L. Frank Baum Biography

L. Frank Baum was a poultry breeder before he wrote his wildly popular The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He even published a monthly trade journal called The Poultry Record and a book about Hamburg chickens, but Baum’s first real success as a writer came with his book Mother Goose in Prose. In 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published and became an overnight hit. In fact, it remained the best-selling children’s book for two years after that, and because of popular demand, Baum ended up writing thirteen more Oz books. Baum also penned many other stories, poems, and scripts, but none of them could live up to the success or critical acclaim of his Oz series.

Facts and Trivia

  • Baum was obsessed with the theater. His father actually built him one in 1880, but it burned down—ironically enough during a production of Baum’s play Matches.
  • The popular book and subsequent Broadway musical Wicked are based on Baum’s Oz stories. The main character’s name, Elphaba, is based on Baum’s initials.
  • Baum once wrote an article praising Sitting Bull, but later in the article he urged the annihilation of all remaining Native Americans.
  • Baum once owned a store, Baum’s Bazaar, but he gave so much merchandise out on credit that the store went bankrupt.
  • Baum worked with illustrator John R. Neill until Neill published The Oz Toy Book without permission.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2112

Article abstract: Baum is best known for creating the marvelous land of Oz, a utopian fantasy world chronicled in a series of children’s books beginning with the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. Through his Oz series, Baum created a unique American version of the standard fairy...

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Article abstract: Baum is best known for creating the marvelous land of Oz, a utopian fantasy world chronicled in a series of children’s books beginning with the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. Through his Oz series, Baum created a unique American version of the standard fairy tale.

Early Life

Lyman Frank Baum was the seventh of nine children born to German immigrants Cynthia and Benjamin Baum. The Baum family immigrated to the United States seeking religious freedom. Frank’s grandfather was a Methodist circuit rider. His father was a cooper who later became wealthy in the oil skimming business. Born with a weak heart, Frank is said to have suffered from bouts of angina throughout his entire life and was tutored at home until age twelve, when his parents decided he was healthy enough to attend the prestigious Peerskill Academy, a military boarding school in Peerskill, New York. Baum left Peerskill after two years and finished his education at home.

Baum’s writing career began when his father bought him a small, foot-powered printing press for his fourteenth birthday. Within a year, in May of 1871, Frank and his younger brother Harry were publishing The Rose Lawn Home Journal, a neighborhood newspaper. In 1872 Baum began publishing The Stamp Collector, a monthly magazine for philatelists. In 1873, Baum purchased a new press and, along with Thomas G. Alford, founded The Empire.

When Baum turned nineteen, he put his writing and publishing career on hold to become an actor and a breeder of Hamburg chickens. After winning awards from several poultry associations, Baum started a new magazine, The Poultry Record. Poultry was to remain one of Baum’s preoccupations. In 1886 he wrote his first book, The Book of the Hamburgs, a complete guide to Hamburg husbandry.

Through his late teens, Baum wandered through numerous jobs ranging from salesman to oil worker. Born with good looks, a strong stage presence, and a strong baritone voice, Baum seemed to be a natural for the stage. He attempted to fulfill his desire to act by joining up with traveling theater troupes. After being fleeced by a number of troupes, he turned to theater management when his father purchased a small chain of opera houses in New York and Pennsylvania. In 1881 Baum published the successful musical melodrama The Maid of Arran, which was based on the Scottish novel A Princess of Thule by William Black. One year later, Baum married Maude Gage, daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a prominent figure in the women’s suffrage movement.

In 1887, after the death of his father and the loss of most of the family fortune, Baum followed members of the Gage family to Aberdeen in the Dakota Territory. Baum opened a store called Baum’s Bazaar. It was on the bazaar’s sidewalks that Baum spent hours telling stories to his own children and children from the neighborhood. The bazaar failed in 1890, forcing Baum to return to journalism as he took the job of running the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a weekly newspaper. While in this position, Baum published editorials that ranged from vehement support for the women’s suffragist movement to advocating the “extermination of the [Sioux] Indians.” By March, 1891, the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer had gone bankrupt, and the Baum family, which now included four sons, headed to Chicago, Illinois.

Once in Chicago, Baum quickly landed a job as a reporter for the Evening Post. To make ends meet, Baum also became a traveling salesman for Pitkin and Brooks, a company that sold china. Baum used the traveling time as an opportunity to devise characters and story lines for the tales he told his sons. Baum’s china sales were remarkably high because he took the time to teach his customers how to construct effective window displays for the products. Baum turned these lessons into a successful magazine called The Window Dresser, a professional organization of window trimmers, and a book, The Art of Decorating Dry Good Windows and Interiors (1900).

Baum continued to spend a great deal of his free time telling stories to children. When his sons had difficulty understanding the Mother Goose verses, Baum developed prose explanations of the stories. Baum’s mother-in-law, Matilda Gage, urged him to submit these explanations to a publisher. Way and Williams publishers teamed Baum with artist Maxfield Parrish to produce Mother Goose in Prose (1897). The modest sales of Mother Goose led to Father Goose, His Book (1899), with color illustrations (a radical idea for the day) by William Wallace Denslow. Father Goose, His Book was an instant success and became the best-selling children’s book of 1899.

Life’s Work

Denslow and Baum soon began work on their second book, tentatively titled The Emerald City. Because of a publishing superstition about using jewels as part of titles, the name was changed to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Denslow and Baum again insisted on color illustrations. In this case, the color of the plates referred to Oz geography: For example, blue was used for color illustrations of Munchkin Country. At first, publishers rejected the book because of the expense of reproducing color plates. Eventually George M. Hill published the book in the fall of 1900.

In the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum wrote, “The time has come for a series of newer ‘wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale.” With Oz, Baum created a utopia that, for the first time, urged American children to see the wonder of the world around them. For the first time, a fairyland was constructed from American ideals and materials. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became the best-selling children’s book for 1900. Its cast of characters began their journey toward becoming an integral part of the American consciousness.

Baum did not want to write sequels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but he continued to produce a variety of children’s books. In 1902, a non-Oz work, Dot and Tot of Merryland, also illustrated by Denslow, failed to match the commercial success of the previous two releases. In the early 1900’s, Baum wrote numerous non-Oz books under his own name and under pseudonyms. As Edith Van Dyne, Baum penned Aunt Jane’s Nieces, a highly successful series of books that targeted teenage girls and was as commercially successful as the Oz books.

Baum’s love for the theater led to a collaboration with Denslow and composer Paul Tietjens to produce a musical stage play of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The production was an enormous hit and ran for 293 nights on Broadway between 1902 and 1911.

In 1904 publisher Reilly and Britton convinced Baum to continue the Oz series. Refusing to return Dorothy to Oz, Baum created the gender-changing character “Tip/Ozma” as the protagonist for The Marvelous Land of Oz. Tip starts as a young boy, but readers eventually discover that the witch Mombi had turned Ozma, the rightful ruler of Oz, into Tip to hide her from the wizard.

Baum attempted to capture the same theatrical success with The Marvelous Land of Oz that he had garnered with his musical adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Woggle-Bug, Baum’s adaptation of The Marvelous Land of Oz, opened in Chicago in 1905. While critics liked Frederic Chapman’s score for the play, the show was a financial disaster and closed in one month.

Baum’s readers and publisher continued to request more adventures in Oz. In 1907 Baum relented to the pressure and, in Ozma of Oz, Dorothy returned to Oz. Ozma of Oz proved to be a critical and commercial success. One of the book’s characters was a mechanical being who could talk and think called Tik-Tok, one of the first artificially intelligent robots to appear in fiction. Ozma of Oz was quickly followed with the fourth Oz book, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, in 1908. The success of the third and fourth Oz books convinced Baum to take his Oz stories back to the stage. He financed the creation of Fairylogue and Radio-Plays in 1908. The show was a travelogue narrated by Baum. Hand-colored silent films displayed the action, and child actors portraying Oz characters stepped from a huge book onto the stage. The work was a critical and popular success, but it was prohibitively expensive to produce and closed after only three months, leading, in part, to Baum’s bankruptcy in 1911.

Baum continued to write Oz books. In 1909, The Road to Oz was released to commercial success, but sales were not enough to pay the bills left by Fairylogue and Radio-Plays. In the sixth Oz book, The Emerald City of Oz (1910), Baum tried to end the series by claiming that the coming of airships led the residents of Oz to fear that they would be overrun by tourists. Glinda the Good cast a spell to render Oz invisible. The spell lasted only three years. In the introduction to the seventh Oz book, The Patchwork Girl (1913), Baum explained that a child wrote him to suggest that he communicate with Oz using wireless telegraphy. With that, Baum, who now called himself the Royal Historian of Oz, continued his chronicles. Baum tried the stage again with The Tik-Tok Man in 1913. He formed the Oz Film Company in 1914 and produced a number of Oz-related films. Distribution problems plagued the Oz Film Company, and the company was sold to Universal in 1914.

In 1915, Baum released The Scarecrow of Oz. Baum’s health began to get increasingly worse, yet he continued to write, releasing at least one additional Oz book each year from 1915 to 1919. On May 5, 1919, Baum suffered a stroke. He died the next day. His last words were reported to have been in reference to Oz: “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands.”

The final Baum-authored Oz book, Glinda of Oz, was released in 1920. Maud Baum, after she was promised royalties from any future Oz books, allowed publisher Reilly and Britton to find a new Royal Historian. They chose established children’s writer Ruth Plumly Thompson. Thompson would write eighteen Oz books (five more than Baum) before retiring in 1939.

Summary

Oz remained a part of the American consciousness thanks to radio shows, silent film adaptations, and a steady string of new Oz books. In 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released their film adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. Yearly showings of the film have made it an American classic. The film was named a national treasure under the National Film Preservation Act of 1988.

Despite the fact that Baum’s work was considered “hack” work by many librarians and scholars until the 1960’s, Baum established a truly American form of fairy tale. During the last nineteen years of his life, he wrote and published sixty-two books, yet it was the thirteen Oz books that created an iconic cast of characters and an archetypal story that became a permanent part of American mythology.

The marvelous land of Oz and its inhabitants are known worldwide. The concepts Baum created have become such an integral part of the growing global culture that the characters and ideas created in the books and perpetuated by the film appear in advertisements, editorial cartoons, and political speeches around the world.

Bibliography

Baum, Frank Joslyn, and Russell P. MacFall. To Please a Child: A Biography of L. Frank Baum, Royal Historian of Oz. Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1961. Cowritten by L. Frank Baum’s son, Frank Joslyn, this work, while continuing to perpetuate some of the more mythic aspects of the Baum legend, provides unique insights into the more private histories of Baum and Oz.

Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. This edition of Baum’s most significant work is prefaced with a history of the author as well as cultural and literary analysis of Baum and Oz.

Carpenter, Angelica Shirley, and Jean Shirley. L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications, 1991. A detailed history of Baum’s life and works and their continuing impact.

Gardner, Martin, and Russell B. Nye. The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1957. Provides a scholarly and literary approach to understanding the history and impact of Baum’s works.

Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz. New York: Knopf, 1977. Provides insight into the making of the film that placed Oz firmly in the American consciousness.

Rogers, Katherine M. L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002. A good companion to the Oz series that demonstrates how Baum animated his progressive ideals in the persons of Dorothy and company.

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