The Father of the Wizard Oz

A the turn of the century, a disillusioned man who had failed at almost everything he had attempted wrote to his sister: “When I was young I longed to write a great novel that should win me fame. Now that I am getting old my first book is written to amuse children. For, aside from my evident inability to do anything ‘great,’ 1 have learned to regard fame as a will-o-the-wisp … but to please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one’s heart.” L. Frank Baum with an audience of young Oz buffs, 1905

The man was Lyman Frank Baum, and his best-known book began to take form when a group of children, led by his own four boys, waylaid him one evening in his modest Chicago home, demanding a story. After a hard day’s work, Baum often turned to fantasy as many men turn to alcohol. Sitting down with the children surrounding him, he began to talk. He gave no thought to what he was saying and later wrote in amazement, “The characters surprised even me—it was as though they were living people.” Baum told of a little Kansas farm girl named Dorothy who was carried by a cyclone to a strange land where she met a live scarecrow, a man made of tin, and a cowardly lion. One of the children asked, “What was the name of this land, Mr. Baum?” Stumped, Baum looked around him for inspiration. In the next room were filing cabinets, and one bore the letters O-Z. “The land of Oz!” exclaimed the storyteller and continued with the tale, unaware that he had added a new word to the English language.


Baum seldom bothered to write down his stories, but he was strangely attracted to this tale. After the children had gone, he went to his desk, pulled out a handful of scrap paper, and jotted it down. The next day, he took his collection of notes to W. W. Denslow, a hard-bitten newspaper artist with whom he had collaborated on an earlier juvenile, Father Goose: His Rook .

The two men could not have been more different. Baum was shy, delicate in health, and unsophisticated about money. Denslow was aggressive, aspiring, and a heavy drinker; a lady once called him “a delightful old reprobate who looked like a walrus.” Denslow outlined an ambitious program for the proposed book—twenty-four of his drawings as fullpage illustrations in a six-color printing scheme and innumerable sketches tinted in various tones to be superimposed on the text. Baum eagerly agreed to everything.

Publishers did not. The two men were turned down by nearly every house in Chicago. Baum’s conception of an “American fairy story” was too radical a departure from traditional juvenile literature, and Denslow’s elaborate illustrations would price the book off the market. At last, George Hill agreed to publish the book according to Denslow’s plan, provided Baum and Denslow would pay all printing expenses. The two men turned their loyalties from Father Goose over to Hill, who thought the new book “might sell as much as 5,000 copies.”

It was called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and was published on August i, 1900. ByOctober, twenty-five thousand more copies had to be printed, and thirty thousand more in November—and all this through word-of-mouth advertising. Hill, who had put most of the firm’s resources into good, reliable books with a “sure sale” (the majority of which were remaindered), was totally unprepared for such a phenomenon. Unable to believe this fairy tale was really a best seller, he refused to push it until too late. His company failed while he was still trying to rush copies of the Wizard off the presses.

But another publisher snapped up the book and it continued to sell. Today, over five million copies of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz have been published, making it one of the great best sellers of all time. It has been made into musical comedies, silent and sound movies, puppet shows, radio shows, and LP records. The 1939 MGM Technicolor musical with Judy Garland is now shown on television every Christmas, a recognized American tradition. Judy has sung “Over the Rainbow” more times than anyone can count. There have been some thirty editions of the Wizard, and over ten are in print now. A first edition sold in 1962 for §875; another with an inscription by Baum went for $3,500. It has been translated into over a dozen foreign languages and in Russia is being used to teach school children English. A nice Russian touch: the Munchkins (the little people who first meet Dorothy when she arrives in Oz) are described as the Chewing People, the Russian experts reasonably arguing that to munch means to chew. But my own favorite is the Chinese version, in which the Cowardly Lion looks like a very cheerful argon.