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 short stories. In The Scarecrow of Oz Baum tells the story of a Princess whose heart was frozen by witchcraft so that she could no longer love:
Trot saw the body of the Princess become transparent, so that her beating heart showed plainly. But now the heart turned from a vivid red to gray, and then to white. A layer of frost formed about it and tiny icicles clung to its surface. Then slowly the body of the girl became visible again and the heart was hidden from view.
It is possible that Jack Pumpkinhead was suggested to Baum by Hawthorne’s “Feathertop: A Moralized Legend”; but he draws nearest to Hawthorne in his treatment of certain themes that, without breaking the frame of a childern’s story, yet explore the human heart and personality with a good deal of subtlety. In The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918) Baum searches into the ambiguities of identity and one’s relation to one’s own past in a remarkable episode. The Tin Woodman, whose man’s body was gradually replaced with tin parts as his limbs, torso, and head were successively severed by an enchanted axe, sets out in this book to recover his past and to rectify certain sins of omission of which he had been guilty in his youth. In a remote part of the Munchkin country he comes face to face with his severed but still living head:
The Tin Woodman had just noticed the cupboards and was curious to know what they contained, so he went to one of them and opened the door. There were shelves inside, and upon one of the shelves which was about on a level with his tin chin the Emperor discovered a Head—it looked like a doll’s head, only it was larger, and he soon saw it was the Head of some person. It was facing the Tin Woodman and as the cupboard door swung back, the eyes of the Head slowly opened and looked at him…
“Dear me!” said the Tin Woodman, staring hard. “It seems as if I had met you, somewhere, before Good morning, sir!”
“You have the advantage of me,” replied the Head. “I never saw you before in my life.”
It may be that Baum never supposed there was a central meaning or set of values in the Oz books, yet a significant pattern of values does exist in them, and associates them with an important tradition in American writing. This pattern can be conveniently approached by way of a new book, The Machine in the Garden, by Professor Leo Marx, Professor Marx’s thesis is an important, if somewhat obvious, one. American society evolved during the nineteenth century under the stimulaion and energy provided by a new age of industrialization and technology. The new attitudes characteristic of this era were superimposed on a largely pastoral ideal inherited from the American eighteenth century and from Jeffersonian agrarianism. “Within the lifetime of a single generation,” writes Professor Marx, “a rustic and in large part wild landscape was transformed into the site of the world’s most productive industrial machine.” This process of transformation really began in earnest with the widespread application of steam power. In an incredibly short space of time, this “fresh, green breast of the new world” had been replaced by a man-made landscape. Describing the painting, “American Landscape,” by Charles Sheeler, Mr. Marx writes:
No trace of nature remains. Not a tree or a blade of grass in view. The water is enclosed by man-made banks, and the sky is filling with smoke. Like the reflection upon the water, every natural object represents some aspect of the collective enterprise. Technological power overwhelms the solitary man; the landscape convention calls for his presence to provide scale, but here the traditional figure acquires new meaning: in this mechanical environment he seems forlorn and powerless.
The second half of Professor Marx’s book is concerned with showing us just how the dialectic between the pastoral vision and technology, which is the destructive element, is a central theme in nineteenth-century American literature. “In The Great Gatsby, as in Walden, Moby-Dick, and Huckleberry Finn, the machine represents the forces working against the dream of pastoral fulfillment,” he writes. He equates the pastoral dream with “the kingdom of love,” and technology with “the kingdom of power,” and asserts that they have waged war in American literature endlessly ever since Hawthorne.
Professor Marx’s subject is important but, as I have suggested, it is also fairly obvious. While his prose is lucid and his argument cogently presented, we are in no pressing need at the moment of new exegetical excursions into Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn, and one wishes he had been less elaborate in making his major point about those books. The point is indeed worth making, but the slow-placed unfolding has something of the effect of being trapped in a subway that pauses too long between stations ten minutes before curtain-time. One also wishes that he had added a chapter on Oz; for the tension between technology and pastoralism is one of the things the Oz books are about, whether Baum was aware of it or not. In the American literature of which Professor Marx writes, technology seems to triumph despite the resistance the authors offer to it. The locomotive turns the garden into a desert. It is one of the notes of distinction in the Oz books that a satisfactory resolution of the tension is achieved, and despite repeated threats to their way of life, the Munchkin farmers on their small holdings in the East continue down into the twentieth century to exemplify the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal.
The best description of the economic, social, and political conditions that go to make up the Oz way of life is to be found in Baum’s sixth book of Oz history, The Emerald City of Oz (1910):
[The Emerald City] has nine thousand, six hundred and fifty-four buildings, in which lived fifty-seven thousand three hundred and eighteen people, up to the time my story opens.
All the surrounding country, extending to the borders of the desert which enclosed it upon every side, was full of pretty and comfortable farmhouses, in which resided those inhabitants of Oz who preferred country to city life.
Altogether there were more than half a million people in the Land of Oz…and every inhabitant of that country was happy and prosperous.
No disease of any sort was ever known among the Ozites, and so no one ever died unless he met with an accident that prevented him from living. This happened very seldom indeed. There were no poor people in the Land Oz, because there was no such thing as money, and all property of every sort belonged to the Ruler. The people were her children, and she cared for them. Each person was given freely by his neighbors whatever he required for his use, which is as much as any one may reasonably desire. Some tilled the lands and raised great crops of grain, which was divided equally among the entire population, so that all had enough. There were many tailors and dressmakers and shoemakers and the like, who made things that any one who desired them might wear. Likewise there were jewelers who made ornaments for the person, which pleased and beautified the people, and these ornaments also were free to those who asked for them. Each man and woman, no matter what he or she produced for the good of the community, was supplied by the neighbors with food and clothing and a house and furniture and ornaments and games. If by chance the supply ever ran short, more was taken from the great storehouses of the Ruler, which were afterwards filled up again when there was more of any article than the people needed.
Every one worked half the time and played half the time, and the people enjoyed the work as much as they did the play, because it is good to be occupied and to have something to do. There were no cruel overseers set to watch them, and no one to rebuke them or to 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.
At first this seems to be a garden into which no machine is likely to intrude. But then we have to remember that magic is the science or technology of Oz. In Magic, Science and Religion Malinowski wrote:
Magic is akin to science in that it always has a definite aim intimately associated with human instincts, needs, and pursuits…The magic art is directed towards the attainment of practical aims. Like the other arts and crafts, it is also governed by a theory of principles which dictate the manner in which the act has to be performed in order to be effective…Thus both magic and science show certain similarities, and, with Sir James Frazer, we can appropriately call magic a pseudo-science.
The Ozites are much aware of the scientific character of magic. Glinda the Good, who, subject to Princess Ozma, rules the Quadling Country in the south of Oz, always retires to her laboratory to perform her magical experiments, and the Wizard of Oz carries a small black bag filled with magical instruments, very much in the fashion of a nineteenth-century country doctor. In The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913) the Shaggy Man explicitly affirms in some verses he recites: “I’ll sing a song of Ozland…Where magic is a science…” In Glinda of Oz (1920) we are told of the island of the Skeezers, enclosed in a glass dome, which can be submerged for defensive purposes. The method by which this is accomplished clearly reveals the “scientific” character of Oz magic:
“I now remember,” returned Aujah, “that one of the arts we taught Coo-ee-oh was the way to expand steel, and I think that explains how the island is raised and lowered. I noticed in the basement a big steel pillar that passed through the floor and extended upward to this palace…If the lower end of the steel pillar is firmly embedded in the bottom of the lake, Coo-ee-oh could utter a magic word that would make the pillar expand, and so lift the entire island to the level of the water.
But there is no need to multiply instances of this magical technology. The Ozites understood the necessity of bringing this source of energy and power under the control of the central government, and only Glinda the Good, the Wizard, and Ozma herself are entitled to practice magic legally. By this wise prohibition, which has placed government restrictions on promiscuous technological development, Oz has retained her pastoral landscape and guaranteed her people’s happiness. There are, of course, bootleggers of magic—particularly in the underdeveloped Gillikin Country in the north—but one of the principal functions of government in Oz is to keep these enemies of harmony and order under control. There are machines in Oz, but as with TikTok, the clockwork man, they tend to be thoroughly humanized. And where the Powder of Life can be used as a source of power, the steam engine and the dynamo cannot be regarded as a serious threat to human felicity.
Professor Marx writes that American literature has been concerned with the endless warfare between “the kingdom of love” and “the kingdom of power.” For love, technology is a destructive element because it is dehumanizing. So far from liberating man’s humanity by giving him control over nature, as the nineteenth century believed, technology tends to approximate man to the condition of the machines he creates. It is perhaps an awareness of this threat that led so many nineteenth-century American writers to make the ideal of a selfless love the central value of their work. Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo embodies this ideal of selflessness and service to others; virtually all of Hawthorne’s stories and novels revolve around the theme of “the magnetic chain of humanity,” by which he means unselfish and disinterested love of humanity, and this is also one of the principal subjects of Henry James’s fictions. Selflessness and loving kindness constitute the very air of Oz. It is the only American territory in which the magnetic chain of humanity is rarely broken, and in which the selfless generosity of James’s “American Princess,” Milly Theale, would constitute nothing more than normal behavior.
In 1957 the Michigan State University Press published an edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with two introductory essays by Martin Gardner and Russell B. Nye. Although not widely reviewed at the time, the book is a genuine contribution to what goes under the name of American Studies. Mr. Nye comments on this theme of selfless love as it occurs in Oz in terms that cannot be bettered:
The First Law of Baum’s Utopia of Oz, the rule that inspires its harmonious order, is Love. This theme, on which Baum played constant variations, binds all the Oz books together as a moral unit. Love in Oz is kindness, selflessness, friendliness—an inner check that makes one act decently toward human beings, animals, plants, fairies, machines, and even one’s enemies.
It is important to bear in mind that love in Oz is a value actively present in the stories, dramatized in the action, and realized in the characters. There is nothing self-conscious, sentimental, or priggish about it, as in Hawthorne’s inferior story, “The Great Carbuncle.” It is the imaginative element in which Ozma, Glinda, Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion are realized and possess their being. As Nye points out, the most evil character in all the Oz books is the ruler of the Phanfasms, whose title is The First and Foremost. That magnificently sinister title sums up the ultimate meaning of Oz history. The aggrandizement of the individual and private self at the expense of others is the root of all evil.
Professor Marx speaks of a “design of the classic American fables” which embodies “the idea of a redemptive journey away from society in the direction of nature.” A number of Americans managed to make their way to Oz—from Kansas, Nebraska, California, and Oklahoma. To do so they had to cross the Deadly Desert. The way was arduous and the dangers great; but when these happy few arrived in Oz, they were confronted by a pastoral world as unspoiled as that which once greeted those Dutch sailors’ eyes whom Scott Fitzgerald invokes at the close of The Great Gatsby. It was a world in which technology was controlled, and in which perfect selflessness and love was the element of life. It was, in short, the Great Good Place.
December 3, 1964