Frank Baum Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.