Study Guide

Frank Baum

Frank Baum Essay - Critical Essays

Baum, Frank

Introduction

Frank Baum 1856-1919

(Full name Lyman Frank Baum; also wrote under the pseudonyms Louis F. Baum, Schuyler Staunton, Floyd Akers, Laura Bancroft, John Estes Cooke, Edith Van Dyne, Captain Hugh Fitzgerald, and Suzanne Metcalf) American novelist, short story writer, playwright, journalist, and librettist.

The following entry provides criticism on Baum's works from 1984 through 1998. For criticism prior to 1984, see TCLC, Volume 7.

Baum was a prolific author who achieved lasting fame with through his Land of Oz fantasy-adventure series. The series' first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), is considered a classic of children's literature; its sequels, though uneven in quality, are popular favorites. The Land of Oz also appeals to adults who enjoy Baum's unsentimental and mildly satiric approach to his characters and their dilemmas. Oz so captivated the public's fancy that a succession of writers continued the series long after Baum's death.

Biographical Information

Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, on May 15, 1856, to Benjamin Ward and Cynthia Stanton Baum. He was privately tutored at home as a child, and later attended Peekskill Military Academy and Syracuse Classical School. Baum assumed a number of professions before becoming a children's writer. As an actor he toured the eastern states in several productions, including his own play The Maid of Arran (1881). Upon his marriage to Maud Gage in 1882, Baum left the theater and embarked on a series of business ventures that proved unsuccessful. In connection with these enterprises he traveled throughout the United States, and his impressions of his country's varied landscapes and lifestyles are recorded in his Land of Oz books. Baum eventually settled in Chicago, where he worked as a reporter and salesman, and founded the National Association of Window Trimmers, whose trade magazine, The Show Window, he edited and published. But his earnings did not meet the needs of his growing family. To further supplement his income, Baum, whose flair for storytelling was then admired only by friends and family, wrote Mother Goose in Prose (1897). This book and its sequel, Father Goose (1899), attempt to decipher the nonsense verse of nursery rhymes. Both books were well received, but their success did not prepare the author for the response to his next effort, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In 1902 Baum adapted The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for the stage. The production, which took liberties with Baum's original characters and plot, included astonishing technical effects for its time and ran for a record 293 performances. Baum never intended The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to be the first of a series, but he was induced by popular demand and financial difficulties to write its sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904). In 1910 Baum moved with his family to Hollywood, California, to work on the The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays, a combination slide and motion picture presentation about Oz in which he invested in 1908. Baum tried to end the Oz series in 1910 with the publication of The Emerald City of Oz, but circumstances intervened; in 1911, Baum declared bankruptcy. By 1913 he had resigned himself to producing a new Oz book each year. Living in Hollywood, Baum became involved in the infant motion picture industry. With some friends he formed the Oz Film Manufacturing Company and produced several films based on his Oz books and some of his other books. While they featured impressive special effects, most of the films were not commercially successful, and the company failed in 1915. Although Baum had not invested his own money in the venture, ill health impeded any other projects he might have taken on. Complications from surgery left him bedridden for the last year of his life. Baum died on May 6, 1919.

Major Works

Baum's intent, stated in his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was to create “a modernized fairy tale,” a children's story without “the horrible and blood-curdling incidents” or the didactic themes in the tales of such writers as Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Nevertheless, Baum's stories contain a number of moral lessons as well as gruesome episodes. His real achievement was in creating a fantasy land that is recognizably American in psychology and setting: the virtues of home and family are stressed, and the characters are self-reliant, forthright individuals full of optimism and the pioneer spirit. In addition, the topographical features of Oz parallel those of the United States, and the magic in Oz is generally produced by science and technology rather than by spells and witchcraft. Moreover, Baum did not people his tales with genies, ogres, and fairies. Rather, he fashioned his characters, such as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and Jack Pumpkinhead, out of real and familiar materials. A recurring theme of the Oz books—to find happiness look no farther than your own backyard—is exemplified by the characters' search for qualities they already possess. The Cowardly Lion, for example, acts bravely throughout the journey to Oz, yet he asks the Wizard for courage; the inordinately kind and compassionate Tin Woodman requests a heart; and the Scarecrow, who manifests wit and intelligence, is seeking a brain. Throughout the series, Baum emphasizes tolerant, selfless, and humble behavior. His villains and the objects of his satire are pseudo-intellectuals, the military, and figures who show greed or conceit.

Critical Reception

Despite the wild popularity of the Oz books, and Baum's self-designation as the “Royal Historian of Oz,” critics and educators virtually ignored Baum's achievements for nearly thirty years. They deemed his humorous, sometimes irreverent, approach “unwholesome” and considered his work insignificant in comparison to children's classics like Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Edward Wagenknecht, in a study published ten years after Baum's death, was the first critic to argue that such comparisons were inappropriate. He and later critics contend that Baum's Oz books are important, for they represent “the first distinctive attempt to construct a fairyland out of American materials” and because they convey a uniquely American concept of Utopia. More recent criticism of the Land of Oz books has focused on some of the darker aspects of Oz. Some commentators have argued that the theme of the primacy of home and family usually attributed to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz actually comes from the 1939 film based on the book. These critics point out the rather grim description in the book of Dorothy's home, which Baum depicts as being desperately lonely and tedious. Still other critics have observed political allusions in the Oz books, contending in particular that the Yellow Brick Road symbolizes the debate over the gold standard in American politics of the time. Most critics believe that Baum should have heeded his instincts and discontinued the series when he first planned. They note that the later books, such as The Lost Princess of Oz (1917) and The Magic of Oz (1919), appear hastily written and lack structure, style, and humor. But commentators agree that at his best Baum was an original and innovative writer who created the most popular and imitated children's story of the century.

Principal Works

The Maid of Arran [as Louis F. Baum] (play) 1881

Mother Goose in Prose (fairy tales) 1897

By the Candelabra's Glare (poetry) 1898

Father Goose (fairy tales) 1899

The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors (juvenile fiction) 1900

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1900; also published as The Wizard of Oz, 1939

American Fairy Tales (fairy tales) 1901

The Master Key (juvenile fiction) 1901

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (fairy tales) 1902

The Wizard of Oz (libretto) 1902

The Surprising Adventures of the Magical Monarch of Mo (juvenile fiction) 1903

The Marvelous Land of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1904

Queen Zixi of Ix (juvenile fiction) 1905

The Woggle-Bug Book (play) 1905

Daughters of Destiny [as Schuyler Staunton] (novel) 1906

John Dough and the Cherub (juvenile fiction) 1906

Twinkle Tales (fairy tales) 1906

Ozma of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1907

Policeman Bluejay (fairy tales) 1907

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (juvenile fiction) 1908

The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (screenplay) 1908

The Road to Oz (juvenile fiction) 1909

The Emerald City of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1910

Sky Island (juvenile fiction) 1912

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1913

Tik-Tok of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1914

The Scarecrow of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1915

Rinkitink in Oz (juvenile fiction) 1916

The Lost Princess of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1917

The Tin Woodman of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1918

The Magic of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1919

Glinda of Oz (juvenile fiction) 1920

Our Landlady (satirical sketches) 1941

Animal Fairy Tales (fairy tales) 1969

Criticism

Douglas Street (essay date summer 1984)

SOURCE: Street, Douglas. “The Wonderful Wiz That Was: The Curious Transformation of The Wizard of Oz.Kansas Quarterly 16, no. 3 (summer 1984): 91-8.

[In the following essay, Street discusses Baum's intent to create a uniquely American fairy-tale, distinct from the European tradition, in which a sense of reality was paramount, and then examines the reasons why the story was transformed back into pure fantasy for the film version.]

L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is perhaps America's best remembered children's fantasy—or is it? After forty-five years the 1939 MGM cinematic adaptation of this tale has so saturated generations of Americans...

(The entire section is 4360 words.)

Douglas J. McReynolds and Barbara J. Lips (essay date spring 1986)

SOURCE: McReynolds, Douglas J., and Barbara J. Lips. “A Girl in the Game: The Wizard of Oz as Analog for the Female Experience in America.” North Dakota Quarterly 54, no. 2 (spring 1986): 87-93.

[In the following essay, McReynolds and Lips argue that Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of the few examples in American literature depicting a nontragic adventurous female protagonist, who exemplifies the true experience of women on the American frontier.]

When Leslie Fiedler suggested that American literature is essentially children's literature,1 he seemed to give legitimacy to what readers of American books had sensed for some time...

(The entire section is 3295 words.)

Celia Catlett Anderson (essay date winter 1986-87)

SOURCE: Anderson, Celia Catlett. “The Comedians of Oz.” Studies in American Humor 5, no. 4 (winter 1986-87): 229-42.

[In the following essay, Anderson explores humor in Baum's Oz books.]

L. Frank Baum was a humorist. Most readers agree with Russel B. Nye that “Oz is a land of laughter” (164),1 but commentators show less agreement about the nature of Baum's humor. Those most interested in the sociological underpinnings of Oz emphasize satire and parody as main ingredients. Those comparing him to Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear discuss the quantity and quality of Baum's reversals, incongruities, and wordplay. Those concerned with the connections between...

(The entire section is 5844 words.)

Jerry Griswold (essay date fall 1987)

SOURCE: Griswold, Jerry. “There's No Place but Home: The Wizard of Oz.Antioch Review 45, no. 4 (fall 1987): 462-75.

[In the following essay, Griswold discusses parallels between Oz and the social state of America at the time Baum wrote his Oz books.]

“Is it real or is it a dream?” This question has been raised over and over again about the land of Oz. In the 1939 MGM movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is hit on the head during the cyclone and dreams up the magical land. Nothing like this happens in L. Frank Baum's book. Judy Garland may wish to go “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” but in the book the cyclone takes Dorothy there against her wishes...

(The entire section is 5932 words.)

Stuart Culver (essay date winter 1988)

SOURCE: Culver, Stuart. “What Manikins Want: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows.Representations, no. 21 (winter 1988): 97-116.

[In the following essay, Culver examines Baum's depiction of the emerging consumerist culture of his time in both The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows, which Baum wrote simultaneously.]

The lower animals keep all their limbs at home in their bodies, but many of man's are loose, and lie about detached, now here and now there, in various parts of the world.

—Samuel Butler, Erewhon...

(The entire section is 10024 words.)

Edward W. Hudlin (essay date fall 1989)

SOURCE: Hudlin, Edward. “The Mythology of Oz: An Interpretation.” Papers on Language and Literature 25, no. 4 (fall 1989): 443-62.

[In the following essay, Hudlin analyzes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in terms of the structure of Joseph Campbell's heroic myth.]

L. Frank Baum's masterpiece, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has been the subject of psychoanalytical, sociological, political, and even economic analyses. Few critics, however, have attempted to examine it from a truly mythological or philosophical perspective. Lacking such a perspective, some critics have found Baum's writings too episodic, while others have been more concerned with what...

(The entire section is 8138 words.)

Richard Tuerk (essay date autumn 1990)

SOURCE: Tuerk, Richard. “Dorothy's Timeless Quest.” Mythlore 17, no. 63 (autumn 1990): 20-4.

[In the following essay, Tuerk finds that, despite Baum's assertions that his book differed from the pattern of European fairy-tales, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is in fact structured as a monomyth.]

In the preface to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz L. Frank Baum calls his book “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” He tried, he writes, to eliminate from it “the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy …, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by … [the]...

(The entire section is 4901 words.)

Joel D. Chaston (essay date December 1994)

SOURCE: Chaston, Joel D. “If I Ever Go Looking for My Heart's Desire: ‘Home’ in Baum's ‘Oz’ Books.” Lion and the Unicorn 18, no. 2 (December 1994): 209-19.

[In the following essay, Chaston traces Baum's portrayal of the notion of “home” in his Oz books from the best possible place to a place of confinement and destruction.]

At the conclusion of the 1939 MGM motion picture version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale makes a statement that sums up one of the film's major themes. “Oh, but anyway, Toto,” she exclaims, “we're home—home! And this is my room—and you're all here—and I'm not going to leave here ever again, because I...

(The entire section is 5089 words.)

J. Karl Franson (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Franson, J. Karl. “From Vanity Fair to Emerald City: Baum's Debt to Bunyan.” Children's Literature 23 (1995): 91-114.

[In the following essay, Franson discusses the possible influence of John Bunyan's allegory Pilgrim's Progress on Baum's writing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.]

My interest in a possible “confluence of reminiscences” affecting the creation of L. Frank Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) began (like the curiosity of Lowes regarding Coleridge's imaginative vision) with “a strange footprint caught sight of accidentally just off the beaten track” that became “an absorbing adventure along the ways which the imagination...

(The entire section is 10401 words.)

Todd S. Gilman (essay date winter 1995-96)

SOURCE: Gilman, Todd S. “‘Aunt Em: Hate You! Hate Kansas! Taking the Dog. Dorothy’: Conscious and Unconscious Desire in The Wizard of Oz.Children's Literature Association Quarterly 20, no. 4 (winter 1995-96): 161-67.

[In the following essay, Gilman addresses Dorothy's possible unconscious desires in the film version of The Wizard of Oz and the fact that in Baum's Oz books Dorothy's desire to leave home rather than return is more explicit.]

The quotation in my title—taken from a T-shirt popular in queer culture—bitchily suggests that in Victor Fleming's 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, the rosy resolution we are left with...

(The entire section is 7523 words.)

Richard Flynn (essay date June 1996)

SOURCE: Flynn, Richard. “Imitation of Oz: The Sequel as Commodity.” The Lion and the Unicorn 20, no. 1 (June 1996): 121-31.

[In the following essay, Flynn examines the Oz books as a consumerist boom.]

… that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.

(Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations 221)

Oz was first visited upon a kindly man who wanted to set children free from fear. Oz grew out of Alice in Wonderland, and out of Kansas and the people who settled there, and...

(The entire section is 4088 words.)

Michael O. Riley (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Riley, Michael O. “Concentration on Oz: 1907-1910.” In Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum, pp. 128-67. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Riley focuses on Baum's numerous Oz sequels.]

To have pleased you, to have interested you, to have won your friendship, and perhaps your love, through my stories, is to my mind as great an achievement as to become President of the United States. Indeed, I would much rather be your story-teller, under these conditions, than to be the President. So you have helped me to fulfill my life's ambition, and I am more grateful to you, my dears, than I can...

(The entire section is 14741 words.)

Michael O. Riley (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Riley, Michael O. “Resolution of Conflict: 1917-1919.” In Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum, pp. 202-29. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Riley discusses the last four Oz books and their significance to Baum's development of his fairyland Oz.]

For, after all, dear reader, these stories of Oz are just yours and mine, and we are partners. As long as you care to read them I shall try to write them.

—L. Frank Baum, “To My Readers” in The Lost Princess of Oz (1917)

L. Frank Baum's life was an unusually eventful one...

(The entire section is 10054 words.)

Tim Ziaukas (essay date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Ziaukas, Tim. “Baum's Wizard of Oz as Gilded Age Public Relations.” Public Relations Quarterly 43, no. 3 (fall 1998): 7-11.

[In the following essay, Ziaukas interprets The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as propaganda for the gold and silver standard in United States economics at the turn of the twentieth century.]

“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

—from William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold Speech, 1896

“The Wicked Witch … looked down at Dorothy's feet,...

(The entire section is 3349 words.)