Review

L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz: A Biography

by Katharine M. Rogers

When
I was little, Oz lust made a thief of me. My grandfather ordered a
dozen books in the series at a time, doling them out to me on
birthdays or when I had tonsillitis. I found out in which cabinet
he hid them and temptation took control of me. Although I was
caught practically in the act, I went unpunished. Who can spank a
child for wanting to read?

There were a total of 40 Oz books on my shelf (only the first third
--- THE WIZARD OF OZ (1900) and 13 others --- by L. Frank Baum) and
an Emerald City built of green glass and construction paper in our
basement. Oz was a world intensely real to me; the boundary between
its wonders and ordinary existence was noticeably porous. If
Dorothy could be blown by a tornado into fairyland, why (to
paraphrase the song) couldn't I?

Katharine M. Rogers understands my passion. In L. FRANK BAUM:
CREATOR OF OZ, Rogers, an early Oz aficionado herself, combines a
scholar's detachment with a child's delight. She is also a
revisionist critic, bemoaning the Oz books' exclusion from the
haughty scholarly canon of "good" kids' literature. In this book,
the first full-length adult treatment of Baum's life (although
there is a lengthy biographical essay in the centennial edition of
Michael Patrick Hearn's THE ANNOTATED WIZARD OF OZ), Rogers
undertakes to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the origins of Baum's
imaginative universe and establish his works as genuine
classics.

Baum didn't immediately become a full-time writer. For years he was
the very model of a self-reliant, entrepreneurial American. He was
involved in a number of different businesses, including poultry
breeding, china selling and newspaper editing. While none of his
enterprises ever really took off, his spirit of adventure, his
independence and egalitarianism, his healthy skepticism and
persistent optimism are all reflected in the characters he created
and the land they inhabit. The novelist and critic Alison Lurie
once called Oz "an idealized version of America in 1900, happily
isolated from the rest of the world, underpopulated and largely
rural, with an expanding magic technology and what appears to be
unlimited natural resources." Rogers develops this idea further,
offering some splendid insights into Baum's pastoral vision,
individualistic values and ambivalent relationship to science and
technology (which, in his books, are closely identified with magic)
--- marvelous in their power, but dangerous if misused.

Baum was also very American in his industry and ambition. However,
in marked contrast to our sequel-crazed age, he did not originally
think of THE WIZARD as the first in a series. For some time he
continued to invent new fairylands; when none of them really caught
on, he finally resigned himself to a yearly Oz book (a pattern that
would continue until his death in 1919). He also wrote adult
novels, plays and non-fantasy series for children under pseudonyms
like Edith Van Dyne and Laura Bancroft.

The female pen names are not as incongruous as they might seem.
Rogers, whose field is women's studies, is particularly
enlightening about Baum's feminism: his wife, Maud, was the
daughter of a major figure in the fight for women's right to vote.
She, not Frank, was the disciplinarian and financial manager in the
family, an arrangement that seems to have suited them both. Oz
itself verges on the matriarchal --- girls are the heroes of ten of
the fourteen books and they are brave, strong, honest, practical
and unpretentious. There are no frogs being transformed into
princes here. In the LAND OF OZ, second in the series, Baum turns
the gender tables on traditional fairytale magic when the boy
protagonist, Tip, turns out to be the lost princess, Ozma.

Because Rogers' biography is a pioneering effort, it can't afford
to skimp on any detail of Baum's life --- so there are, inevitably,
tedious moments. There is also a great deal of dutiful synopsizing
of each volume this very prolific author published, not all of them
of equal value or importance. Still, on the whole, Rogers does a
fine job of combining biography with an intelligent and balanced
literary/social assessment of Baum's work. She doesn't pretend that
his writing style is "poetic or beautiful or especially
distinctive" (and she rightly criticizes his annoying penchant for
dialect), but she is persuasive in her advocacy of his talents:
"Baum's greatest gifts were the two most important ones for a
writer of fantasy: he could create a wonderful world and he could
make it believable." Underpinning this credibility was a vast
respect for his audience. "Father never 'wrote down' to children,"
Baum's son Harry said. "They were his friends and companions and he
always treated them as such."

L. FRANK BAUM: CREATOR OF OZ is likely to be sought out principally
by those who already love Baum's work. People who know Oz only
through the 1939 Judy Garland film will be less enchanted, for
Rogers doesn't like the movie very much. Above all, she disparages
the idea (entirely absent in the Baum original) that Dorothy's trip
to Oz was nothing but a dream. For true believers like Rogers and
me, this is nothing short of sacrilege.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 22, 2011

L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz: A Biography
by Katharine M. Rogers

  • Publication Date: October 25, 2002
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 031230174X
  • ISBN-13: 9780312301743