- Historic Sites
The Father of the Wizard Oz
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
Then Mrs. Gage, Maud’s mother, moved in with them. Baum and his mother-in-law had never gotten along well, but he should have been everlastingly grateful to the old lady lor one contribution: listening to his stories, Mrs. Gage ordered, “You go out and have those published.” Baum laughed at the idea but his wife said firmly, “Mother is nearly always right about everything.” Nagged by the two women, Baum sent out a collection of stories suggested by the Mother Goose rhymes, which was published in 1897 under the title, Mother Goose in Prose . The illustrator was an unknown young artist named Maxfield Parrish. It was a “first” for both of them. The book did sufficiently well tor the publishers to ask for another, so Baum wrote the father Goose sequel, this time with Denslow as illustrator. Then came the miraculous success of the Wizard .
When Baum was possessed by his fantasies, he wandered around in a trance. “His best friends could speak to him at such times and he wouldn’t recognize them,” Mrs. Baum recalled. His characters were intensely real to him. Once when he had not written for several weeks, his wife asked him what was the matter. “My characters won’t do what I want them to,” replied Baum irritably. A few days later he was back at work. Maud Baum asked him how he had solved the problem. “By letting them do what they want to do,” her husband explained. An ardent naturalist, he never hunted, feeling, like the Tin Woodman, that killing animals was cruel. Ozma, the Ruler of Oz, says firmly, “No one has the right to kill any living creature, however evil they may be, or to hurt them, or make them unhappy.”
The format of the Wizard is simple. As Baum says in his introduction, he desired to eliminate “all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents” of the old-time fairy tales. He adhered to this principle in all his Oz books. Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch of the West with a bucket of water, but unlike the witch in Grimm’s Snow White , she is not strapped into red-hot iron shoes and forced to dance until she dies. The Nome King (Baum believed that “gnome” was too difficult for a child to pronounce) threatens to turn Dorothy into a piece of bric-a-brac but does not plan to ravish her, skin lier feet, and bind her toes so they will grow together, as in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin . The late fames Thurbcr said he had suffered agonies as a child when the Sawhorse, in The Marvelous Land of Oz , broke his leg; but the injury did not hurt the horse, nor was the animal put into a furnace and reduced to a little heart-shaped lump while his sweetheart looked on, as in Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier . Robert Louis Stevenson was able to make the dialogue of his pirates seem brutal and coarse without ever using an oath, Baum managed to make his villains threatening without going into specific and horrendous detail, at the same time deftly maintaining suspense and an atmosphere of peril.
Baum also hoped to eliminate the “stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy.” Here again he was remarkably successful. Like all his characters, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion are distinct personalities; children learn to know them, become genuinely interested in them, and feel concern over their fates.
Dorothy was perhaps Baum’s most successful creation. Unlike the immortal Alice, who wanders politely through Wonderland without trying to influence events, Dorothy—although always gentle and innocent—is a quietly determined little girl. She intends to get back to her aunt and uncle, and neither the Great and Terrible Oz nor a wicked witch is going to prevent her. She is undoubtedly the leader of the little group of adventurers; though she turns to the Woodman for comfort, the Scarecrow for advice, and the Lion for protection, they would obviously be lost without her. Dorothy is the descendant of the pioneer women who crossed the plains and the grandmother of every soap-opera heroine who ever faced life. She is as American as Alice is Victorian British.
Most amazing of all was Baum’s ability to make Oz a real place. Any child suddenly transported there would instantly recognize the country. It can even be mapped, and has been several times. Baum achieves this effect partly by precise details (there are 9654 buildings in the Emerald City and the population is 57,318) but mainly by extraordinarily vivid descriptions of the forests, the poppy fields, the rivers, and the winding Road of Yellow Brick.
Baum carried into his own life his peculiar talent of making the unbelievable believable. He was forbidden to smoke because of his heart condition, but he often held a large, unlightecl cigar in his mouth. The poet Eunice Tietjens, visiting the Baums at their home in Macatawa on the shore of Lake Michigan, asked why he never lighted the cigar. Baum explained that he did so only when he went swimming. “You see,” he explained gravely, “I can’t swim, so when the cigar goes out I know I’m getting over my depth.” Then he lighted the cigar and walked into the lake until the cigar was extinguished. “There now,” Baum said when he returned to land, “if it hadn’t been for the cigar 1 would have drowned.”