In search of the meaning behind Oz

A biography of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, L Frank Baum, speculates about the weird and wonderful characters in the children’s classic, and why Baum was a one-hit wonder.

Daniel Lee

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The late nineteenth century was a simpler time, emotionally. Sensitive boys like Lyman Frank Baum, the future author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, were not given Adderall to sharpen their focus or Lexapro to soften it. Often they were simply packed off to vigorous military schools for the stiffening that was thought necessary for young gentlemen.

Dispatched at the age of 13 to Peekskill Military Academy in New York, Baum’s experience was grindingly typical, except that he escaped. Already diagnosed with a heart ailment traced to rheumatic fever, Baum was subjected to torment by his schoolmates and to strict discipline by the staff that culminated finally in a whipping for classroom inattention. This prompted a heart seizure, or perhaps just the inspiration and nerve to fake one.

Either way, it got him a ticket home, and apparently encouraged his father to buy him a novelty printing press. The boy immediately began printing a neighbourhood paper he named the Rose Lawn Home Journal, after the family home just outside of Syracuse, New York. The experience sparked a lifelong love of writing and storytelling. Unfortunately, it didn’t generate a lifelong career of writing and storytelling.

In modern terms, Baum was something of an outlier, a literary black swan who, after brief early success in regional theatre, spent the next 20 years struggling to recapture the spark, as Evan I Schwartz makes clear in Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story. By March 1898, when true inspiration finally came, Baum had failed at chicken farming, lubricants, retail sales and frontier journalism – though it seems ungenerous to label as failure the ups and downs of entrepreneurship in the era’s volatile economy.

Schwartz, a former editor at Business Week, deftly introduces us to Baum, apparently a genuinely nice man. Early on, for instance, he ran afoul of his new wife by bringing home a dozen unauthorized Bismarcks. She insisted he eat every one. He put them away; she got them back out. He buried them; she dug them up, finally letting him off with a warning. Somehow he was able to tolerate such incidents (his wife, Maud, was known to be ‘lively’, in the parlance of the time) and still celebrate his silver anniversary with the boast, ‘Twenty-five years and never a quarrel’.

As to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz itself, which sparked 13 sequels, two major Hollywood movies, and countless other offshoots, Schwartz puts to rest earlier interpretations, including Oz as an allegory of the gold standard controversy (yellow bricks as gold, the Scarecrow as Agriculture, the Tin Man as Labour, etc). Instead, he convincingly finds the imagery, and possibly the story itself, in Baum’s own life, stressing the influence of Theosophy, a form of Spiritualism that attracted progressives, artists, celebrities, and, notably, women’s rights crusaders of the era.

As inspiration for the humbug Wizard of Oz, Schwartz mentions Baum’s contemporaries PT Barnum and John D Rockefeller, and introduces folks like Madame Blavatsky, a séance-leading rouser of dead relatives whose tactic for dealing with escalating fraud charges was to lapse suddenly into a coma. She recovered.

And there was Swami Vivekananda, who electrified the Religious Parliament at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago (known as the White City, which Schwartz calls an inspiration for the Emerald City) with a can’t-we-all-just-get-along speech. Its opening, ‘Dear Brothers and Sisters of America’, caused a three-minute, whistling, stomping ovation. This was a credulous era, after all, a time of patent medicines and electro-mechanical fixes for everything from hernia to bedwetting.

Oddly, it isn’t apparent whether Schwartz ranks Blavatsky and Vivekananda as humbugs or mentors in Baum’s own search for his creative centre. They could have been both, as the wizard was for the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.

What was Baum’s view? It’s hard to say. He and Maud dabbled in Spiritualism, but much more committed was Baum’s formidable mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, an intimate of suffragettes Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton until she broke with them over their alliance with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which she thought too beholden to the patriarchal Christian church. Schwartz quite plausibly calls her the inspiration for the witches of Oz.

But elsewhere, Schwartz’s interpretations seem more strained. John D Rockefeller’s alopecia left him bald, like the wizard. Hmm. Maud’s girlhood home had ’emerald green’ shutters. Uh-huh. There were yellow brick roads near the military academy in Peekskill? OK. Other notions are more airy still. ‘The deadly poppy field can be read as a powerful symbol of Frank’s – and America’s – sadness over the destruction of native cultures’, writes Schwartz. ‘As she slumbers, Dorothy becomes metaphorically at one with the dead spirits. To be “at one” is to “atone” – something Frank Baum needed to do at this moment in his life.’

Thus we find that Schwartz has caught Baum, briefly the proprietor of a South Dakota newspaper, editorialising for the ‘extermination’ of the remaining Native Americans – inexcusable, but probably more a naif’s idea of a coup de grace than an exercise in cruelty. Nevertheless, Schwartz has Baum sending Dorothy to do penance for America’s mishandling of the Plains Indians, as well standing in for his own wilderness trials, estranged from his inner self by the need to make a living, but on the road to wholeness by way of the teachings of the distant East.

Well, maybe. Still, if you take the time to read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to actual kids, it’s clear that Baum, the father of four sons, intended it as a there-and-back-again bedtime story. It has quirky incident, verbal repetition, short chapters, and very few contractions, for a pleasing aural texture and rhythm. The violence is bloodless, and even the wicked witches are dispatched by accident, falling victim to a house and a bucket of water. There’s certainly magic in the story, but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see it.

Daniel Lee is a writer and former editor of Jack and Jill, an American children’s magazine. Read his blog here.

Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, Evan I Schwartz, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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