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On Rereading the Oz Books

Baum knew that nothing so pleases a child as a situation where, for once, the child is in the driver’s seat and able to dominate adults. Dorothy’s will to power is a continuing force in the series and as a type she is still with us in such popular works as Peanuts, where she continues her steely progress toward total dominion in the guise of the relentless Lucy.

Back in the Emerald City, Ozma shows Dorothy her magic picture in which she can see what is happening anywhere in the world. If Dorothy ever wants to visit Oz, all she has to do is make a certain signal and Ozma will transport her from Kansas to Oz. Although this simplified transportation considerably, Baum must have known even then that half the charm of the Oz stories was the scary trip of an ordinary American child from USA to Oz. As a result, in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908), another natural catastrophe is used to bring Dorothy back to Oz; the long missing Wizard, too. Something like the San Francisco earthquake happens. Accompanied by a dim boy called Zeb and a dull horse called Jim, Dorothy falls deep into the earth. This catastrophe really got to Dorothy and “for a few moments the little girl lost consciousness. Zeb, being a boy, did not faint, but he was badly frightened….” That is Baum’s one effort to give some sort of points to a boy. He promptly forgets about Zeb, and Dorothy is back in the saddle, running things. She is aided by the Wizard, who joins them in his balloon.

Deep beneath the earth are magical countries (inspired by Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth 1864? Did Verne or Baum inspire Burroughs’s Pellucidar 1923?). In a country that contains vegetable people, a positively Golden Bough note is sounded by the ruling Prince: ” ‘One of the most unpleasant things about our vegetable lives [is] that while we are in our full prime we must give way to another, and be covered up in the ground to sprout and grow and give birth to other people.’ ” But then according to the various biographies, Baum was interested in Hinduism, and the notion of karma.

After a number of adventures Dorothy gestures to Ozma (she certainly took her time about it, I thought) and they are all transported to the Emerald City where the usual party is given for them, carefully described in a small-town newspaper style of the Social-Notes-from-all-over variety. The Road to Oz (1909) is the mixture as before. In Kansas, Dorothy meets the Shaggy Man; he is a tramp of the sort that haunted the American countryside after the Civil War when unemployed veterans and men ruined by the depressions of the 1870s took to the road where they lived and died, no doubt, brutishly. The Shaggy Man asks her for directions. Exasperated by the tramp’s slowness to figure out her instructions, she says: ” ‘You’re so stupid. Wait a minute till I run in the house and get my sun-bonnet.’ ” Dorothy is easily “provoked.” ” ‘My, but you’re clumsy!’ said the little girl.” She gives him a “severe look.” Then ” ‘Come on,’ she commanded.” She then leads him to the wrong, i.e., the magical, road to Oz.

With The Emerald City of Oz (1910) Baum is back in form. He has had to face up to the fact that Dorothy’s trips from the USA to Oz are getting not only contrived, but pointless. If she likes Oz so much, why doesn’t she settle there? But if she does, what will happen to her uncle and aunt? Fortunately, a banker is about to foreclose the mortgage on Uncle Henry’s farm. Dorothy will have to go to work, says Aunt Em, stricken. ” ‘You might do housework for someone, dear, you are so handy; or perhaps you could be a nursemaid to little children.’ ” Dorothy is having none of this. “Dorothy smiled. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny,’ she said, ‘for me to do housework in Kansas, when I’m a Princess in the Land of Oz?’ ” The old people buy this one with surprisingly little fuss. It is decided that Dorothy will signal Ozma, and depart for the Emerald City.

Although Baum’s powers of invention seldom flagged, he had no great skill at plot-making. Solutions to problems are arrived at either through improbable coincidence or by bringing in, literally, some god (usually Glinda) from the machine to set things right. Since the narratives are swift and the conversations sprightly and the invented characters are both homely and amusing (animated paper dolls, jigsaw puzzles, pastry, cutlery, china, etc.), the stories never lack momentum. Yet there was always a certain danger that the narrative would flatten out into a series of predictable turns.

In The Emerald City, Baum sets in motion two simultaneous plots. The Nome King Roquat decides to conquer Oz. Counterpoint to his shenanigans are Dorothy’s travels through Oz with her uncle and aunt (Ozma has given them asylum). Once again, the child’s situation vis à vis the adult is reversed.

Don’t be afraid,” she said to them. “You are now in the Land of Oz, where you are to live always, and be comfer’ble an’ happy. You’ll never have to worry over anything again, ‘cause there won’t be anything to worry about. And you owe it all to the kindness of my friend Princess Ozma.”

And never forget it, one hears her mutter to herself.

But while the innocents are abroad in Oz, dark clouds are gathering. Roquat is on the march. I must say that the Nome King has never been more (to me) attractive as a character than in this book. For one thing, the bad temper is almost permanently out of control. It is even beginning to worry the king himself: ” ‘To be angry once in a while is really good fun, because it makes others so miserable. But to be angry morning, noon and night, as I am, grows monotonous and prevents my gaining any other pleasure in life.’ ” Rejecting the offer of the usual anodyne, a “glass of melted silver,” Roquat decides to put together an alliance of all the wicked magic figures in order to conquer Oz. He looks among his nomes for an ideal general. He finds him: ” ‘I hate good people…. That is why I am so fond of your Majesty.’ ” Later the General enlists new allies with the straightforward pitch: ” ‘Permit me to call your attention to the exquisite joy of making the happy unhappy,’ said he at last. ‘Consider the pleasure of destroying innocent and harmless people.’ ” This argument proves irresistible.

The nomes and their allies make a tunnel beneath the Deadly Desert (but surely its Deadliness must go deeper than they could burrow?). Ozma watches all of them on her magic picture. She is moderately alarmed. ” ‘But I do not wish to fight,’ declared Ozma, firmly.” She takes an extremely high and moral American line; one that Woodrow Wilson echoed a few years later when he declared that the United States “is too proud to fight” powerful Germany (as opposed to weak Mexico where Wilson had swallowed his pride just long enough for us to launch an invasion). ” ‘Because the Nome King intends to do evil is no excuse for my doing the same.’ ” Ozma has deep thoughts on the nature of evil; ” ‘I must not blame King Roquat too severely, for he is a Nome and his nature is not so gentle as my own.’ ” Luckily, Ozite cunning carries the day.

Baum’s nicest conceit in The Emerald City is Rigamarole Town. Or, as a local boy puts it,

if you have traveled very much you will have noticed that every town differs from every other town in one way or another and so by observing the methods of the people and the way they live as well as the style of their dwelling places,”

etc. Dorothy and her party are duly impressed by the boy’s endless commentary. He is matched almost immediately by a woman who tells them, apropos nothing:

It is the easiest thing in the world for a person to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when a question that is asked for the purpose of gaining information or satisfying the curiosity of the one who has given expression to the inquiry has attracted the attention of an individual who may be competent either from personal experience or the experience of others,”

etc. A member of Dorothy’s party remarks that if those people wrote books ” ‘it would take a whole library to say the cow jumped over the moon.’ ” So it would. And so it does. The Shaggy Man decides that there is a lot to be said for the way that the people of Oz encourage these people to live together in one town “while Uncle Sam lets [them] roam around wild and free, to torture innocent people.’ ”

Many enthusiasts of the Oz books (among them Ray Bradbury and Russel B. Nye) point with democratic pride to the fact that there is a total absence, according to Mr. Nye, of any “whisper of class consciousness in Oz (as there is in Alice’s Wonderland).” Yet Martin Gardner has already noted one example of Baum’s “despicable” elitism. Later (Emerald City), Baum appears to back away from the view that some people are better or more special than others. “It seems unfortunate that strong people are usually so disagreeable and overbearing that no one cares for them. In fact, to be different from your fellow creatures is always a misfortune.” But I don’t think that Baum believed a word of this. If he did, he would have been not L. Frank Baum, creator of the special and magical world of Oz, but Horatio Alger, celebrator of pluck and luck, thrift and drift, money. The dreamy boy with the bad heart at a hated military school was as conscious as any Herman Hesse youth that he was splendidly different from others, and in The Lost Princess of Oz Baum reasserts the Scarecrow’s position: ” ‘To be individual, my friends,’ ” (the Cowardly Lion is holding forth) ” ‘to be different from others, is the only way to become distinguished from the common herd.’ ”

Inevitably, Baum moved from Chicago to California. Inevitably, he settled in the village of Hollywood in 1909. Inevitably, he made silent films, based on the Oz books. Not so inevitably, he failed for a number of reasons that he could not have foretold. Nevertheless, he put together a half dozen films that (as far as special effects went) were said to be ahead of their time. By 1913 he had returned, somewhat grimly, to writing Oz books, putting Dorothy firmly on ice until the last book of the series.

The final Oz books are among the most interesting. After a gall bladder operation, Baum took to his bed where the last work was done. Yet Baum’s imagination seems to have been more than usually inspired despite physical pain, and the darkness at hand. The Lost Princess of Oz (1917) is one of the best of the series. The beginning is splendidly straightforward. “There could be no doubt of the fact: Princess Ozma, the lovely girl ruler of the Fairyland of Oz, was lost. She had completely disappeared.” Glinda’s magical paraphernalia had also vanished. The search for Ozma involves most of the Oz principals, including Dorothy. The villain Ugu (who had kidnapped and and transformed Ozma) is a most satisfactory character. “A curious thing about Ugu the Shoemaker was that he didn’t suspect, in the least, that he was wicked. He wanted to be powerful and great and he hoped to make himself master of all the Land of Oz, that he might compel everyone in that fairy country to obey him. His ambition blinded him to the rights of others and he imagined anyone else would act just as he did if anyone else happened to be as clever as himself.” That just about says it all.

In The Tin Woodman (1918) a boy named Woot is curious to know what happened to the girl that the Tin Woodman had intended to marry when he was flesh and blood. (Enchanted by a witch, he kept hacking off his own limbs; replacements in tin were provided by a magical smith. Eventually, he was all tin, and so no longer a suitable husband for a flesh and blood girl; he moved away.) Woot, the Tin Woodman, and the Scarecrow (the last two are rather like an old married couple, chatting in a desultory way about the past) set out to find the girl. To their astonishment, they meet another tin man. He, too, had courted the girl. He, too, had been enchanted by the witch; had chopped himself to bits; had been reconstituted by the same magical smith. The two tin men wonder what has happened to the girl. They also wonder what happened to their original imperishable pieces.

In due course, the Tin Woodman is confronted by his original head. I have never forgotten how amazed I was not only by Baum’s startling invention but by the drawing of the Tin Woodman staring into the cupboard where sits his old head. The Tin Woodman is amazed, too. But the original head is simply bored, and snippy. When asked ” ‘What relation are we?’ ” The head replies, ” ‘Don’t ask me…. For my part, I’m not anxious to claim relationship with any common, manufactured article, like you. You may be all right in your class, but your class isn’t my class.’ ” When the Tin Woodman asks the head what it thinks about inside the cupboard, he is told,

Nothing…. A little reflection will convince you that I have had nothing to think about, except the boards on the inside of the cupboard door, and it didn’t take me long to think everything about those boards that could be thought of. Then, of course, I quit thinking.”

And are you happy?”

Happy? What’s that?”

There is a further surprise when the Tin Woodman discovers that his old girl friend has married a creature made up of various human parts assembled from him and from the other man of tin. The result is a most divided and unsatisfactory man, and for the child reader a fascinating problem in the nature of identity.

In Baum’s last Oz book, Glinda of Oz (posthumously published in 1920), magic is pretty much replaced by complex machinery. There is a domed island that can sink beneath the waters of a lake at the mention of a secret word, but though the word is magic, the details of how the island rises and sinks are straight out of Popular Mechanics.

Ozma and Dorothy are trapped beneath the water of the lake by yet another narcissistic princess, Coo-eeh-oh. By the time Glinda comes to the rescue, Coo-eeh-oh has been turned into a proud and vapid swan. This book is very much a last round-up (Baum may not have written all of it). Certainly there are some uncharacteristic sermons in favor of the Protestant work ethic: “Dorothy wished in her kindly, innocent heart, that all men and women could be fairies with silver wands, and satisfy all their needs without so much work and worry….” Ozma fields that one as briskly as the Librarian of Detroit could want:

No, no, Dorothy, that wouldn’t do at all. Instead of happiness your plan would bring weariness…. There would be no eager striving to obtain the difficult…. There would be nothing to do, you see, and no interest in life and in our fellow creatures.”

But Dorothy is not so easily convinced. She notes that Ozma is a magical creature, and she is happy. But only, says Ozma, with grinding sweetness, ” ‘because I can use my fairy powers to make others happy.’ ” Then Ozma makes the sensible point that although she has magical powers, others like Glinda have even greater powers than she and so ” ‘there still are things in both nature and in wit for me to marvel at.’ ”

In Dorothy’s last appearance as heroine, she saves the day. She guesses, correctly, that the magic word is the wicked Coo-eeh-oh’s name. Incidentally, as far as I know, not a single Oz commentator has noted that Coo-eeh-oh is the traditional cry of the hog-caller. The book ends with a stern admonishment, ” ‘it is always wise to do one’s duty, however unpleasant that duty may seem to be.’ ”

Although it is unlikely that Baum would have found Ruskin’s aesthetics of much interest, he might well have liked his political writings, particularly Munera Pulveris and Fors. Ruskin’s protégé William Morris would have approved of Oz, where

Everyone worked half the time and played half the time, and the people enjoyed the work as much as they did the play…. There were no cruel overseers set to watch them, and no one to rebuke them and find fault with them. So each one was proud to do all he could for his friends and neighbors, and was glad when they would accept the things he produced.

Anticipating the wrath of the Librarian of Detroit, who in 1957 found the Oz books to have a “cowardly approach to life,” Baum adds, slyly, “I do not suppose such an arrangement would be practical with us….” Yet Baum has done no more than to revive in his own terms the original Arcadian dream of America. Or, as Marius Bewley noted, “the tension between technology and pastoralism is one of the things that the Oz books are about, whether Baum was aware of it or not.” I think that Baum was very much aware of this tension. In Oz he presents the pastoral dream of Jefferson (the slaves have been replaced by magic and good will); and into this Eden he introduces forbidden knowledge in the form of black magic (the machine) which good magic (the values of the pastoral society) must overwhelm.

It is Bewley’s view that because “The Ozites are much aware of the scientific nature of magic,” Ozma wisely limited the practice of magic. As a result, controlled magic enhances the society just as controlled industrialization could enhance (and perhaps even salvage) a society like ours. Unfortunately, the Nome King has governed the United States for more than a century; and he shows no sign of wanting to abdicate. Meanwhile, the life of the many is definitely nome-ish and the environment has been, perhaps, irreparably damaged. To the extent that Baum makes his readers aware that our country’s “practical” arrangements are inferior to those of Oz, he is a truly subversive writer and it is no wonder that the Librarian of Detroit finds him cowardly and negative, because, of course, he is brave and affirmative. But then the United States has always been a Rigamarole land where adjectives tend to mean their opposite, when they mean at all.

Despite the Librarian of Detroit’s efforts to suppress magical alternative worlds, the Oz books continue to exert their spell. “You do not educate a man by telling him what he knew not,” wrote John Ruskin, “but by making him what he was not.” In Ruskin’s high sense, Baum was a true educator, and those who read his Oz books are often made what they were not—imaginative, tolerant, alert to wonders, life.

(This is the second part of a two-part essay on the Oz books.)

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