To Please a Child
The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was
The Oz Scrapbook
Wonderful Wizard Marvelous Land
“I have just seen a number of landscapes by an American painter of some repute,” wrote John Ruskin in 1856; “and the ugliness of them is Wonderful. I see that they are true studies and that the ugliness of the country must be unfathomable.” This was not kind. But then the English of that day had no great liking for the citizens of the Great Republic. Twenty-four years earlier Mrs. Trollope had commented without warmth on the manners and the domestic arrangements of United Statesmen (or persons, as we must now, androgynously, describe ourselves). Twelve years earlier Charles Dickens had published Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens had found the American countryside raw. The cities ramshackle. The people grasping, boastful, even—yes, dishonest. This was not at all kind. But then how could these British travelers have known that in a century’s time the barbarous republic beyond the western sea would not once but twice pull from the flames of war (or “conflagration” as they say in California) England’s chestnuts?
In 1856 the United States was a provincial backwater. The eruption of energy that was to fuel the future empire did not begin until five years later when the Civil War broke out. By war’s end the United States was a great industrial power with satanic cities every bit as ugly and infernal as Birmingham and Manchester, with a vast flat interior that was peculiarly susceptible to those drastic changes in weather (and so fortune) that make farming an exciting occupation, with a somewhat thin civilization that has not to this day quite got off the ground in the sense that Europe’s nation-states were able to do in those dark confused centuries that followed on the death of Charlemagne, and Christendom.
Yet during 1856 a number of interesting things happened in the United States. Mrs. Carl Schurz opened the first kindergarten at Watertown, Wisconsin. In Chelsea, Massachusetts, the Universalist Church observed, for the first time anywhere, Children’s Day. In New York City the big theatrical hit of the season was a pantomime (from London) called Planche, or Lively Fairies. The year’s most successful book of poems was J.G. Whittier’s The Panorama and Other Poems, a volume that included “The Barefoot Boy.” People were unexpectedly interested in the care, education, and comfort of children. It is somehow both fitting and satisfying that on May 15 of the first American Children’s Year Lyman Frank Baum was born.
Like most Americans my age (with access to books), I spent a good deal of my youth in Baum’s land of Oz. I have a precise, tactile memory of the first Oz book that came into my hands. It was the original 1910 edition of The Emerald City. I still remember the look and the feel of those dark green covers, the evocative smell of dust and old ink. I also remember that I could not stop reading and rereading the book. But “reading” is not the right …