The Man Who Made Oz: L. Frank Baum and the first American fairy tale





In 1900, a 44-year-old L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and became the father of the American fairy tale. The book was a commercial and critical success. The story of the orphaned Dorothy Gale, whisked by a tornado away from gray, impoverished Kansas to the magical land of Oz, captured the hearts of children and adults who had lived through an economic crisis but saw all around them the thrum of invention and change. As a young country abuzz with "progress," the United States needed a different kind of fairy tale. A truly American myth could not merely invoke Celtic wraiths or Bavarian dark forest goblins. It would have to include the drive to innovate that launched the Gilded Age and made America the archetypal modern industrial nation during the very decades when Baum's imagination was formed...

... If Oz and its sequels are shaped by Baum's sharp eye for the theater of commerce, they are also shaped by his wishful revisions of social conflict. Notably, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz offered a paean to strong women at a moment when suffragettes were agitating for the vote. The book's hero-protagonist, obviously, is a girl. In Kansas, her lively laugh repeatedly startles her worn-down aunt. In Oz, she effortlessly (and intuitively) kills the evil witches subjugating the natives. Indeed, all of Oz's strongest figures are women—Glinda, the Good Witch of the South; the Good Witch of the North (not in the film); and the two Wicked Witches.

Baum, who publicly supported women's right to vote, was deeply affected by his beloved, spirited wife, Maud, and her mother, Matilda, an eminent feminist who collaborated with Susan B. Anthony and publicized the idea that many "witches" were really freethinking women ahead of their time. In Oz, Baum offers a similarly corrective vision: When Dorothy first meets a witch, the Witch of the North, she says, "I thought all witches were wicked." "Oh, no, that is a great mistake," replies the Witch of the North. In sequels, Oz's true ruler is discovered; it turns out to be a girl named Ozma, who spent her youth under a spell—one that turned her into a hapless boy. One can imagine Baum winking on the page at his wife and mother-in-law. In his own life, Maud was the strong, practical one who kept things running. By comparison, he must have seemed the feckless humbug, trying one endeavor after another before succeeding as an author.

Or so Baum at times viewed himself, his biographers suggest. His career—he began as a salesman of the family axle oil ("so smooth it will make your horse talk," he would say) and ended broke—indeed lacked a steady literary trajectory. But he was not a mere hack, though he wrote scores of schlocky books for children under pseudonyms to make money. At his core, Baum was an impresario of illusion, fascinated by the allure of utopian possibility, however implausible. Often read as a political allegory about the move away from the gold standard (you can learn more about that interpretation here), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is more broadly a portrait of a country America promised to be but never became. The book and its sequels offer a recuperative vision, born of intense hopes and disappointments that did not add up in life. And if the tensions show through, that is part of the works' power.

Thus in Oz, different races (the Munchkins in the North, the Winkies in the West, and the Quadlings in the South) mingle democratically, and war is the ultimate ill. In one way, Baum was writing here against himself and demonstrating his own deep ambivalences. While he lived in the Dakota Territory, shortly before the Battle of Wounded Knee, he published two militant editorials calling for the extermination of the remaining Sioux on the grounds that the men of the tribe had lost their authentic strength, becoming little more than "whining curs." Here is the flip side, perhaps, of his dreams of female power—a profound sense of disappointment in male potential, not just among tribal warriors. For Baum, the lure of progress was similarly double-edged. "There's no place like home," a feel-good refrain in the movie, is a far more complex statement in the book. On the one hand, the old familiar world seems better to Dorothy than this bright new one (to the bafflement of the Scarecrow, who attributes his confusion to his lack of brains). On the other, Oz is clearly the more beneficent land, and later in the series Dorothy and her family end up living there. For friends they have companions like the Tin Man, a woodsman who has replaced his flesh limbs with metal ones—at once a chilling and a curative vision in an era haunted by amputated Civil War veterans. Baum, like many of his peers, was at once enthralled and unnerved by mechanization...


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