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the man behind the curtain

January 27, 2012

Let’s wrap up the week and the thread on Oz with a peek at the man behind the 

curtain, its author L. Frank Baum.  He was born into wealth in 1856, a sickly kid

who got interested in writing when his father bought him a printing press.  His

first professional publication was a trade journal about poultry.  His first book

was about Hamburg chickens.


In 1880, Baum’s father built a theatre for him.  Baum wrote, produced, directed

and acted in productions there. Two years later he married Maud Gage. Gage was

the daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, who co-wrote History of Woman Suffrage 

with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton


Frank became an ardent supporter of women’s rights.  His second Oz book is

about  a revolution in the Emerald Kingdom in which knitting-needle-wielding

females take over and force their men to do the housework.  Princess Ozma,

rightful ruler of the fairyland, ascends to the throne and reigns with compassion

and benevolence.  She lets the guys go back to whatever it was they were doing.

The Baums moved to Aberdeen in Dakota Territory in 1888.  He opened a store

“Baum’s Bazaar”.  It went bankrupt due to his liberal credit policy, so he began

editing the town newspaper.  On December 20, 1890, Baum wrote a column ad-

vocating annihilation of Native Americans.  After the Wounded Knee Massacre

nine days later, in which at least 153 Lakota Sioux were killed by the U.S. Cavalry,

Baum opined:

             “Having wronged (Native Americans) for centuries,we had better,

               in order to protect our civilization, follow it up with one more

               wrong and wipe these untamed and untameable creatures from

               the face of the earth.”


In 1891 the Baum family, now with four sons, moved to Chicago when the paper

ceased publication.  Frank worked as a reporter, then started editing a magazine

for ad agencies that centered on window displays for department stores.  In 1897

he wrote and published his first children’s book, which set Mother Goose rhymes

to prose.  Maxfield Parrish illustrated it.


It did well enough for Baum to quit his door-to-door sales job.  He teamed with

illustrator W. W. Denslow in 1899 to produce Father Goose: His Book.  This col-

lection of nonsense poems became the best-selling children’s book for the year.


Now we’re on the yellow brick road. Baum and Denslow created The Wonderful

Wizard of Oz in 1900.  It was the best-selling kids’ book for two years.  A successful

stage version was produced in 1901, though it was quite different from the 1939

film.  Instead of Toto, Trixie the Cow was whirled off to Oz with Dorothy, along

with the waitress Tryxie Tryfle and Pastoria, the streetcar operator.


Frank wrote several theatrical variations on the Oz theme, but none of them

made it to Broadway.  


Baum and Denslow collaborated a third time on Dot and Tot of Merryland.  It failed

and the two never worked together again.  Frank wrote 15 more Oz books and many

other fantasy novels, 55 in all.  He also wrote 82 short stories and more than 200

poems.  He wrote some of his work under pseudonyms, including women’s names.

His Aunt Jane’s Nieces series, written for adolescent girls, was penned under the

nom de plume Edith van Dyne.


After the inital success of Oz, Baum announced that he had bought Pedloe Island

off the coast of California, and would build “a fairy paradise for children” there.

He planned to live there.  A princess and other children would run it.  Problem

was, Pedloe Island was no more real than Oz.


In his later years, Baum moved to Hollywood.  He started a movie company to

produce children’s fantasy films.  It failed, but it gave early career boosts to

Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach.  Richard Rosson, who was in one of Baum’s films,

was the older brother of Harold Rosson, cinematographer of the famed 1939



Frank died from a stroke in 1919.  His last words were “now we can cross the

shifting sands”.  His legacy includes a wealth of literature and promotion of   

feminist issues . . . and a plea for genocide.  All this from a man who named

his most famous work after his “O” to “Z” file cabinet.

  1. Gordon permalink
    January 27, 2012 12:37 pm

    Great finish to the OZ series. I learn new stuff all the time from Anchor Struck. That talk of Pedloe Island and a “paradise for children”, started me thinking it may have been appropriate that Michael Jackson got his turn at Oz with the Wiz. At least Micheal’s paradise was real, if lacking a princess.

    Too bad about Baum’s Native American sentiments though. There’s a temptation to want to excuse him because of the “times” and think it quaint. But there were plenty of people on the right side of that issue even earlier in the 1800’s. If anything, Baum seems to have come late to his racism. Ironic that he could be progressive on women’s issues while genocidal about Native Americans. Or maybe he was just an early compassionate conservative: “We’ve wronged poor people for so long, to protect society, we might as well follow it up with one more wrong and just kill ’em” I can almost hear someone saying. I’ll still enjoy the movie (except for the wicked witch flying on the broom during the tornado who has been giving me the creeps for the last 60+ years) but I’ll never think of Baum the same.

    • January 29, 2012 12:19 pm

      I agree to take caution in looking at the past through our historical prism, but I was struck that two views that seem so strikingly antithetical could have rattled around in the same brain. Thanks for your observations, young fellow, and stay in school.

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