“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, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain-machinery whizzing --- 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. A prominent educator tells me that fairy tales are of untold value in developing imagination in the young. I believe it.” -- L. Frank Baum, “To My Readers” in The Lost Princess Of Oz, 1917.
Today is the birthday of L. Frank Baum, best known as the author of the American classic The Wizard of Oz. Born May 15, 1856 to a prosperous family in upstate New York, Baum had a happy childhood, though it was much plagued by a heart condition. Unable to participate in the more boisterous games of his nine siblings, he was an early reader and an avid writer, publishing a family newspaper, and adapting popular children’s tales for his siblings to deemphasize their harsh lessons taught through fear and violence. His passion for the written word and children’s literature would later translate into several of his myriad careers as author, journalist, and playwright.
Baum caught the theatrical bug in his late teens, a condition that would plague him for the rest of his life, leading to repeated financial crisis and even bankruptcy. Rather than discouraging him from pursuing this career, his father provided him with the means to support himself within this world. Baum wrote and starred in his own play, even working as a theatrical manager, before a theatrical fire destroyed the theatre and everything in it, forcing him to begin all over again.
Baum’s working life followed the high-stakes boom-and-bust of the Gilded Age in which he lived. Among other professions, he worked as a chicken breeder, a traveling salesman, and a proprietor of a dry goods store. All these careers, in addition to the work he did as a journalist and playwright, were plagued with misfortune. Searching for greener pastures, he and his wife --- Maud Gage, daughter of a prominent suffragette --- kept moving West with their four children, hoping that this time they would find financial stability.
It was Baum’s mother-in-law who encouraged him to try writing for children, adapting the bedtime stories he told his four kids. It was from this atmosphere --- after the publication of two books of adapted nursery rhymes --- that Oz was finally born. So was Baum’s career as a children’s author. The nursery rhymes were successful, but The Wizard Of Oz would make his name and career, long outlasting his lifetime.
Thanks to the 1939 MGM film adaptation, almost everyone knows the story of Wizard of Oz, even if they’ve never read the original book. Dorothy Gale is swept into a magical world by a cyclone and meets with a series of characters and adventures in her attempt to find her way back home. As one of the earliest American fantasy series, many critics point to Oz as fantasy with American themes, the separation from and longing for a faraway home from within an alien landscape, the central quest of Dorothy’s companions for spiritual virtues that will make them complete, and the humbug Wizard, who depends on the smoke and mirrors of a confidence man to reinforce his position of power.
The Wizard of Oz is also one of the more serious books in the Oz series, reinforcing themes of reality over illusion. Not only is the powerful wizard revealed to be a charlatan behind a curtain, the Emerald City only appears green because everyone wears green spectacles, and Dorothy’s companions require worthless tokens of qualities they already possess in order to believe in their own skills and powers. In contrast to later books in the series where the central characters are looking for ways into Oz rather than out of it, Dorothy prefers her windswept prairie home to the wonders of Oz because she can recognize the difference between reality and illusion.
Not only was the book --- with its colorful design integrating pictures as part of the text --- an instantaneous success, a popular theatrical adaptation kept the story alive in the public imagination. Baum’s sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, set exclusively in Oz, was written to appease the public’s hunger for more Oz books. He hoped it would also become a theatrical success. But to his disappointment, none of the subsequent adaptations of his work --- on stage or film --- were successful during his lifetime. Though Baum wrote other books set in other worlds and always aspired for ways to fulfill his theatrical dreams, it was the Oz books that would become his bread and butter. Of all his works --- 55 novels, 82 short stories, over 200 poems, and numerous scripts --- it is the 14 Oz books published between 1900 and his death in 1920 that made his reputation. After his death, the series continued with other authors, a book coming out each Christmas until 1942. Since then, the series has continued with numerous other official and unofficial works; the most recent “Royal Historian of Oz” is well-known fantasy and children’s author Sherwood Smith.
To this day, Oz is noted for its whimsy and utopian vision. L. Frank Baum was committed to non-violent resolution to conflict, writing female characters of courage, leadership, and power, and for his portrayals of friendship within a range of highly unusual characters, many of whom are inanimate objects come to life. When Polychrome (the rainbow’s daughter) remarks in The Road to Oz , "You have some queer friend, Dorothy," the intrepid Kansas girl answers, "The queerness does not matter, so long as they're friends."
"We cannot measure a child by the standard of size or age. The big folk who are children will be our comrades; the others we need not consider at all, for they are self-exiled from our doman." – L. Frank Baum, "To the Reader” in A New Wonderland (1900)
Are you a fan of Oz? What adaptations are your favorite? Why do you think Oz remains a perennial favorite of American children's literature?
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