From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

More Than A Wizard: L. Frank Baum

Lyman Frank Baum, author of Ozma of Oz, didn’t just write one of the most popular children’s books in history. He also produced thirteen other Oz books as well as over 40 other novels, 82 short stories, hundreds of poems, and an unknown number of scripts.

As a young man, Baum was a printer, producing several amateur newspapers, a poultry breeder specializing in the Hamburg chicken, and a theater lover. Despite working as a clerk in his brother-in-law’s dry goods store, he found time to perform in plays until eventually his father, who owned numerous opera houses and theaters, built him a theater on his 24th birthday. Baum wrote plays, including the highly successful musical “The Maid of Arran,” and composed music for them as well. Two years later he married Maud Gage, and moved with her a few years later to Aberdeen in the Dakota Territory, where he operated a store called “Baum’s Bazaar.” In 1890 the store failed, and Baum turned to newspaper writing and working as a traveling salesman.

It wasn’t until 1897 that Baum found success in writing children’s literature, publishing Mother Goose in Prose and Father Goose, His Book. These were followed by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, illustrated by W. W. Denslow. Later in life, Baum would insist repeatedly that he didn’t mean to write any more Oz books, but fan mail and the failure of his other books forced him back time and time again. Oz began as a story told to neighborhood children and was originally written longhand under the title The Emerald City. This name was changed by the publisher, the Hill Company, reportedly because they didn’t like titles with jewels in them, and eventually became The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

In writing, Baum tried to remove both the violence and emphasis on morality characteristic of children’s literature of his time, an endeavor other writers would later join him in. Even as a child, Baum had criticized fairy tales for their violent, often horrifying nature. He also removed romance, believing that it did not interest young children. He believed deeply in the power of children’s literature, saying:

Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking–machine and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams – day dreams with your eyes wide open – are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization.

Politically, Baum was a flaming liberal. His wife was the daughter of suffrage leader Matilda Joslyn Gage, author of The Women’s Bible and companion to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Baum wrote editorials trying to convince the public to vote for women’s suffrage and served as secretary of Aberdeen’s Women Suffrage Club.

Other efforts seemed far less liberal, including two editorials suggesting that the safety of white settlers in the territories unless the native Americans were exterminated, although his phrasing acknowledges injustice in their treatment: “Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up with one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” In 2006, two of Baum’s descendants apologized to the Sioux nation for their father’s words.

Some, most notably scholar Henry M. Littlefield, have argued that The Wizard of Oz is an extended political allegory, but when asked during his lifetime whether his works held hidden meanings, Baum always replied that he authored them in order to please children and earn a living.

Financially, Baum often needed money. Baum’s lifelong love of the theatre let him into countless, and often failed, productions. His last produced play was The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, which was eventually turned into the book Tiktok of Oz. In 1914 he started his own film production company, The Oz Film Manufacturing Company.

In late years, Baum and his wife moved to Hollywood, California to a home they called Ozcot. Baum became a gardener, growing prize-winning chrysanthemums and dahlias that made him the champion amateur horticulturist of Southern California. Ill health, exacerbated by lifelong smoking, eventually forced him to give up his gardening. He died on May 6, 1919 after a stroke. At the end, it’s said he murmured these words to his wife, “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands,” a reference to the desert said to surround Oz. Glinda of Oz was published posthumously in 1920.

The most famous version of Oz is the one portrayed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1939, starring Judy Garland, although the studio had notably wanted Shirley Temple for the role. Other film efforts had been made before then, most notably by Baum’s own studio, which made “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” in 1914, while “His Majesty the Scarecrow of Oz” and “The Magic Cloak of Oz.” Many authors have visited Oz in their writing, including author Salman Rushdie in the book The Wizard of Oz: An Appreciation. Most recently, Oz has been revisited by author Gregory Maguire in the book Wicked, the story of the witches opposing Dorothy, now a successful Broadway play.

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