The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral
The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was
The considerable imaginative achievement represented by the fourteen Oz books written by L. Frank Baum has been ignored for well over half-a century. Even those critics who have recognized their classic status have hesitated to approve their style; but Baum was always a satisfactory writer, and at his best his prose reflects themes and tensions that characterize the central tradition of American literature. Since he wished to create in Oz a specifically American fairyland, it is not particularly surprising that at first his writing was influenced by the comparatively new school of realists and naturalists. The description of the grimly impoverished Kansas farm of Dorothy Gale’s aunt and uncle with which The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) begins is a very good example of writing in this genre, but Baum soon moved on to more distinguished models in the same mode, and in at least one instance, surprising as it seems, he appears to have been strongly influenced by Stephen Crane.
Stephen Crane is a writer of great ability, but during the past fifteen or twenty years extravagant claims have been made for his work. His short story, “The Open Boat,” first published in 1897, has been described by more than one eminent critic as the best short story in English up to the time of its publication. In 1907 Baum published his third Oz book, Ozma of Oz. The opening chapter of this book, “The Girl in the Chicken Coop,” is so close to Crane’s story in theme, imagery, and technique that it is extremely difficult to imagine, on comparing the two in detail, that the similarity is wholly, or even largely, accidental. Unfortunately, there is not space here to quote from either story for purposes of comparison, but Baum’s narrative of how Dorothy, during a gale at sea, is blown from the ship deck in a chicken coop and rides out the storm, is developed through images and themes that correspond very closely with those employed by Crane in his account of how four men battle the elements in a ten foot dinghy after their ship has foundered. These similarities are not merely superficial, and it is not only amusing but enlightening to read critical articles such as ” ‘The Open Boat’ an Existentialist Fiction” by Peter Buitenhuis in Modern Fiction Studies (Autumn, 1959) or Caroline Gordon’s essay on “The Open Boat” in The House of Fiction, as if they were also an analysis of “The Girl in the Chicken Coop.” The double application, which works out surprisingly well, might have the salutary effect of recalling children’s librarians and partisan literary critics back into a balanced and sanative perspective in which measured justice could be done to both authors.
Perhaps it was the nature of the land whose history he was writing that drew Baum’s style away from literary naturalism. At any rate, after several more books, one becomes aware of allegorical themes and attitudes that put one in mind of Hawthorne’s …