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 order…for 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.
There is one genuinely funny sketch. When the Scarecrow and Jack Pumpkinhead meet, they decide that since each comes from a different country, ” ‘We must,’ ” says the Scarecrow, ” ‘have an interpreter.’
” ‘What is an interpreter?’ asked Jack.
” ‘A person who understands both my language and your own….’ ” And so on. Well, maybe this is not so funny.
The Scarecrow (who had taken the vanished Wizard’s place as ruler of Oz) is overthrown by a “revolting” army of girls (great excuse for a leggy chorus). This long and rather heavy satire on the suffragettes was plainly more suitable for a Broadway show than for a children’s story. The girl leader, Jinjur, is an unexpectedly engaging character. She belongs to the Bismarckian Realpolitik school. She is accused of treason for having usurped the Scarecrow’s throne. ” ‘The throne belongs to whoever is able to take it,’ answered Jinjur as she slowly ate another caramel. ‘I have taken it, as you see; so just now I am the Queen, and all who oppose me are guilty of treason….’ ” This is the old children’s game I-am-the-King-of-the-castle, a.k.a. human history.
Among the new characters met in this story are the Woggle-Bug, a highly magnified insect who has escaped from a classroom exhibition and (still magnified) ranges about the countryside. A parody of an American academic, he is addicted to horrendous puns on the grounds that ” ‘a joke derived from a play upon words is considered among educated people to be eminently proper.’ ” Anna livia plurabelle.
There is a struggle between Jinjur and the legitimate forces of the Scarecrow. The Scarecrow’s faction wins and the girls are sent away to be homemakers and consumers. In passing, the Scarecrow observes, ” ‘I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration in this world are the unusual ones. For the common folks are like the leaves of a tree, and live and die unnoticed.’ ” To which the Tin Woodman replies, ” ‘Spoken like a philosopher!’ ” To which the current editor Martin Gardner responds, with true democratic wrath, “This despicable view, indeed defended by many philosophers, had earlier been countered by the Tin Woodman,” etc. But the view is not at all despicable. For one thing, it would be the normal view of an odd magical creature who cannot die. For another, Baum was simply echoing those neo-Darwinians who dominated most American thinking for at least a century. It testifies to Baum’s sweetness of character that unlike most writers of his day he seldom makes fun of the poor or weak or unfortunate. Also, the Scarecrow’s “despicable” remarks can be interpreted as meaning that although unorthodox dreamers are despised by the ordinary, their dreams are apt to prevail in the end and become reality.
Glinda the Good Sorceress is a kindly mother figure to the various children who visit or live in Oz, and it is she who often ties up the loose ends when the story bogs down. In The Land of Oz Glinda has not a loose end but something on the order of a hangman’s rope to knot. Apparently the rightful ruler of Oz is Princess Ozma. As a baby, Ozma was changed by Mombi into the boy Tip. Now Tip must be restored to his true identity. The PTA went, as it were, into plenary session. What effect would a book like this have on a boy’s sense of himself as a future man, breadwinner and father to more of same? Would he want, awful thought, to be a Girl? Even Baum’s Tip is alarmed when told who he is. ” ‘I!’ cried Tip, in amazement. ‘Why I’m no Princess Ozma—I’m not a girl!’ ” Glinda tells him that indeed he was—and really is. Tip is understandably grumpy. Finally, he says to Glinda, ” ‘I might try it for awhile,—just to see how it seems, you know. But if I don’t like being a girl you must promise to change me into a boy again.’ ” Glinda says that this is not in the cards. Glumly, Tip agrees to the restoration. Tip becomes the beautiful Ozma, who hopes that ” ‘none of you will care less for me than you did before. I’m just the same Tip, you know; only—only—’ “
“Only you’re different!” said the Pumpkinhead; and everyone thought it was the wisest speech he had ever made.
Essentially, Baum’s human protagonists are neither male nor female but children, a separate category in his view if not in that of our latter-day sexists. Baum’s use of sex changes was common to the popular theater of his day, which, in turn, derived from the Elizabethan era when boys played girls whom the plot often required to pretend to be boys. In Baum’s The Enchanted Island of Yew a fairy (female) becomes a knight (male) in order to have adventures. In The Emerald City the hideous Phanfasm leader turns himself into a beautiful woman. When John Dough and the Cherub (1906) was published, the sex of the five-year-old cherub was never mentioned in the text; the publishers then launched a national ad campaign: “Is the cherub boy or girl? $500 for the best answers.” In those innocent times Tip’s metamorphosis as Ozma was nothing more than a classic coup de théâtre of the sort that even now requires the boy Peter Pan to be played on stage by a mature woman.
Today of course any sort of sexual metamorphosis causes distress. Although Raylyn Moore in her plot précis of The Enchanted Island of Yew (in her book Wonderful Wizard Marvelous Land) does make one confusing reference to the protagonist as “he (she),” she omits entirely the Tip/Ozma transformation which is the whole point to The Land of Oz, while the plot as given by the publisher Reilly & Lee says only that “the book ends with an amazing surprise, and from that moment on Ozma is princess of all Oz.” But, surely, for a pre-pube there is not much difference between a boy and a girl protagonist. After all, the central fact of the pre-pube’s existence is not being male or female but being a child, much the hardest of all roles to play. During and after puberty, there is a tendency to want a central character like oneself (my favorite Oz book was R.P. Thompson’s Speedy in Oz, whose eleven- or twelve-year-old hero could have been, I thought, me). Nevertheless, what matters most even to an adolescent is not the gender of the main character who experiences adventures but the adventures themselves, and the magic, and the jokes, and the pictures.
Dorothy is a perfectly acceptable central character for a boy to read about. She asks the right questions. She is not sappy (as Ozma can sometimes be). She is straight to the point and a bit aggressive. Yet the Dorothy who returns to the series in the third book, Ozma of Oz (1907), is somewhat different from the original Dorothy. She is older and her conversation is full of cute contractions that must have doubled up audiences in Sioux City but were pretty hard going for at least one child forty years ago.
To get Dorothy back to Oz there is the by now obligatory natural disaster. The book opens with Dorothy and her uncle on board a ship to Australia. During a storm she is swept overboard. Marius Bewley has noted that this opening chapter “is so close to Crane’s (‘The Open Boat’) in theme, imagery and technique that it is difficult to imagine, on comparing the two in detail, that the similarity is wholly, or even largely accidental.”2
Dorothy is accompanied by a yellow chicken named Bill. As they are now in magic country, the chicken talks. Since the chicken is a hen, Dorothy renames her Billina. The chicken is fussy and self-absorbed; she is also something of an overachiever: ” ‘How is my grammar?’ asked the yellow hen anxiously.” Rather better than Dorothy’s, whose dialogue is marred by such Baby Snooksisms as ” ‘zactly,” “auto’biles,” ” ‘lieve,” ” ‘splain.”
Dorothy and Billina come ashore in Ev, a magic country on the other side of the Deadly Desert that separates Oz from the real world (what separates such magical kingdoms as Ix and Ev from our realer world is never made plain). In any case, the formula has now been established. Cyclone or storm at sea or earthquake ends not in death for child and animal companion but translation to a magic land. Then, one by one, strange new characters join the travelers. In this story the first addition is Tik-Tok, a clockwork robot (sixteen years later the word “robot” was coined). He has run down. They wind him up. Next they meet Princess Languidere. She is deeply narcissistic, a trait not much admired by Baum (had he been traumatized by all those actresses and actors he had known on tour?). Instead of changing clothes, hair, makeup, the Princess changes heads from her collection. I found the changing of heads fascinating. And puzzling: since the brains in each head varied, would Languidere still be herself when she put on a new head or would she become someone else? Thus Baum made logicians of his readers.
The Princess is about to add Dorothy’s head to her collection when the marines arrive in the form of Ozma and retinue, who have crossed the Deadly Desert on a magic carpet (cheating, I thought at the time, either a desert is impassible or it is not). Dorothy and Ozma meet, and Dorothy, “as soon as she heard the sweet voice of the girlish ruler of Oz knew that she would learn to love her dearly.” That sort of thing I tended to skip.
The principal villain of the Oz canon is now encountered: the Nome King (Baum thought the “g” in front of “nome” too difficult for children…how did he think they spelled and pronounced “gnaw”?). Roquat of the Rock lived deep beneath the earth, presiding over his legions of hard-working nomes (first cousins to George Macdonald’s goblins). I was always happy when Baum took us below ground, and showed us fantastic caverns strewn with precious stones where scurrying nomes did their best to please the bad-tempered Roquat, whose ” ‘laugh,’ ” one admirer points out, ” ‘is worse than another man’s frown.’ ” Ozma and company are transformed into bric-a-brac by Roquat’s magic. But Dorothy and Billina outwit Roquat (nomes fear fresh eggs). Ozma and all the other victims of the nome king are restored to their former selves, and Dorothy is given an opportunity to ham it up:
“Royal Ozma, and you, Queen of Ev, I welcome you and your people back to the land of the living. Billina has saved you from your troubles, and now we will leave this drea’ful place, and return to Ev as soon as poss’ble.”
While the child spoke they could all see that she wore the magic belt, and a great cheer went up from all her friends….
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.)
October 13, 1977
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”? ↩
The New York Review, December 3, 1964. ↩