The Oddness of Oz


The year 2000 is the centenary of a famous and much-loved but essentially very odd children’s classic: L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Those who recall the story only from childhood reading, or from the MGM film, have perhaps never realized how strange the original book and its sequels are.

For one thing, the Oz books are far ahead of their time both scientifically and politically. They are full of inventions that would not appear on the market for most of the century, among them a robot man, an artificial heart and limbs, a television monitoring system, anti-gravity devices, and a computer-type news service. Oz is also, as several critics have noted, both a kind of socialist utopia and a deeply matriarchal and occasionally transsexual one.

Some of the reasons for this may lie in Baum’s own history—and also in that of his wife. As a child in Chittenango, New York, Frank Baum (he disliked his first name, Lyman, and never used it) did not go to school; instead he remained at home under his mother’s care and was educated by tutors. But when he was twelve his father, a successful banker and oil executive, hoping to toughen Frank up and cure him of his “daydreaming,” sent him to the Peekskill Military Academy. Baum was miserable there for over a year, and the only results of the experiment were a physical (and possibly also psychological) breakdown, and a lifelong aversion to both formal education and the military.

Back home on the family estate, Rose Lawn, Baum continued his studies. He also read widely, published a neighborhood newspaper on his own printing press, and put on plays with his brothers and sisters. Gradually he developed an intense and enduring fascination with the theater. In 1878, he began to work as a professional actor. Four years later his father bought him a small dramatic company, and Baum was soon adapting and starring in a romantic melodrama, The Maid of Arran.

In 1881, when Baum was twenty-five, he fell in love with a twenty-year-old Cornell sophomore. Maud Gage was the youngest daughter and favorite child of one of the most famous feminists in America, Matilda Gage. Together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Matilda had just begun to publish a ground-breaking three-volume History of Woman Suffrage (1881-1889). She was prominent in the radical wing of the movement, and for years had spoken out not only for women’s right to vote and the abolition of slavery, but against unrestrained capitalism, established religion, and ethnic and racial oppression. She was especially concerned with the wrongs suffered by Native Americans, and enthusiastic about the system of government practiced by the Iroquois Confederacy, in which men and women were near-equals. (Eventually, in gratitude for Gage’s efforts on their behalf, the Mohawk nation adopted her into their wolf clan and gave her the name She Who Holds the Sky.)

Matilda Gage’s husband, Henry Hill Gage, appears to have been something of a nonentity. He…

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