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On Rereading the Oz Books

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

by L. Frank Baum

The Marvelous Land of Oz

by L. Frank Baum

Ozma of Oz

by L. Frank Baum

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

by L. Frank Baum

The Emerald City of Oz

by L. Frank Baum

The Lost Princess of Oz

by L. Frank Baum

The Tin Woodman of Oz

by L. Frank Baum

Glinda of Oz

by L. Frank Baum

The Making of the Wizard of Oz

by Aljean Harmetz
Knopf, 320, 115 illus pp., $12.95

In the preface to The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum says that he would like to create modern fairy tales by departing from Grimm and Andersen and “all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised” by such authors “to point a fearsome moral.” Baum then makes the disingenuous point that “Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wondertales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.” Yet there is a certain amount of explicit as well as implicit moralizing in the Oz books; there are also “disagreeable incidents,” and people do, somehow, die even though death and illness are not supposed to exist in Oz.

I have reread the Oz books in the order in which they were written. Some things are as I remember. Others strike me as being entirely new. I was struck by the unevenness of style not only from book to book but, sometimes, from page to page. The jaggedness can be explained by the fact that the man who was writing fourteen Oz books was writing forty-eight other books at the same time. Arguably, The Wizard of Oz is the best of the lot. After all, the first book is the one in which Oz was invented. Yet, as a child, I preferred The Emerald City, Rinkitink, and The Lost Princess to The Wizard. Now I find that all of the books tend to flow together in a single narrative, with occasional bad patches.

In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy is about six years old. In the later books she seems to be ten or eleven. Baum locates her swiftly and efficiently in the first sentence of the series. “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.” The landscape would have confirmed John Ruskin’s dark view of American scenery (he died the year that The Wizard of Oz was published).

When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions.

This is the plain American style at its best. Like most of Baum’s central characters Dorothy lacks the regulation father and mother. Some commentators have made, I think, too much of Baum’s parentless children. The author’s motive seems to me to be not only obvious but sensible. A child separated from loving parents for any length of time is going to be distressed, even in a magic story. But aunts and uncles need not be taken too seriously.

In the first four pages Baum demonstrates the drabness of Dorothy’s life; the next two pages are devoted to the cyclone that lifts the house into the air and hurls it to Oz. Newspaper accounts of recent cyclones had obviously impressed Baum. Alone in the house (except for Toto, a Cairn terrier), Dorothy is established as a sensible girl who is not going to worry unduly about events that she cannot control. The house crosses the Deadly Desert and lands on top of the Wicked Witch of the West who promptly dries up and dies. Right off, Baum breaks his own rule that no one ever dies in Oz. I used to spend a good deal of time worrying about the numerous inconsistencies in the sacred texts. From time to time, Baum himself would try to rationalize errors but he was far too quick and careless a writer ever to create the absolutely logical mad worlds that Lewis Carroll or E. Nesbit did.

Dorothy is acclaimed by the Munchkins as a good witch who has managed to free them from the Wicked Witch. They advise her to go to the Emerald City and try to see the famous Wizard; he alone would have the power to grant her dearest wish, which is to go home to Kansas. Why she wanted to go back was never clear to me. Or, finally, to Baum: eventually, he moves Dorothy (with aunt and uncle) to Oz.

Along the way to the Emerald City, Dorothy meets a live Scarecrow in search of brains, a Tin Woodman in search of a heart, a Cowardly Lion in search of courage. Each new character furthers the plot. Each is essentially a humor. Each, when he speaks, strikes the same simple, satisfying note.

Together they undergo adventures. In sharp contrast to gray flat Kansas, Oz seems to blaze with color. Yet the Emerald City is a bit of a fraud. Everyone is obliged to wear green glasses in order to make the city appear emerald-green.

The Wizard says that he will help them if they destroy yet another wicked witch. They do. Only to find out that the Wizard is a fake who arrived by balloon from the States, where he had been a magician in a circus. Although a fraud, the Wizard is a good psychologist. He gives the Scarecrow bran for brains, the Tin Woodman a red velvet heart, the Cowardly Lion a special courage syrup. Each has now become what he wanted to be (and was all along). The Wizard’s response to their delight is glum: ” ‘How can I help being a humbug,’ he said, ‘when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done? It was easy to make the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Woodman happy, because they imagined I could do anything. But it will take more than imagination to carry Dorothy back to Kansas, and I’m sure I don’t know how it can be done.’ ” When the Wizard arranges a balloon to take Dorothy and himself back home, the balloon takes off without Dorothy. Finally, she is sent home through the intervention of magic, and the good witch Glinda.

The style of the first book is straightforward, even formal. There are almost no contractions. Dorothy speaks not at all the way a grownup might think a child should speak but like a sensible somewhat literal person. There are occasional Germanisms (did Baum’s father speak German?): ” ‘What is that little animal you are so tender of?’ ” Throughout all the books there is a fascination with jewelry and elaborate costumes. Baum never got over his love of theater. In this he resembled his favorite author Charles Reade, of whom The Dictionary of National Biography tells us: “At his best Reade was an admirable storyteller, full of resource and capacity to excite terror and pity; but his ambition to excel as a dramatist militated against his success as a novelist, and nearly all his work is disfigured by a striving after theatrical effect.”

Baum’s passion for the theater and, later, the movies not only wasted his time but, worse, it had a noticeably bad effect on his prose style. Because The Wizard of Oz was the most successful children’s book of the 1900 Christmas season (in its first two years of publication, the book sold ninety thousand copies), Baum was immediately inspired to dramatize the story. Much “improved” by other hands, the musical comedy opened in Chicago (June 16, 1902) and was a success. After a year and a half on Broadway, the show toured off and on until 1911. Over the years Baum was to spend a good deal of time trying to make plays and films based on the Oz characters. Except for the first, none was a success.

Since two popular vaudevillians had made quite a splash as the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow in the musical version of the Wizard, Baum decided that a sequel was in order‌for the stage. But rather than write directly for the theater, he chose to write a second Oz book, without Dorothy or the Wizard. In an Author’s Note to The Marvelous Land of Oz, Baum somewhat craftily says that he has been getting all sorts of letters from children asking him “to ‘write something more’ about the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman.” In 1904 the sequel was published, with a dedication to the two vaudevillians. A subsequent musical comedy called The Woggle-Bug was then produced; and failed. That, for the time being, was that. But the idiocies of popular theater had begun to infect Baum’s prose. The Wizard of Oz is chastely written. The Land of Oz is not. Baum riots in dull word play. There are endless bad puns, of the sort favored by popular comedians. There is also that true period horror: the baby-talking ingenue, a character who lasted well into our day in the menacing shapes of Fanny (Baby Snooks) Brice and the early Ginger Rogers. Dorothy, who talked plainly and to the point in The Wizard, talks (when she reappears in the third book) with a cuteness hard to bear. Fortunately, Baum’s show-biz phase wore off and in later volumes Dorothy’s speech improves.

Despite stylistic lapses, The Land of Oz is one of the most unusual and interesting books of the series. In fact, it is so unusual that after the Shirley Temple television adaptation of the book in 1960,1 PTA circles were in a state of crisis. The problem that knitted then and, I am told, knits even today many a maternal brow is Sexual Role. Sexual Role makes the world go round. It is what makes the man go to the office or to the factory where he works hard while the wife fulfills her Sexual Role by homemaking and consuming and bringing up boys to be real boys and girls to be real girls, a cycle that must continue unchanged and unquestioned until the last car comes off Detroit’s last assembly line and the last all-American sun vanishes behind a terminal dioxin haze.

Certainly the denouement of The Land of Oz is troubling for those who have heard of Freud. A boy, Tip, is held in thrall by a wicked witch named Mombi. One day she gets hold of an elixir that makes the inanimate live. Tip uses this magical powder to bring to life a homemade figure with a jack-o-lantern head: Jack Pumpkinhead, who turns out to be a comic of the Ed Wynn-Simple Simon school. ” ‘Now that is a very interesting history,’ said Jack, well pleased; ‘and I understand it perfectly—all but the explanation.’ ”

Tip and Jack Pumpkinhead escape from Mombi, aboard a brought-to-life sawhorse. They then meet the stars of the show (and a show it is), the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman. As a central character neither is very effective. In fact, each has a tendency to sententiousness; and there are nowhere near enough jokes. The Scarecrow goes on about his brains; the Tin Woodman about his heart. But then it is the limitation as well as the charm of made-up fairy-tale creatures to embody to the point of absurdity a single quality of humor.

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    In 1939, MGM made a film called The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland. A new book, The Making of The Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz, describes in altogether too great but fascinating detail the assembling of the movie, which had one and a half producers, ten writers, and four directors. Who then was the “auteur”?

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