L. Frank Baum
L. Frank Baum; drawing by David Levine

“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 word. In some mysterious way, I was translating myself to Oz, a place which I was to inhabit for many years while, simultaneously, visiting other fictional worlds as well as maintaining my cover in that dangerous one known as “real.” With The Emerald City, I became addicted to reading.

By the time I was fourteen, I had read Baum’s fourteen Oz books as well as the nineteen Oz books written after his death in 1919 by a young Philadelphia writer named Ruth Plumly Thompson. I remember puzzling over the strange legend that appeared on the cover of each of the books that she wrote: “by Ruth Plumly Thompson founded on and continuing the famous Oz stories by L. Frank Baum.” It took me years to figure out what that phrase meant.

To a child a book is a book. The writer’s name is an irrelevant decoration, unlike the title which prepares one for delight. Even so, I used, idly, to wonder who or what L. Frank Baum was. Baum looked to my eye like Barnum, as in Barnum & Bailey’s circus. Was it the same person? or the circus itself? But then who or what was Bailey? Ruth Plumly Thompson (who was always founded-on and inexorably continuing) seemed to me to be a sort of train. The plum in Plumly registered, of course. Circus. And plums. Founded on and continuing. I never thought to ask anyone about either writer. And no one thought to tell me. But then in the 1930s very little had been written about either Baum or Thompson.

Recently I was sent an academic dissertation. Certain aspects of Baum’s The Land of Oz had reoccurred in a book of mine. Was this conscious or not? It was not. But I was intrigued. I reread The Land of Oz. Yes, I could see Baum’s influence. I then reread The Emerald City of Oz. I have now reread all of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. I have also read a good deal of what has been written about him in recent years. Although Baum’s books were dismissed as trash by at least two generations of librarians and literary historians, the land of Oz has managed to fascinate each new generation and, lately, Baum himself has become an OK subject if not for the literary critic for the social historian.


Even so, it is odd that Baum has received so little acknowledgment from those who owe him the most—writers. After all, those books (films, television, too, alas) first encountered in childhood do more to shape the imagination and its style than all the later calculated readings of acknowledged masters. Scientists are often more candid in their admiration (our attempts to find life elsewhere in the universe is known as Operation Ozma). Lack of proper acknowledgment perhaps explains the extent to which Baum has been ignored by literary historians, by English departments, by…. As I write these words, a sense of dread. Is it possible that Baum’s survival is due to the fact that he is not taught? That he is not, officially, Literature? If so, one must be careful not to murder Oz with exegesis.

In search of L. Frank Baum and the genesis of Oz, I have read every sort of study of him from To Please a Child by his son Frank Joslyn Baum and Russell P. MacFall to the meticulous introductions of Martin Gardner for the Dover reproductions of the original Oz editions * (as well as Gardner’s book with R.B. Nye The Wizard of Oz & Who He Was) to issues of the Baum Bugle (a newsletter put out by Oz enthusiasts since 1957) to the recent and charming Oz Scrap-book as well as to what looks to be a PhD thesis got up as a book called Wonderful Wizard Marvelous Land (1974) by Raylyn Moore.

The introduction to Moore’s book is written by the admirable Ray Bradbury in an uncharacteristically overwrought style. Yet prose far to one side, Bradbury makes some good points: “Let us consider two authors” (the other is Edgar Rice Burroughs) “whose works were burned in our American society during the past 70 years. Librarians and teachers did the burning very subtly by not buying. And not buying is as good as burning. Yet, the authors survived.”

The hostility of librarians to the Oz books is in itself something of a phenomenon. The books are always popular with children. But many librarians will not stock them. According to the chairman of the Miami Public Library, magic is out: “Kids don’t like that fanciful stuff anymore. They want books about missiles and atomic submarines.” Less militaristic librarians have made the practical point that if you buy one volume of a popular series you will have to get the whole lot and there are, after all, forty Oz books.

Bradbury seems to think that the Oz books are disdained because they are considered “mediocre” by literary snobs (the same people who do not take seriously Science Fiction?). But I think that he is wrong. After all, since most American English teachers, librarians, and literary historians are not intellectuals how would any of them know whether or not a book was well or ill written? More to the point, not many would care. Essentially, our educators are Puritans who want to uphold the Puritan work ethic. This is done by bringing up American children in such a way that they will take their place in society as diligent workers and un-protesting consumers. Any sort of literature that encourages a child to contemplate alternative worlds might incite him, later in life, to make changes in the iron Puritan order that has brought us, along with missiles and atomic submarines, the assembly line at Detroit where workers are systematically dehumanized.

It is significant that one of the most brutal attacks on the Oz books was made in 1957 by the director of the Detroit Library System, a Mr. Ralph Ulveling, who found the Oz books to “have a cowardly approach to life.” They are also guilty of “negativism.” Worst of all, “there is nothing uplifting or elevating about the Baum series.” For the Librarian of Detroit courage and affirmation mean punching the clock and then doing the dull work of a machine while never questioning the system. Our governors not only know what is good for us, they never let up. From monitoring the books that are read in grade school to the brass hand-shake and the pension (whose fund is always in jeopardy) at the end, they are always on the job. They have to be because they know that there is no greater danger to their order than a worker whose daydreams are not of television sets and sex but of differently ordered worlds. Fortunately, the system of government that controls the school system and makes possible the consumer society does not control all of publishing; otherwise, much imaginative writing might exist only in samizdat.


Ray Bradbury makes his case for America’s two influential imaginative writers, Baum and Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator not only of Tarzan but of John Carter in the Mars series. “John Carter grew to maturity” (in pots?) “two generations of astronomers, geologists, biochemists, and astronauts who cut their teeth on his Barsoomian beasts and Martian fighting men and decided to grow up and grow out away from earth.” A decision that would never have been acceptable to our rulers if the Russians had not put Sputnik into orbit, obliging an American president of the time to announce that, all in all, it was probably a good thing for our prestige to go to the moon.

Bradbury then turns to “L. Frank Baum, that faintly old-maidish man who grew boys” (in a greenhouse?) “inward to their most delightful interiors, kept them home, and romanced them with wonders between their ears.” Through Bradbury’s rich style, a point is emerging: Inward to delightful selves. Kept them home. Romanced them. Wonders. Yes, all that is true. And hateful to professional molders of American youth. Boys should be out of the house, competing in games, building model airplanes, beating each other up so that one day they will be obedient soldiers in the endless battle for the free world. Show us a dreaming boy (or girl) at home with a book, and we will show you a potential troublemaker.

Bradbury compares Baum to Lewis Carroll. This is a mistake. Carroll belongs, in a complex way, not only to our language’s high literature but to logic. It is simple-minded and mawkish to say that “Oz is muffins and honey, summer vacations, and all the easy green time in the world” while “Wonderland is cold gruel and arithmetic at six a.m., icy showers, long” (as opposed to narrow?) “schools.” Because of this supposed polarity, Bradbury thinks “that Wonderland is the darling of the intellectuals.” On the subject of Oz, he is at his best not in this preface but in a good short story called “The Exiles” (1950).

The text of Raylyn Moore is interesting. She has read what others have written about Baum. She is perhaps too impressed by the fact that the hippies (surely they no longer exist this side of the rainbow) took up Oz in a big way. She also keeps quoting the author of The Greening of America as if he were some sort of authority. Fortunately, she also quotes from those who have written interestingly about Baum: Edward Wagenknecht, James Thurber (in The New Republic, 1934), and Henry Little-field, who demonstrates (in American Quarterly, 1964) that The Wizard of Oz is a parable on populism “in which the Tin Woodman is seen as the eastern industrialist worker (he is discovered by Dorothy in the eastern land of the Munchkins), the Scarecrow as the farmer, and the Lion as the politician (William Jennings Bryan), who as a group approach the Wizard (McKinley) to ask for relief from their sufferings. Dorothy’s magical silver shoes (the proposed silver standard) traveling along the Yellow Brick Road (gold) are lost forever in the Deadly Desert when she returns to Kansas (when Bryan lost the election).” This is certainly elaborate.

Yet Baum in his work and life (as described by those who knew him) was apolitical. He is known to have marched in a torchlight parade for Bryan in 1896, the year of McKinley’s victory. He also supported Bryan in 1900. But, politically, that was it. Only once in the fairy tales have I been able to find a direct political reference. In Sea Fairies there is an octopus who is deeply offended when he learns that Standard Oil is called an “octopus”: ” ‘Oh, what a disgrace! What a deep, dire, dreadful disgrace!’ ” But though Baum was not political in the usual sense, he had very definite ideas about the way the world should be. I shall come to that.

L. Frank Baum was born at Chittenango in upstate New York, the son of Benjamin W. Baum who had become rich in the Pennsylvania oil fields. The Baums came from the Palatinate and Frank Baum’s grandparents were German-speaking. Grandfather Baum was a Methodist lay preacher. Frank’s mother was Scots-Irish. There were eight brothers and sisters. Four died early.

Apparently the Baums enjoyed their wealth. L. Frank Baum grew up on a large estate called Rose Lawn, near Syracuse. In Dot and Tot of Merryland (1901) Baum describes the house’s “wings and gables and broad verandas,” the lawns, flowers, “winding paths covered with white gravel, which led to all parts of the grounds, looking for all the world like a map.” Maps of Oz were later to be important to Baum and to his readers. Oz was…no, is an oblong country divided into four equal sections whose boundaries converge at the Emerald City, the country’s capital as well as geographical center. Each of the four minor countries is a different color: Everything in the north is purple; the south red; the east yellow; the west blue. The effect, exactly, of a certain kind of old-fashioned garden where flower beds are laid out symmetrically and separated from one another by “winding paths covered with white gravel.”

At twelve Baum was sent to a military academy which he hated. He escaped by developing a bad heart. Back at Rose Lawn, Baum put out a newspaper on a printing press given him by his father. Later Baum became interested in chicken breeding and acting, two activities not often linked. Happily, the indulgent father could provide Baum not only with eggs but also with a theatrical career. Because Benjamin Baum owned a string of theaters, his son was able to join a touring company at nineteen. Three years later Baum was in New York, with a leading role in Bronson Howard’s highly successful play The Banker’s Daughter (1878). According to contemporary photographs Baum was a handsome young man with gray eyes, straight nose, dark brown hair, and a period mustache that looked to be glued on; he was six feet tall, left-handed; the voice was agreeable and in later years, on the lecture circuit, he was sometimes compared, favorably, to Mark Twain.

The pieces are now falling into place. Weak heart. Dreamy childhood. Gardens of Rose Lawn. Printing press and self-edited newspaper. Chicken breeding. Theater. At that time the theater was as close as anyone could come to creating magic. On the rickety stages of a thousand provincial theater houses, alternative worlds blazed like magic by limelight. In 1882 Baum wrote and played and toured in a musical “comedy” called Maid of Arran, a fair success. That same year he married Maud Gage. The marriage was a true success though she was a good deal tougher than he (she spanked the children, he consoled them). Maud’s mother was an active suffragette and a friend of Susan B. Anthony. Although the high-minded Puritan Gages were most unlike the easy-going Germanic Baums, relations seem to have been good between Mrs. Gage and her son-in-law who was pretty much of a failure for the next sixteen years. Baum’s theatrical career ended, literally, in flames when the sets and costumes of Maid of Arran were burned in a warehouse fire. Suddenly the whole family was downwardly mobile. At twenty-nine Baum went to work as a traveling salesman for a family firm that made axle grease. He also wrote his first book. The Book of the Hamburgs, all about chickens.

The lives of Baum and Burroughs are remarkably similar in kind if not in detail. Each knocked about a good deal. Each failed at a number of unsatisfying jobs. Each turned late to writing. Burroughs wrote his first book at thirty-seven; he was thirty-nine when Tarzan of the Apes was published. Except for the chicken manual, Baum did not publish until he was forty-one; then at forty-four came The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Forty appears to be the shadow line in American lives; it must be crossed in style, or else.

Failure has never been much fun in the United States. During the last two decades of the Gilded Age and the first decade of the American Empire, failure must have been uncommonly grim. On every side, enormous fortunes were conspicuously made and spent. To be poor was either a sign of bad character or of bad genes or both. Hard-hearted predestination was in the air. The Origin of Species had made a great effect on United Statespersons, and throughout Baum’s lifetime Darwin was constantly misread and misquoted in order to support laissez nous faire, the Puritan work ethic, and, of course, slavery.

In their twenties and thirties Burroughs and Baum were Darwinian rejects. Burroughs was a railroad dick; Baum operated, first, a failing store in Dakota Territory; then a failing newspaper. During the bad years, Burroughs used to tell himself stories before going to sleep (on the job, too, one would guess). Night after night he would add new episodes to his various serials. Although there is no evidence that Baum indulged in this kind of day-dreaming, the best part of his day was the children’s bedtime when he would improvise magical stories for them.

Powerless to affect the gray flat everyday world, Burroughs and Baum each escaped into waking dreams. The dreams of Burroughs are those of a fourteen-year-old boy who would like to be physically powerful like Tarzan or magically endowed like John Carter, who was able to defenestrate himself at will from dull earth to thrilling (pre-NASA) Mars. Sex is a powerful drive in all of Burroughs’s dreams, though demurely rendered when he wrote them down. The dreams of Baum are somewhat different. They are those of a prepubescent child who likes to be frightened (but not very much) and delighted with puns and jokes in a topsy-turvy magical world where his toys are not only as large as he but able to walk and talk and keep him company. There is no conscious sex in the world of the nine-year-old. Yet there is a concomitant will to power that does express itself, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Since the quotidian did not fulfill the dreams of either Baum or Burroughs, each constructed an alternative world. Most artists do. But it is odd that each should have continued well into middle life to tell himself the sort of stories that most people cease to tell themselves in childhood or early adolescence. It is not usual to be a compulsive storyteller for an audience of one. Yet neither seemed to have had any urgent need to share his private stories with others (I count Baum’s children as extensions of himself; there is no record of his inventing stories for anyone else).

Although it is hard to think of Baum as writing political allegories in support of Free Silver, his inventions do reflect the world in which he grew up. When he was a year old, in 1857, the country was swept by a Christian revival whose like we were not to see again until today’s White House and the better federal prisons started to fill up with evangelical Christians. During Baum’s prepubescence the Civil War took place. In his twelfth year Susan B. Anthony started the suffragette movement; and San Francisco fell flat on its hills. In fact, all during the last days of the century, nature was on a rampage and the weather was more than usually abnormal, as the old joke goes.

In 1893, a cyclone destroyed two Kansas towns, killing thirty-one people. I take this disaster to be the one that Baum was to describe seven years later in The Wizard of Oz. He himself was marginally associated with one national disaster. On December 6, 1890, Baum wrote a rather edgy “funny” column for his newspaper in Aberdeen, Dakota Territory. He turns inside out the official American line that the Sioux Indians were getting ready to massacre all the whites. Baum pretends to interview an Indian chief who tells him that the Indians are terrified of being massacred by the whites. Two weeks after this story was published, the US Seventh Cavalry slaughtered three hundred Indian men, women, and children at nearby Wounded Knee. Soon afterward, Baum and his family moved to Chicago.

Since no one ever thought to investigate in any detail the sort of books Baum liked to read, we can only guess at influences. He himself mentioned Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, as well as Dickens and Thackeray. When Baum was still a schoolboy, American educators began to emphasize the sciences (the assembly line was on its way) and the traditional humanities gave ground to the inhumanities. Certainly Baum’s lifelong interest in science and gadgetry was typical of his time and place.

The overwhelming presence in the Oz books of kings and queens, princes and princesses derives from a line of popular writing that began in 1894 with The Prisoner of Zenda and reached a most gorgeous peak with the publication of Graustark in 1901. Although Baum was plainly influenced by these books, I suspect that his love of resplendent titles and miniature countries had something to do with his own ancestry. Before Bismarck’s invention of the German Empire in 1871, that particular geographical area was decorated—no, gilded with four kingdoms (one of them, Bavaria, contained the home of Baum’s ancestors), six grand-duchies, five duchies, seven principalities, and three free-towns. The adjoining Austro-Hungarian Empire was a dual monarchy containing numerous kingdoms, duchies, principalities, not to mention a constant shifting of borders that my own family (perhaps like Baum’s) never satisfactorily explained to me.

According to Baum and MacFall, sixty Utopian novels were published in the United States between 1888 and 1901. The best known was Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which Baum mildly sent up in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. The fact that so many writers were inclined to posit an alternative society to the Gilded Age shows a certain dissatisfaction with the great republic.

Baum is sometimes regarded as a Utopian writer. But I don’t think that this is accurate. Utopian writers have political ideas, and Baum seems to have had none at all. Except for a mild parody of the suffragettes, there is little to link political America with magical Oz whose miniscule countries are governed by hereditary lords. On the other hand, Baum was a social moralist who is said to have been influenced by William Morris’s News from Nowhere, published in 1891 (not 1892 as R. Moore states). In The Emerald City, nearly two decades after the publication of Morris’s vision of the good society, Baum writes of Oz in somewhat similar terms: “there were no poor people…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 anyone may reasonably desire.” This is not the sort of society most calculated to appeal to the Librarian of Detroit.

Interestingly enough, there is no reference in the Oz books to a republic of any kind. There are no parliaments or congresses. There are no elections—a most peculiar thing for an American writer to leave out. The various rulers are all feudal except in the last book of the series (Glinda of Oz) where Baum introduces us, surprisingly, to a Supreme Dictator. Baum was still at work on the book in March 1919 when Mussolini founded the Fascist Party. Was he, in some way, prescient? Whether or not Baum was predicting fascism, it is significant that he associates the idea of dictatorship with democracy: ” ‘I’m the Supreme Dictator of all, and I’m elected once a year. This is a democracy, you know, where the people are allowed to vote for their rulers. A good many others would like to be Supreme Dictator, but as I made a law that I am always to count the votes myself, I am always elected.’ ” If nothing else, the years that Baum lived in Chicago had left their mark on his political thinking. Earlier in the series (The Emerald City), there is another elected monarch, the unhappy rabbit King of Bunnyberry. But this election was reminiscent not of Chicago but of the feudal arrangements of the ancient Teutonic kings and their descendants the Holy Roman emperors.

The authors of To Please a Child tell us the genesis of the name Oz. “One evening while the thunder of Admiral George Dewey’s guns was still echoing in Manila Bay, Baum was sitting in his Chicago home telling stories to youngsters. The two events brushed each other briefly in the course of manifest destiny and children’s literature.” I cannot tell if “manifest destiny” is meant ironically. In any case, Baum says that he was telling a story pretty much like The Wizard of Oz when one of the children wanted to know where all these adventures took place. Looking about for inspiration, Baum glanced at a copy of the Chicago Tribune (dated May 7, 1898) and saw the headline proclaiming Perry’s victory. Then he noticed a filing cabinet with two drawers: A-N and O-Z. The second label gave its name to Oz. True or not, there is a certain niceness in the way that the militant phase of the American empire was to coincide with Baum’s parallel and better world.

Baum had begun to prosper in Chicago. At Mrs. Gage’s insistence, he wrote down some of the stories that he had made up for his children. They were published as Mother Goose in Prose in 1897; that same year he started a magazine called The Show Window, for window-dressers. The magazine was an unlikely success. Then Baum published Father Goose, His Book (1899); he was now established as a popular children’s writer. Devoting himself full-time to writing, he produced a half-dozen books in 1899, among them The Wizard of Oz.

During the next nineteen years Baum wrote sixty-two books. Most of them were for children and most of them had girl-protagonists. There are many theories why Baum preferred girls to boys as central characters. The simplest is that he had four sons and would have liked a daughter. The most practical is that popular American writing of that day tended to be feminized because women bought the books. The most predictable is the vulgar Freudian line that either Baum secretly wanted to be a girl or, worse, that he suffered from a Dodsonian (even Humbertian) lust for small girls. I suspect that Baum wrote about girls not only because he liked them but because his sort of imagination was not geared to those things that are supposed to divert real boys (competitive games, cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, murder).

(This is the first part of a two-part essay on L. Frank Baum and the Oz books.)

This Issue

September 29, 1977