Oz and its Creator September 30 2014, 0 Comments


Image from The Wonderful Wizard of OzStep into the land of Oz—a land of magic, talking animals, flying monkeys, munchkins, and a famed pair of shoes. Many are familiar with these elements and characters like Dorothy Gale, the Cowardly Lion, and Glinda the Good Witch all found in the first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the 1939 musical film starring Judy Garland. But the Oz stories came from the mind of a man whose imagination was greater than that of the Wizard himself: L. Frank Baum.

Baum grew up on a scenic farm in rural New York. As child with poor health, he spent much of his time daydreaming, creating stories, and taking in the world around him with fascination. At an early age, he began writing and producing works on his printing press, a gift from his father.

In his adult life, he took up a number of eclectic hobbies, including breeding fancy poultry and selling fireworks. Even in his adulthood, he was known in the family as the main instigator of fun and excitement. His library even as an adult consisted mostly of children’s books, including the fairy tales of Andrew Lang.

With a zeal for beginning new, interesting endeavors, Baum began a number of business ventures that ultimately failed and nearly ruined him financially. In his 30s, Baum entered the theatre industry, writing plays and running theatres. When this did not succeed, he and his wife Maud Gage opened a store, “Baum’s Bazaar,” that went bankrupt due to poor business decisions. He went on to write for a local newspaper that also eventually folded. However, during this time, he began storing mental images of the dry Dakota Territory as inspiration for Dorothy’s Kansas home in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Portrait of L. Frank BaumBaum took up a number of odd jobs to support his family, reporting for the Evening Post in Chicago, publishing advice for advertising agencies’ window displays, and working as a traveling salesman. Finally, in 1897, he published Mother Goose in Prose, followed by Father Goose, His Book, a collection of whimsical nonsense poetry that became the best-selling children’s book of the year. In the wake of this literary success, Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was the best-selling children’s book for two years.

This novel about the young, innocent country girl Dorothy Gale and her adventures in the magical land of Oz transformed Baum’s life, catapulting him to stardom and forming the basis of a musical stage version and 13 sequel novels. John R. Neill provided the now-iconic pen-and-ink drawings for the remainder of the series as well as for future Oz books penned by other authors.

Cover of Little Wizard StoriesBaum wrote many other fantasy tales such as The Life and Adventures of Santa Clause and Queen Zixi of Ix, but none rivaled the popularity and charm of the Oz tales. Frequently throughout the publication of the Oz series, Baum announced he had written the last Oz book. But letters from children readers and the financial failure of his other projects kept him dreaming up and penning new stories for Oz and its inhabitants. He always took his letters from children seriously, responding to them at the beginnings of his books and incorporating their suggestions into his stories.

In 1913, Baum released Little Wizard Stories of Oz, a collection of 6 short stories initially published in separate small booklets. Designed to capture the imaginations of beginning readers with charming simplicity, they fostered in younger children an interest in the Oz world.

Baum hoped that the Oz stories would become standard fairy tales in the American culture, making a contribution to the literary realm of fairy tales as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson did. And so they have. The Oz books remain beloved by children and adults alike, and have inspired prequels, sequels, retellings, modern movies and more. L. Frank Baum’s lofty dreams for Dorothy, Glinda, and the rest of the Oz world have certainly come true.