L. Frank Baum had struggled through a number of careers, working as a department-store buyer and newspaperman among other jobs, before achieving a modest success as a writer of children’s verse and stories. The Wizard Oz, though, was the book that established his reputation. It became an immediate best-seller, outselling all other children’s books during the 1900 Christmas season. In 1902, a musical version of the story was staged at the Grand Opera House in Chicago to enormous popular acclaim. There were a number of efforts to put the story in film, but none of these met with much success until the Hollywood film company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer staged it in 1939, with Judy Garland as Dorothy, Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Woodman, and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. The 1939 film continues to run on television regularly and is probably more familiar to the public than the original book version.
After The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum attempted to repeat his success with other attempts at fairy stories and fantasies. His readers, however, wanted more stories about Oz. Baum responded by producing fourteen more Oz books. None of these received the popular or critical recognition given to the first, but they did create dedicated readers who eagerly awaited each new volume. The demand was so great that even after Baum’s death, a new “Royal Historian of Oz,” Ruth Plumly Thompson, was chosen by the publisher of the Oz books, Reilly and Lee. Beginning in 1921, Thompson published a book about the magical land of Oz every year for nineteen years. Others, in the years following Thompson, have attempted to follow in Baum’s footsteps with other tales about Oz.
In the years before Baum’s writing became popular, interest in the fairy tale as a literary form had increased greatly. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen had brought the fairy tales of continental Europe to written form. In Victorian England, Andrew Lang assembled collections of fairy tales from England and other countries. Major English literary figures, such as John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde, also tried their hands at fairy stories. Lewis Carroll’s works were received by a public willing to appreciate fantasy.
Literary critics have argued that the popularity of the fairy tale was a reaction against an increasingly industrialized society. America, however, was rapidly industrializing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it had few fantasy writers to match those of England. Baum, then, may be considered one of the first American masters of the fairy tale and the fantasy.
With its appealing characters, its dreamlike adventures, and its well-constructed story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of those rare books that can offer pleasure to both children and adults. Although it never becomes shallow moralism or mere allegory, it always conveys hints that its characters and events are somehow metaphors for features of the world of its readers.