The Fate of the Munchkins

The Annotated Wizard of Oz: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W.W. Denslow, with an introduction, notes, and bibliography by Michael Patrick Hearn
Clarkson N. Potter, 384 pp., $15.00

L. Frank Baum
L. Frank Baum; drawing by David Levine

For more than half a century after L. Frank Baum discovered it in 1900, the Land of Oz had a curious reputation. American children by the thousands went there happily every year, but authorities in the field of juvenile literature, like suspicious and conservative travel agents, refused to recommend it or even to handle tickets. Librarians would not buy the Oz books, schoolteachers would not let you write reports on them, and the best-known history of children’s books made no reference to their existence.

In the past few years, however, Oz has at last been discovered by grownups. The books are beginning to make their way into public libraries; serious critical articles on them have started to appear, and a cult of collectors and enthusiasts is growing up. There is now an International Wizard of Oz Club with headquarters in Kinderhook, Illinois—a place which I assume really exists, though Baum might well have invented the name himself.

The tremendous success of the Oz books with American children, and their long failure to please conservative adults, are probably related. The Wizard of Oz represented a sharp break with the European nineteenth-century tradition of children’s fantasy, both in style and content. This was quite deliberate on Baum’s part. In his introduction he declared his wish to write “a modernized fairy tale” in which “the stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy are eliminated.”

Both the characters and the setting of The Wizard of Oz are very American. The Wizard himself, that famous humbug, with his gift for showmanship and publicity, and his lack of real powers, is a well-known American type. Not only does he resemble many of our politicians, past and present, he also recalls the nineteenth-century traveling pitchman and sideshow barker, a type which reached its apotheosis in the impresario P. T. Barnum. (Baum suggests both these connections when he reveals in later volumes that the Wizard’s father was a politician, and that he used to be with “Bailum and Barney’s Circus.”)

Dorothy too is recognizably American, though she has much in common with her most famous predecessor, Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Both are independent, brave, and practical little girls, but Alice, as an upper-middle-class Victorian child, is far more concerned with manners and social status. She worries about the proper way to address a mouse, and is glad she doesn’t have to live in a pokey little house like Mabel. Dorothy already lives in a pokey little house. Demographers would class her among the rural poor, but she takes for granted her equality with everyone she meets.

The supernatural beings in Oz are similarly unconventional. Like the protagonists of many European folk tales, Dorothy is accompanied on her journey by three “magic helpers.” But as the author has forewarned us, they are not the traditional dwarves or enchanted beasts. The Tin Woodman was based on a figure Baum had created himself…

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