s it had assumed the proportions of an ”urban legend,” as history textbooks and scholarly works on populism paid homage to the Oz allegory.
Other critical perspectives include the notion that Baum explores in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz political and philosophical concerns debated since the founding of the United States: the conflict between personal rights and freedoms and the good of the community. Baum creates Oz, an idyllic community that favors cultural pluralism. Cooperation extends to human beings, minorities, inanimate, mechanical beings, and flora and fauna.
- ”The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Novels for Students, Vol. 13, edited by Elizabeth Thomason. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2002.
- Baum, Frank J., and Russell P. MacFall. To Please a Child: A Biography of L. Frank Baum, Royal Historian of Oz. Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1961.
- Carpenter, Angelica Shirley, and Jean Shirley. L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1992.
- Earle, Neil. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in American Popular Culture: Uneasy in Eden. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1993.
- Greene, Douglas G., et al. Bibliographia Oziana: A Concise Bibliographical Checklist of the Oz Books by L. Frank Baum and His Successors. Revised and expanded ed. Kinderhook, 1ll.: International Wizard of Oz Club, 1988.
- Hearn, Michael Patrick. W. W. Denslow: The Other Wizard of Oz. Chadds Ford, Pa.: Brandywine River Museum, 1996.
- Rahn, Suzanne. The Wizard of Oz: Shapingan Imaginary World. New York: Twayne, 1998.
- Riley, Michael O’Neal, Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.
- Wheeler, Jill C. L. Frank Baum. Edina, Minn.: Abdo & Daughters, 1997.
- American Book Collector (December 1962).
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