L. Frank Baum had an understandable desire to escape the drought-stricken American plains that were bringing him to ruin. At the age of 44, the Oz book saved him.
(Peter E. Hannf)
Some purists are concerned that Peter Jackson’s upcoming films will replace J.R.R. Tolkien’s books in the minds of the public when they think about The Lord of the Rings.
Their concern is not without precedent. While nearly everyone is familiar with the film version of The Wizard of Oz, the 100th anniversary of the book’s publishing has gone virtually unnoticed in the press, and writer L. Frank Baum has been largely forgotten.
Does the same fate await J.R.R. Tolkien?
100 years in the Land of Oz
Special to The Ottawa Citizen
One hundred years ago today, the world first met Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion — and the Wicked Witch of the West.
The event appears to have received no attention in the next day’s newspapers, but the arrival of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s fantasy The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in New York bookstores on Sept. 25, 1900 was a significant publishing moment all the same.
If you only know the story from the Judy Garland movie of 1939, there are a few bricks missing from your yellow brick road. Baum’s Oz books — eventually there were 14 — still stand as great children’s literature. Baum’s characters have entered our cultural consciousness. Just mention Munchkins, the Emerald City or Toto and people know the reference immediately.
Sadly, however, their creator has been all but forgotten. And that’s a shame, since knowing more about his life casts a fresh light on the wonderful world he created for us.
Lyman Frank Baum was born into a wealthy New York family. His oilman father was a colleague and rival to the tycoon John D. Rockefeller. Baum was a sickly, pampered child, who grew up never having to fret about earning money. He employed himself amiably as an actor, playwright, Broadway producer, and magazine publisher. His wife, Maud, was the daughter of Matilda Gage, one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, a close associate of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
In 1888, when Baum was 32, his carefree life came to an end. His father died, economic depression hit, and a trusted employee embezzled and gambled away what remained of the Baum family fortune.
Baum moved to South Dakota to run a dry goods store. The timing was terrible; 1887 had brought drought and massive crop failure, a farm crisis that continued until 1893. Between 1888 and 1892, large portions of the Great Plains, from Kansas to North Dakota, were virtually depopulated.
Baum, however, refused to deny food and supplies to destitute farmers. In the two years he ran his store, he had 161 strictly non-paying clients. When the store finally went broke, Baum took a job as editor of a local paper. When the paper failed, he moved to Chicago, where he took a series of jobs: newspaper reporter, china salesman, window dresser.
But he kept on writing. And in 1896, at the age of 40, he published his first book, a collection of short stories for children.
Then, in 1900, came The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. When the newspapers finally did take notice a few weeks after its release, the story of Dorothy Gale, a Kansas farm girl, and her three companions, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, became a sensation. In the first four months, the publisher sold 21,000 copies. Baum was the J.K. Rowling of his day, an in-demand celebrity and financial success.
Even if you’ve never read the book, you likely know the story. Dorothy and her dog, Toto, are whisked by a cyclone to the Land of Oz. Desperate to find her way home, Dorothy journeys to the Emerald City to ask the mighty Wizard of Oz for help. Along the way, she rescues a scarecrow, who wants a brain, a tin woodcutter, who needs a heart, and a lion, who’s desperate for courage. Together, they defeat the Wicked Witch of the West, unmask the Wizard as a humbug, and find a way to send Dorothy home to Kansas.
Readers, especially young readers, couldn’t get enough. Thirteen sequels followed.
Baum’s Oz is a utopia, but a utopia of a very particular kind. There’s no money in Oz. People work for pleasure, and happily share the fruits of their labour. There’s no gender discrimination in Oz. Girls and boys attend university together, and women are the country’s wisest leaders. And there’s no religion in Oz: no church, no prayer. When the Wizard attempts to fool the people into worshiping him, appearing in various godlike guises (a giant head, a beautiful winged woman, a five-armed beast, a ball of fire) Dorothy exposes him as a fake.
It’s intriguing to compare Baum’s social democratic world with the great British fantasists, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Where Lewis is a decided chauvinist, where Tolkien idealizes his female characters, Baum’s heroine is an utterly human girl, who challenges authority, speaks her mind, and learns from her mistakes.
Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Shire romanticize a feudal English past, untrammeled by technology; Baum’s American world view is optimistic and futuristic. His egalitarian utopia is full of technological marvels: talking robots, a flying machine that prefigures an airplane, a magic picture that presages television, pills that instantly impart knowledge to university students.
At the same time, Baum’s view of the prairies, clearly shaped by his hard years in South Dakota, is as relentlessly unromantic as anything you might expect from Sinclair Lewis or Wallace Stegner: “When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great grey prairie on every side. The sun had baked the plowed land into a grey mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same grey colour to be seen everywhere.”
Baum left us a fantasy world, uniquely rooted in the optimism, the pragmatism, the political populism, and the harsh realities of the pioneer prairie west. One hundred years later, his vision of Oz is still fresh, still radical — and still tantalizingly out-of-reach.