[11 September 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum is so much more than a simple biography of the author one of the most beloved tales of all time. It is, in fact, something of a tale of time itself. In it, writer Rebecca Loncraine tells of pasts, presents and futures that Baum, poised at the turn of the 20th century and possessed as he was with a remarkably inspired curiosity for all things in life, not only imagined—but saw come to pass.
L. Frank Baum was in his mid-40s when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, to wild acclaim and success in 1900. It’s important to note this fact, which comes more than halfway through Loncraine’s engagingly and exhaustively detailed portrait of the man. It’s important because although this is obviously the work for which he is best known, he had many other successes—and still more failures—before and after he sent a little girl from Kansas to the Land of Oz.
Baum was born in 1856 and spent much of his youth in and around Syracuse, New York. His childhood, like many of his peers and family members, was spent in the dual shadows of the Civil War and a high child mortality rate. These were two things that made lasting impressions on both his outer and his inner life. From a very young age, he was surrounded by the specters of dead siblings, which Loncraine suggests not only helped fuel his adult interest in Theosophy and spirit mediums but also fed his belief that there were fantastical worlds beyond the workaday world.
Loncraine does an amazing job of weaving the documented life of Baum and his family—gleaned from his writing, his wife’s letters and journalistic pieces about him, a rapidly changing America and the events of the times with suppositions and conclusions about his personality and literary works. The Real Wizard of Oz is divided into sections geographically rather than chronologically (though it does follow a standard timeline as well) to better illustrate how Baum’s environment and his presence at certain events shaped the landscapes of his future creations. His start in the “civilized” east gives way to hard-scrabble frontier living followed by a return to civilization and a modicum of success in Chicago, which in turn leads him to living something of his own fairy tale existence before finally ending up in a little town called Hollywood.
Each of these places made their mark on Baum’s mind and can be directly seen in his work, particularly the Oz series. His struggles living on the Dakota plains during drought, depression and terrible storms; his close relationship with key members of the women’s suffrage movement long before it was considered fashionable; his knowledge and fear of the tensions between local tribes and the US government probably contributed greatly to his portrayal of Dorothy Gale’s lonely life of hardship in the endless grey of her Kansas.
Similarly, fabulous experiences like the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with its vast, electrically lit White City, or a five-month voyage to Europe to marvel at the contrast between the old world and the new, for instance, found a way into the work. Wonderful inventions such as the personal printing press (young Baum printed newsletters with his brother and later came to own his own publications), the portable camera (Baum was one of first few people to own a Kodak), automated machines and assembly line production (he was equally fascinated and frightened of mechanical items doing work previously done by hand) and electric lighting and motion pictures (both used to great effect in his later stage productions) would have wound their way into the story of the fantastical Land of Oz.
L. Frank Baum was a man of his times. He admired progress and success. He envisioned a shining Utopian future. But his was also a temperamentally artistic soul that harkened back to an earlier, darker age of dark worries and invisible fears. He was happy that his Oz books brought him fame and money, and gave so many children so much happiness. He was quite proud to include himself among The Grimms, Hans Christian Andersen and Andrew Lang, and proclaimed The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to be “the first American fairy tale”.
But he was also quite embarrassed that, among all of his other endeavors, it was a children’s book that finally brought him success. He often thought himself to be a fake like his titular character, “a humbug”. Of course, even such an imagination as Baum’s couldn’t have known the impact his stories would have upon generations to come, but one would hope he realized at some point that he was anything but a false wizard.
Reading The Real Wizard of Oz, you really get a sense of the simply amazing things a man of Baum’s era would have witnessed and the even more amazing and enduring inspiration they provided. And Loncraine has done a superb job not only of collecting them here and showing how one special man saw them with the eye of a magician, but also of transforming them into a truly absorbing and thoroughly magical account of the little man behind the little man behind the curtain.