The year 2000 is the centenary of a famous and much-loved but essentially very odd children’s classic: L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Those who recall the story only from childhood reading, or from the MGM film, have perhaps never realized how strange the original book and its sequels are.
For one thing, the Oz books are far ahead of their time both scientifically and politically. They are full of inventions that would not appear on the market for most of the century, among them a robot man, an artificial heart and limbs, a television monitoring system, anti-gravity devices, and a computer-type news service. Oz is also, as several critics have noted, both a kind of socialist utopia and a deeply matriarchal and occasionally transsexual one.
Some of the reasons for this may lie in Baum’s own history—and also in that of his wife. As a child in Chittenango, New York, Frank Baum (he disliked his first name, Lyman, and never used it) did not go to school; instead he remained at home under his mother’s care and was educated by tutors. But when he was twelve his father, a successful banker and oil executive, hoping to toughen Frank up and cure him of his “daydreaming,” sent him to the Peekskill Military Academy. Baum was miserable there for over a year, and the only results of the experiment were a physical (and possibly also psychological) breakdown, and a lifelong aversion to both formal education and the military.
Back home on the family estate, Rose Lawn, Baum continued his studies. He also read widely, published a neighborhood newspaper on his own printing press, and put on plays with his brothers and sisters. Gradually he developed an intense and enduring fascination with the theater. In 1878, he began to work as a professional actor. Four years later his father bought him a small dramatic company, and Baum was soon adapting and starring in a romantic melodrama, The Maid of Arran.
In 1881, when Baum was twenty-five, he fell in love with a twenty-year-old Cornell sophomore. Maud Gage was the youngest daughter and favorite child of one of the most famous feminists in America, Matilda Gage. Together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Matilda had just begun to publish a ground-breaking three-volume History of Woman Suffrage (1881-1889). She was prominent in the radical wing of the movement, and for years had spoken out not only for women’s right to vote and the abolition of slavery, but against unrestrained capitalism, established religion, and ethnic and racial oppression. She was especially concerned with the wrongs suffered by Native Americans, and enthusiastic about the system of government practiced by the Iroquois Confederacy, in which men and women were near-equals. (Eventually, in gratitude for Gage’s efforts on their behalf, the Mohawk nation adopted her into their wolf clan and gave her the name She Who Holds the Sky.)
Matilda Gage’s husband, Henry Hill Gage, appears to have been something of a nonentity. He was a successful merchant, able to provide his family with an impressive white-columned mansion in Fayetteville, New York; but Icould find no record of what he thought of his wife’s political and literary activities.
As time passed, Matilda Gage’s ideas became too radical for both Anthony and Stanton, and in 1890 she was forced out of the National Woman Suffrage Association which she had helped to found in 1869. Later she was partially written out of feminist history: a recent PBS documentary about Anthony and Stanton hardly mentioned her.
Frank Baum met Maud Gage in 1881 at a Christmas party, and he soon began calling on her and courting her. A few months later he proposed, and Maud accepted him at once, without first consulting her parents—an unusual step at the time. When Matilda Gage heard the news she was not pleased; she exclaimed, “I won’t have my daughter be a darned fool and marry an actor.” Maud replied, “All right, mother, if you feel that way about it, good bye.” Faced with a stubbornness equal to her own, Matilda laughed and backed down. The couple were married in the family home in Fayetteville, near Syracuse, in November 1882, less than a year after their first meeting.
In a sense Matilda Gage was right; from a practical point of view it was a foolish marriage. It would be many years before Frank Baum began to be financially secure, and at first he failed or barely survived in one occupation after another: theater owner, newspaper editor, dry goods merchant, traveling salesman, and trade-magazine publisher. After Baum’s father lost most of his fortune and died in 1887, Frank and Maud were often on the edge of poverty. Fortunately, where Baum was dreamy, easygoing, and impractical, Maud, like her mother, was what at the time was known as a New Woman: independent, free-thinking, strong-willed, and clearheaded. She also had a quick temper. Later in her life she maintained that the couple had always lived in peace and harmony, but as one of Baum’s early biographers reports,
…Those who knew the family best felt that this was true only because Frank, from the time of their marriage until his death thirty-seven years later, allowed her to have her own way with the household, the children, and the family purse.
After the marriage Matilda Gage and her daughter remained close, and when Baum and Maud moved to Chicago in 1891 with four small boys, Matilda came to stay with them every winter and help take care of the children. But she did far more than this for Baum. It was she who first encouraged her son-in-law to write down the tales he had been telling the neighborhood children, and send them to a publisher. According to Angela Carpenter, “Frank could not believe anyone would want his stories, but Maud said firmly, ‘Mother is nearly always right about everything.”‘ So he sent off the manuscript of his first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose; it was accepted at once and became a best seller.
Possibly these events convinced Baum of the value of his mother-in-law’s opinions; or perhaps he was already convinced. Earlier, when he was editing a failing newspaper in South Dakota, he published Maud Gage’s “Manifesto” of women’s rights, and wrote in favor of votes for women. Later, his books for children, especially the fourteen Oz books, would reflect many of Matilda Gage’s most radical ideas.
Among Matilda Gage’s striking and original views was her belief in a prehistoric matriarchal society, “The Matriarchate.” In Woman, Church, and State (1895), partly written when she was living in Chicago with Baum and his family, she declared that all ancient communities had been ruled by women:
A form of society existed at an early age known as the Matriarchate or Mother-rule. Under the Matriarchate, except as son and inferior, man was not recognized in either of these great institutions, family, state or church. A father and husband as such, had no place either in the social, political or religious scheme; woman was ruler in each.
In this golden age, according to Gage’s biographer, Sally Rosch Wagner, “Far from woman using her power over man oppressively, Gage maintained that never was justice more perfect, never civilization higher than under the Matriarchate.”
Like other radical feminists in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Matilda Gage believed that if women held political power the world would be a better place. Women leaders would be kind, wise, just, fair-minded, and nonviolent. Today, in an era that might be designated as AMT (After Margaret Thatcher), this belief seems naive, but at the time it was widely accepted in feminist circles. In 1915 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a contemporary of Matilda Gage, published a fantasy novel called Herland which portrays a peaceful and happy all-feminist society.
In Frank Baum’s Oz, women rule all the good societies and some of the bad ones. At the start of the series the Emerald City is governed by a man, the Wizard of Oz, but it presently becomes clear that he is an incompetent phony with no magical powers. For a short time after volume one the Emerald City is governed by Dorothy’s friend the Scarecrow, but by the end of the second volume, and for the remainder of the series, not only the capital but the entire Land of Oz has a female sovereign, Princess Ozma: a pretty little girl who began life under an enchantment as a pretty little boy.
For Matilda Gage witches were not necessarily evil. Even after the triumph of patriarchy, she maintained, some women continued to observe the beliefs and rituals of earlier times: the witches of the late medieval and early modern age, she claimed, were pagan priestesses, skilled in healing. (Gage’s views on this subject, according to an excellent recent study by the British historian Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon,1 would have a formative influence on the early-twentieth-century revival of paganism and witchcraft in Britain.)
When Dorothy first arrives in Oz by cyclone, the land is divided into four countries, two governed by good witches and two by wicked ones. Ozma is aided and advised by a beautiful young woman, Glinda the Good, originally known as the Good Witch of the South. (Later, after objections from readers, Baum referred to her only as “a powerful sorceress.”) Their relationship is that of a wise, affectionate mother and her daughter. Like Matilda Gage, Glinda is nearly always right about everything, and when there is a crisis she has the magical solution. Troubles and dangers occur in all of Baum’s fourteen Oz books, of course: if they didn’t there would be no plot. But in every case, whenever things look darkest, either Ozma or Glinda or Dorothy, or more than one of them, is there to rescue the good characters, administer justice, and restore order.
As some critics have suggested, from a religious point of view the Land of Oz is ruled by a female trinity, all of them eternally young and beautiful: Glinda, who appears to be in her early twenties; Ozma, who in The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918) is said to be fourteen or fifteen; and Dorothy, who is “much younger” than Ozma. As in the Christian Trinity, it is the junior member of the group, Dorothy, who most often goes out into the world to help people in trouble. The senior member, on the other hand, sometimes takes a position of benevolent detachment. There is an interesting scene in Baum’s final book, Glinda of Oz (1920), in which Glinda suggests that Dorothy and Ozma should forget about the two warring kingdoms whose problems they have heard of, remarking:
“Had you not learned of the existence of the Flatheads and the Skeezers, through my Book of Records, you would never have worried about them or their quarrels. So, if you pay no attention to these peoples, you may never hear of them again.”
“But that wouldn’t be right,” declared Ozma. “I am ruler of all the land of Oz,…it is my duty to make all my people—wherever they may be—happy and contented and to settle their disputes.”
In the world of Oz, at least half of the many eccentric sub-societies also have female rulers. Not all of them are benevolent; but their faults are, in early-twentieth-century terms, more feminine than masculine. Some are willful and greedy; others are vain, idle, and self-centered like Queen Coo-ee-oh in Glinda of Oz, or Princess Languidere in Ozma of Oz (1907), who devotes most of her time to trying on the thirty beautiful heads she owns and admiring herself in the mirror. (Here too there may be a feminist message. When the book appeared it was just becoming possible for a respectable woman to use rouge and powder and hair dye in order to alter her appearance temporarily. But many radical feminists of the time, like those of our own era, scorned this sort of artifice, and Baum seems to have shared their view.)
Dorothy, like Matilda and Maud Gage, is clearly a New Woman. Her virtues are those of a Victorian hero rather than a Victorian heroine: she is brave, active, independent, sensible, and willing to confront authority. In Ozma of Oz, the vain Princess Languidere becomes interested in Dorothy’s head:
“You are rather attractive,” said the lady presently. “Not at all beautiful, you understand, but you have a certain style of prettiness that is different from that of any of my thirty heads. So I believe I’ll take your head and give you No. 26 for it.”
“Well, I believe you won’t!” exclaimed Dorothy…. “I’m not used to taking cast-off things, so I’ll just keep my own head.”
In Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908) Dorothy and her cousin Zeb are caught in an earthquake and fall through a crack in California into a magical world. Zeb is terrified, but Dorothy remains calm, and talks back to the evil Sorcerer of the Mangaboos, unfeeling vegetable beings covered with thorns.
The Sorcerer,…looked towards the little girl with cold, cruel eyes….
“Why have you dared to intrude your unwelcome persons into the secluded Land of the Mangaboos?” he asked sternly.
“Cause we couldn’t help it,” said Dorothy….
“Prove it!” cried the Sorcerer.
“We don’t have to prove it,” answered Dorothy, indignantly. “If you had any sense at all you’d know it was the earthquake.”
Later Dorothy is equally unimpressed by a cave full of baby dragons who boast of their long aristocratic pedigree:
“Well,” said Dorothy, “I was born on a farm in Kansas, and I guess that’s being just as ‘spectable and haughty as living in a cave with your tail tied to a rock. If it isn’t I’ll have to stand it, that’s all.”
In The Emerald City of Oz (1910) Dorothy comes to stay in Oz permanently; she is made a princess and given elegant and luxurious quarters in the palace (lovingly described by Baum, who adored theatrical display). Yet in spite of the delights of the Emerald City, Dorothy is soon bored and eager to go on new adventures.
Betsy and Trot, the little American girls who are the heroines of two later Oz books, are equally adventurous and confrontational: Betsy, like Dorothy, even stands up to the evil Nome King. After their adventures are over, they also get to stay in the palace and are assigned jewel-trimmed suites near Dorothy’s. The only boy hero of the series, Ojo, in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913), however, receives merely “a nice house just outside the walls of the Emerald City,” though his companion, the Patchwork Girl, is allowed to live in the palace.
Like Dorothy, all these alternative child heroes are always accompanied by what folklorists call Animal Helpers. Baum’s remarkable powers of invention are in evidence here: Betsy has her mule, Hank; and Trot has a four-legged bird with a helicopter tail, the Ork. Ojo is joined on his travels not only by the Patchwork Girl, but by a clever, cold-hearted Glass Cat and a good-natured square wooden dog called the Woozy. The boy Tip, who later becomes Ozma, not only has the good-natured and tireless Sawhorse for a companion, but a strange flying creature called the Gump, who has been put together out of two sofas, a collection of feather dusters, and the stuffed head of an antelope.
One of the themes of the early feminist movement was the presentation of housework as oppressive, since it was unpaid, underappreciated, and physically exhausting—far more exhausting, of course, in an era before frozen food, washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners, when vegetables had to be canned, clothes and floors scrubbed, ice chopped, and carpets beaten by hand. Baum seems to share this view. In the first volume of his series, The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West, as Osmond Beckwith puts it, “‘tortures’ Dorothy by making her do housework.” In Glinda of Oz Dorothy refuses to sweep and dust and wash dishes for The King of All Spiders even under severe threat.
For the time this attitude, which Matilda Gage shared, was unusual to say the least. It was common for the heroines of most nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century children’s fiction to learn household skills and to enjoy them. In Louisa May Alcott’s books great emphasis is put on being able to sew and mend stockings and produce tasty and nourishing meals; later the eponymous heroine of Anne of Green Gables (1908) learns to bake and iron and sew patchwork. Throughout Baum’s series, however, his female protagonists are never instructed in the domestic arts. Meals in Oz often grow on trees or are prepared by invisible hands. When Dorothy and her friends are not on the road having adventures, they have nothing to do but play.
In the world of the Oz books, male rulers are almost always wicked or weak or both. The Wizard of Oz’s magic powers are parlor tricks, and nobody seems sad when he is deposed and leaves Oz in his balloon. Later in the series he is allowed to return and learn a little real magic under the guidance of Glinda, but it’s always clear that he is only her apprentice.
Oz, of course, is full of benevolent male characters who accompany Dorothy and later child protagonists on their adventures. Most of these beings, however, are either senior citizens like the Shaggy Man and Cap’n Bill, or nonhuman, like the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, Jack Pumpkinhead, Tik-Tok, the mechanical man, and the Wogglebug. They are comic figures, and often in some way damaged or incompetent; none is as brave or resourceful as his child companions. A Freudian critic has called them emasculated. Only one of these nonhuman figures, the Patchwork Girl, is female, and she is remarkable for her insouciant self-confidence.
Two of Dorothy’s companions, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, appear to represent unfortunate extremes of male identity. The Scarecrow is too soft; he lacks a brain and can feel but not think. The Tin Woodman is too hard; he can think but not feel. The Tin Woodman was once a human woodcutter, but all the parts of his body have been chopped off one after the other and replaced with metal. He alone is given a kingdom to rule in The Wizard of Oz: he becomes the Emperor of the Winkies, but remains subservient to Ozma. In a later book of the series, The Tin Woodman of Oz, he decides to search for his former human fiancée, Nimmee Amee. He no longer loves her, since the red silk heart he received from the Wizard of Oz is capable of friendship but not passion:
…the Wizard’s stock of hearts was low, and he gave me a Kind Heart instead of a Loving Heart, so that I could not love Nimmee Amee any more than I did when I was heartless.
Nevertheless, he feels obligated to offer to marry Nimmee Amee out of duty. On the journey to find her he discovers another metallic man, Captain Fyter, the Tin Soldier, who was also once human and also engaged to Nimmee Amee. Neither of them really wants the girl, and they are relieved to discover that Nimmee Amee is now married to a man called Chopfyt who has been cobbled together out of both their old human parts. He is less than perfect, but Nimmee Amee declares herself satisfied with him:
…I married him because he resembled you both. I won’t say he is a husband to be proud of, because he has a mixed nature, and isn’t always an agreeable companion. But he is my husband, and I must make the best of him.
Besides, he does housework: “He is now trained to draw the water and carry in the wood and hoe the cabbages and weed the flower-beds and dust the furniture.” She tells the Tin Woodman and the Tin Soldier “to go back to your own homes and forget me, as I have forgotten you.” Since they have by now become close friends, they are happy to take her advice.
The dominant villain of the Oz books is the ugly little Nome King, who lives under a mountain and rules over hundreds of all-male miners and soldiers. He has childish temper tantrums, hates all happy people, and is terrified of eggs. In Ozma of Oz the Nome King and his vast army are put to rout by Dorothy’s pet hen, Billina, who not only spies on him and discovers the secret of his magic, but supplies the other good characters liberally with her eggs. (Oddly enough, Billina, like Ozma, is a sort of transsexual. She began life as Bill, and repeatedly insists that this is her real name, though eventually she becomes the mother of many chickens who seem to have no father.)
Later, in The Emerald City of Oz, the Nome King forms a military alliance with three other disagreeable nations, the Whimsies, the Growleywogs, and the Phanfasms. Their purpose is to conquer the Land of Oz and enslave its inhabitants; but each of the rulers is plotting to deceive and outwit the other three and take all the spoils for himself. Presently the Nomes begin to dig a long tunnel under the Deadly Desert that protects Oz from invaders. Ozma and Glinda find out about this with the help of their superior magical technology, and fill the tunnel with dust. When the four armies emerge in the palace gardens of the Emerald City, they are dreadfully thirsty. Their first act is to drink of the Fountain of Oblivion; which causes them instantly to forget everything, including their dreams of conquest, and become like innocent children.
Unfortunately, the Nome King does not remain an innocent child for long. Perhaps because of the exigencies of plot, his evil nature reasserts itself, and he has to be defeated twice more, first in Tik-Tok of Oz (1914) with the help of more eggs, and then in The Magic of Oz (1919) by drinking the water of oblivion again.
Eggs and water are both traditional symbols of natural force and life, and thus appropriate weapons against evil, which in the Oz books is always portrayed as sterile and dehydrated. After Dorothy’s house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her, her body is so dry and dusty that she simply blows away. And when Dorothy destroys the Wicked Witch of the West by throwing a bucket of water over her, she dissolves “like brown sugar” and can be swept out the door.
The Oz books were written at a time when racial and ethnic prejudice was part of the cultural climate. Comedians routinely made fun of Irish, Polish, Italian, and other immigrants, as well as of blacks and Native Americans. Many public and private institutions were segregated, and some politicians recommended the deportation of minorities, or their instant, enforced assimilation. But Baum’s mother-in-law, Matilda Gage, like other radicals, protested these views. “Unless liberty is attained,” she declared in 1862, during the Civil War, “—the broadest, the deepest, the highest liberty for all—not for one set alone, one clique alone, but for man and woman, black and white, Irish, Germans, Americans, and Negroes, there can be no permanent peace.”
In the world of Oz, acceptance of minority rights is taken for granted. Baum’s books are full of eccentric sub-societies, some of them dangerous to outsiders. The Hammerheads, for instance, assault travelers with their huge, hard heads, which are mounted on extensible necks; the Wheelers, who resemble semihuman bicycles, attempt to run strangers over. In a single volume of the series, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the protagonists are threatened and attacked by the cold-hearted vegetable Mangaboos, who grow on bushes; the invisible carnivorous bears in the Valley of Voe; and a mob of angry wooden Gargoyles, who live in a country where the ground is sawdust and the leaves of the trees are shavings. Though all these creatures cause Dorothy and her friends a great deal of trouble, it is never suggested that they should be destroyed or even reformed—instead they appear to have a right to their own peculiar customs and way of life.
The social and political system of Oz, as presented—with some inconsistencies—in the series, appears to be a compromise between Baum’s own love of royalty, fancy dress, and theatrical display, and Matilda Gage’s democratic socialism. Princess Dorothy and Queen Ozma and their friends live in a palace paved with marble and gold and jewels, and wear extravagant costumes; they are treated with great deference by the ordinary inhabitants. On the other hand, outside the palace equality reigns. There is no money in Oz: instead all products and services are freely shared, and everyone receives whatever she or he needs. The economy is largely agricultural, and no mention is made of machinery except for Tik-Tok, the Mechanical Man, and the magical inventions monopolized by Ozma and Glinda.
A good deal of the social criticism in the Oz books seems to derive from Baum’s own experiences. There is, for example, the ongoing satire on education and armies, which may be related to his unpleasant experiences at the Peekskill Military Academy. Academic authority is represented in Oz by Mr. H.M. Woggle-Bug, T.E., a huge beetle (possibly a cockroach, to judge by the illustrations). His initials, characteristic of academics a century ago even more than today, stand for Highly Magnified and Thoroughly Educated. The Woggle-Bug became trapped under a microscope in a classroom and grew to human size; before his escape, he absorbed a great deal of knowledge. Like some professors, he is extremely vain of his learning and makes terrible puns. Presently the Woggle-Bug founds a College of Athletics where students get instant education by taking pills, and can thus devote all their time to sports.
In Baum’s books, armies and soldiers are either serious and hateful or comic and ineffectual. The Nomes and their allies are horrifying; the Soldier With the Green Whiskers who guards the gate of the Emerald City, in spite of his handsome uniform and great height, is a coward and a ninny. The second book in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) contains a famous extended satire on militant—indeed, military—feminism. Baum’s mother-in-law, Matilda Gage, had died in 1898, so she could not object to—or be hurt by—the story, which suggests that however favorably disposed Baum was to feminism, he also enjoyed making fun of its political aspects.
Early in The Marvelous Land of Oz the Emerald City is occupied by an Army of Revolt consisting of four hundred girl soldiers from each of the kingdoms of Oz, led by General Jinjur, whose pretty face “wore an expression of discontent coupled to a shade of defiance or audacity.” The goal of Jinjur and her army is “to obtain power over our former oppressors,” that is, men. When they appear the Emerald City’s one soldier runs away, and Jinjur easily achieves victory. Soon gender roles are reversed: the men are “sweeping and dusting and washing dishes, while the women sit around in groups, gossiping and laughing.” But Baum also gives women credit for their natural skill and endurance: as one exhausted husband complains, “doing housework and minding the children is wearing out the strength of every man in the Emerald City.”
Jinjur and her army are eventually defeated by the release of an army of mice and the dispatch by Glinda the Good of another all-girl army, but a more efficient and better-equipped one. Jinjur and her troops, however, accept the victory philosophically. According to Baum (who, as a matter of fact, is reported to have been an excellent cook), “The women were so tired of eating their husbands’ cooking that they all hailed the conquest of Jinjur with joy.” Jinjur is pardoned and returns home; in later books she appears briefly, first as a farmer’s wife who bosses her husband around, and then as an energetic and generous householder who raises creampuffs, chocolate-caramels, and macaroons, and is also a gifted artist.
Several other all-girl armies besides Jinjur’s appear in the Oz books. The recurrence of this theme probably owes less to scorn of the military than to Baum’s lifelong fascination with the theater. For many years he attempted, always without success, to turn one Oz book after the other into a musical comedy, as had been done successfully with The Wizard of Oz. At the time, a chorus of showgirls or chorus boys dressed as soldiers, sailors, or police was a very popular part of many such productions—as indeed it remains today: this year’s Academy Awards, for instance, featured an all-girl company of dancing Canadian Mounties. In Tik-Tok of Oz there is also a comic male army consisting of sixteen officers and one private, organized by the Queen of Oogaboo, Ann Soforth. Tired of housework and of ruling over eighteen men, twenty-seven women, and forty-four children, she decides that she wants to conquer the world without hurting anyone. As might be expected, all her officers run away. Finally, The Lost Princess of Oz (1917) contains another all-girl army, described as “the fiercest soldiers of all…. They are more brave than men and they have better nerves,” but this time the girl soldiers, like Baum’s dreams of stage success, are only an optical illusion.
There are other touches of social satire in Baum’s work, some of them, like the story of Jinjur, apparently directed more to adults than to children. In one of his non-Oz tales, The Sea Fairies (1911), an octopus bursts into tears when he is compared to Standard Oil. (Possibly it should be mentioned that Baum’s father and other independent businessmen once tried and failed to break the stranglehold of Standard Oil on local production.) And in The Patchwork Girl of Oz the hero and his friends are pursued by an animated phonograph named Victor Columbia Emerson that can clearly see into the future. In spite of their objections, Victor Columbia Emerson insists on playing an inane song called “My Lulu” over and over again:
“It’s the latest popular song,” declared the phonograph, speaking in a sulky tone of voice…. “One that the feeble-minded can remember the words of and those ignorant of music can whistle or sing. That makes a popular song popular, and the time is coming when it will take the place of all other songs.”
Though the Oz books have always been read by children of both sexes, they have been especially popular with girls, and it’s not hard to see why.2 Besides being a world in which women and girls rule, it is also, as Joel Chaston has pointed out, a world in which none of the major characters has a traditional family.3 Instead, most of them live alone or with friends of the same sex. The Scarecrow stays with the Tin Woodman in his castle for months at a time, while Ozma, Dorothy, Betsy, and Trot all have rooms in the palace of the Emerald City, and Glinda lives in a castle with “a hundred of the most beautiful girls of the Fairyland of Oz.”
The appeal of Oz seems even clearer if it is contrasted to that of contemporary books for girls. In the early years of the twentieth century, the heroes of most adventure stories were boys; girls stayed home and learned to get on better with their families. If they were rejected children like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, or orphans like Anne of Green Gables and Judy in Daddy Long-Legs, they found or established new families. At the end of all these stories, or their sequels, the heroine grew up, fell in love, and got married.
There was of course already another famous little girl protagonist who had adventures in a magical world: Lewis Carroll’s Alice. But from the point of view of most child readers (including me) her experiences were less attractive. Unlike Dorothy and Ozma, who collect loving friends and companions on their journeys, Alice travels alone, and the strange creatures she meets are usually indifferent, self-absorbed, hostile, or hectoring. Rather than helping her, as Dorothy’s companions do, they make unreasonable demands: she is told to hold a screaming baby, do impossible math problems, and act as a ladies’ maid. One or two of the characters seem to wish her well in a helpless way, like the White Knight, whom many readers have seen as a stand-in for Carroll himself. Moreover Wonderland, unlike Oz, turns out to be only a dream.
Most children, though they may enjoy Alice’s adventures, don’t want to visit Wonderland, which is full of disappearing scenery and dangerous eccentrics, some of them clearly quite insane. They prefer Oz, where life is all play and no work and all adventures end happily.
To some extent Baum’s endorsement of escapism was hidden—disguised as lighthearted comic fantasy, with a series of sweet, pretty little-girl protagonists, the most famous of whom at first declares that all she really wants is to go home to flat gray Kansas and see her dull, deeply depressed Uncle Henry and Aunt Em again.
But, as anyone knows who has read even a few of Baum’s later Oz books, Dorothy may return to Kansas after her adventures, but she doesn’t stay there very long—somehow, a natural disaster (shipwreck, earthquake, whirling highways) always appears to carry her back to Oz and the magical countries that surround it. She spends more and more time there, and has more adventures. Finally, in the fifth volume of the series, Dorothy not only moves to Oz permanently, but arranges for Uncle Henry and Aunt Em (whose failing farm is about to be repossessed by the bank) to join her there. Yes, you can escape from your dreary domestic life into fairyland, Baum’s books say: you can have exciting but safe adventures, make new friends, live in a castle, never have to do housework or homework, and—maybe most important of all—never grow up.
This subversive message may be one of the reasons that the Oz books took so long to become accepted as classics, in spite of their instant popularity with children. For years they did not appear on lists of recommended juvenile literature, and in the 1930s and 1940s they were actually removed from many schools and libraries. As a child I had to save my allowance to buy the Oz books, because the local public library refused to carry them. The library justified its censorship at the time by pointing out that the books were not beautifully written and that the characters were two-dimensional. This is arguable, but it has not prevented many other less than stylistically perfect children’s books of the period from being admired and recommended. It seems more likely that in the dark years between the first and the second waves of American feminism, critics recognized the subversive power of Baum’s creation.
Not until recently did the Oz books enter the canon, and in some communities they are still under attack. Fundamentalist Christians have complained that The Wizard of Oz contains two good witches (to them, an oxymoron) and also that “in Oz, females assume traditional male roles, and animals are elevated to human status.” Apparently, if you believe in creationism, characters like the Cowardly Lion and Billina the hen, who not only talk but give good advice and help defeat wickedness, are a serious threat.
Yet these Ozophobes, like the Nomes, are clearly on the losing side. A new edition of Michael Patrick Hearn’s exhaustive and entertaining Annotated Wizard of Oz is about to appear; and in July of this year over four hundred fans, many of them in spectacular costume, gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Oz in Bloomington, Indiana. They shared a five-foot-high birthday cake in the shape of the Emerald City, and watched the current Wizard (a professor of orthodontics from San Francisco), accompanied by nine plastic pigs, take off in a giant gas balloon.
December 21, 2000
Oxford University Press, 2000. ↩
According to some critics, the Oz books have also always appealed to gay men and boys, who identify with the Scarecrow or the Tin Woodman, whom they see as homosexual friends; with Tip, the boy who becomes Ozma; or with the Cowardly Lion as played by Bert Lahr in the MGMfilm in a somewhat camp manner. At the recent Oz Centennial Convention in Bloomington, Indiana, the critic Dee Michel, who is writing a book on the subject, gave an enthusiastically received talk. ↩
Joel Chaston, “If I Ever Go Looking for My Heart’s Desire,” The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 18 (1994), p. 212. ↩