Off to Be the Wizard
Nearly everyone in the world knows about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum’s story of Dorothy and her dog, Toto, who are whisked away by a tornado to a fantasyland where they befriend a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodman and a Cowardly Lion. In charming fashion, they help one another overcome their fears and achieve their dreams. This map traces the surprising origins of the tale that has become such a beloved pop-cultural icon.
L. Frank Baum’s storytelling sessions were a favorite pastime for his children and their friends, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz began as a simple tale Baum improvised at his home in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. As he spun his yarn about a girl named Dorothy and her encounter with a living scarecrow, a listener asked, “Mr. Baum, where did they live?” Legend has it the author looked into the next room, saw his filing cabinet with two drawers marked “A–N” and “O–Z” and immediately replied, “Why, the land of Oz, of course.”
Baum couldn’t get the story out of his head. Before long, he had written a manuscript for a novel called The Emerald City. Despite the perennial popularity of fairy tale masters Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, few American writers had adopted the genre, and publishers had little interest in Baum’s story. The George M. Hill Company consented to publish the book if Baum and his illustrator, W.W. Denslow, paid the publishing costs, which included expensive color illustrations. The gamble paid off, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became the best-selling children’s book of 1900.
Full of fantastic adventures, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a departure from most American children’s books of its day. Until the beginning of the 20th century, books for children were not terribly exciting or colorful; most seemed rooted in the Puritan tradition and were designed to impart moral lessons. At the same time, however, L. Frank Baum believed a prince or princess looking for romance, the basis of many fairy tales, was beyond most children’s understanding, so he did not include a central love story. He also avoided long descriptive passages, which he found boring. In the entire Oz series, he never gives a physical description of Dorothy—or reveals her age. Baum especially didn’t like the gory fates that befall many fairy tale characters. The nastiest thing his Wicked Witch does is make Dorothy finish her chores! Even witches in Oz are rarely punished severely. The Wicked Witch’s demise is an exception, and it is accidental.
One story Baum admired tremendously was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), particularly the way Alice is always busy with something new and thrilling. Baum achieved this with Oz, keeping Dorothy and her friends on their toes as the plot zips along.
Frank and Maud Baum had four sons but always wanted a little girl. Wonderful Wizard of Oz heroine Dorothy Gale became the daughter they never had. Baum named the character after their niece Dorothy Louise Gage, who had died in infancy only months before. Other Oz denizens had real-life origins: Baum grew up on a New York farm and had recurring nightmares about being chased by a scarecrow that, fortunately, always turned into a pile of straw just as it was about to catch him. Baum’s benevolent Scarecrow, one of Dorothy’s allies, may also have been inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Feathertop,” in which a straw man magically comes to life.
Baum gleaned inspiration for his Tin Woodman while working as a salesman in Midwestern department stores, where he created clever kitchen product displays. One style featured a washtub or boiler as a torso, the back of a pan as a face and metal pipes as limbs—thus was born the Tin Woodman. In the late 1890s Baum helped establish the art of window dressing in the U.S. He founded the trade magazine The Show Window, formed the National Association of Window Trimmers and even published a book on the subject.
L. Frank Baum intended The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a stand-alone book, but a successful 1902 stage musical version garnered the novel lots of attention. Fans deluged Baum with letters demanding more stories about his beloved creations. He consented to write one sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), which features the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, the most popular figures from the musical, and a new protagonist, the young boy Tip.
Smelling a hit, however, Baum’s new publishers persuaded him to write a sequel a year: Oz became a series with Ozma of Oz (1907), about Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion, followed at annual intervals by Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, which gives the Wizard a home, and then by The Road to Oz, an amalgam linking Oz with unrelated fantasy stories Baum had written earlier. Next up, The Emerald City of Oz makes Dorothy’s Auntie Em and Uncle Henry primary characters. Bankruptcy and the failure of his non-Oz books forced Baum, after a three-year hiatus, to again revisit the subject that made him famous, with The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913); he ultimately wrote seven more Oz sequels—the last, Glinda of Oz (1920), published posthumously.
Although Lewis Carroll had published his two Alice books decades earlier, an entire set of children’s fantasy books with recurring characters and settings was a turn-of-the-20th-century innovation. Pioneering the concept were Baum’s Oz books and two series by English author Edith Nesbit: the Bastables books, beginning with The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), and the Psammead trilogy, starting with Five Children and It (1902). The 1920s and ’30s saw Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books and P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins series. The first novel in C.S. Lewis’s enduring Chronicles of Narnia appeared in 1950, continuing a trend still hugely popular today with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events.
Piers Anthony’s 30-book Xanth series, begun with A Spell for Chameleon (1977), exhibits many similarities to the Oz novels, particularly the use of magic and the sprinkling of puns throughout. Anthony was commissioned to write the book for a film sequel to MGM’s Wizard of Oz (1939), but the whole project was abandoned. More recent, Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series of the 2000s features two girls descended from fairy tale writers Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, who become caretakers of classic storybook heroes, including the Oz characters.
L. Frank Baum’s mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a leading member of the 19th-century women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with whom she cowrote the book History of Woman Suffrage. She also strongly encouraged Baum to become a writer: Gage spent many winters with the Baum family, helping to care for her four grandsons, and had overheard the made-up stories Baum told to children; she was certain the tales could easily entertain thousands more. Though Baum was unsure, Gage was persistent and finally convinced him. His first book, Mother Goose in Prose (1897), was published the year before Gage’s death, and characteristics of this spirited suffragist live on in plucky Dorothy Gale, protagonist of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Cut from the same liberal cloth, Baum and Gage shared views about justice and equality between the sexes. Gage interested her daughter and son-in-law in theosophy, an esoteric philosophical belief system advocating the equality of all religions and peoples. As editor of South Dakota newspaper The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, Baum printed a column and various articles Gage wrote, and Baum’s own editorials often espoused equal rights for women.
L.Frank Baum’s mother-in-law, prominent suffragist Matilda Gage, favored equal rights for women in all areas, not just the right to vote, and spoke out against the government’s treatment of Native Americans and the religious repression of women. Her radical views were unpopular among other suffragists, and she eventually broke from the mainstream movement, forming the Women’s National Liberal Union. Like Gage, Baum was a firm believer in women’s voting rights. The second book in his Oz series, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), satirizes his contemporaries’ fears about what might happen if women had political power: Rebellious General Jinjur, a woman, believes men have ruled Oz long enough, so she raises an all-female army to overthrow the Scarecrow (who becomes leader of Oz after the Wizard’s departure in the series’s first book). After the army takes over the Emerald City, Jinjur proclaims herself ruler of a new Oz in which women lounge about and men must do all the housework. Unfortunately, these women turn out to be just as power-hungry as the men had been. Jinjur is ousted by another woman, Glinda the Good, and Ozma is restored as the rightful queen of Oz.