L. Frank Baum

views updated May 11 2018

L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) wrote 69 books beloved by children, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which became a classic movie.

Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856, near Syracuse, New York. His father, Benjamin, was a wealthy oil businessman, and young Frank (who disliked his first name and never used it) grew up in comfort. Because he had a weak heart, Frank led a quiet life as a child and was educated largely by tutors. A brief stay at a military academy was not successful, and Frank returned home to indulge his taste for reading, writing, stamp collecting, and chicken breeding. He also published two different monthly newspapers during his teenage years.

Baum grew up to become a man of great charm and many interests, yet he had little direction. He pursued a variety of careers ranging from acting to newspaper reporting to theatrical management to writing plays. One of his plays, The Maid of Arran, was a surprise smash hit, and Frank and his company toured with it throughout the United States and Canada in the early 1880s.

While at home on a break from the tour, Baum met and became engaged to Maud Gage, youngest daughter of prominent women's suffrage activist Matilda J. Gage. The strong-willed Matilda did not approve of the impractical Baum, but Maud, equally determined, insisted, and the two were married in November 1882. The marriage, apparently one of opposites, was a happy one, as Maud provided Baum with the stability and good sense he needed, and eventually for their children the discipline he was too gentle to perform.

Baum gave up acting when Maud became pregnant with their first child and all the scenery, props, and costumes for The Maid of Arran were destroyed in a fire. He worked for a time in the family oil business in Syracuse, still writing plays in his spare time, none of which were produced. In the late 1880s he and the family, which now included two sons, moved to the Dakota Territory, where Baum worked for a time as a shopkeeper and then as a newspaper editor, enjoying both jobs but failing financially in each.

By 1891 it was clear that his growing family, now with four sons, required that he find a job that would provide financial stability. They moved to Chicago, where he was first a newspaper reporter but soon took a better paying job as a traveling salesman with a crockery firm. At the suggestion of his mother-in-law, Baum began to write down some of the stories he made up to tell his sons every evening when he was home. One of these stories, Mother Goose in Prose, was published in 1897. The book sold well, and, on the advice of his doctor, Baum gave up his traveling job. Instead, he became the editor of a journal for window-dressers, which also did well.

Baum next decided to collaborate on a children's book with a friend, the artist W. W. Denslow. Father Goose, His Book, published in 1899, was a best-seller. One of the five books he published in 1900, also based on stories he had told his sons and illustrated by Denslow, was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which immediately broke records for sales and made Baum a celebrity. At the suggestion of his publisher, Baum's book, with substantial changes to fit the theatrical tastes of the day, was made into a musical in 1902, which also was a great success and toured the United States for years. A second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, a clever satire on the women's suffrage movement, was published in 1904 and was very popular, and other Oz books followed, though none matched the originality or sales of the first two books. In addition, over the next two decades he wrote over 35 non-Oz books under various pseudonyms and aimed at various audiences. Most of these were "pot-boilers, " but they did well financially and helped make Baum a wealthy man.

Always looking for new outlets for his creativity, Baum became interested in films. In 1909 he founded a company to produce hand-colored slides featuring characters from his Oz books. These were shown while he narrated and an orchestra played background music. Although highly innovative, these "radio-plays, " as he called them, lost a great deal of money, and in June 1911 he was forced to declare bankruptcy. A later venture into the film business, the Oz Film Company in 1914, produced six movies but experienced severe distribution problems and also failed, though not as disastrously.

Using money Maud had inherited from her mother, the Baums moved to Hollywood, California, in 1910 for Frank's health, and there built Ozcot, a large home with an impressive garden. Here he produced additional Oz books, to a total of 14, which helped ease his financial problems. But with most of his fortune gone and his health failing, in his later years Baum lived quietly at Ozcot, gardening, writing stories, and answering the hundreds of letters he received from Oz-struck children. After a protracted illness in his gall-bladder and a 24 hour coma, he died on May 6, 1919, supposedly uttering, "Now we can cross the Shifting Sands" just a minute before expiring.

Baum's Oz books were so popular and profitable that after his death, with Maud's permission, the publishers continued the series using other writers. In addition, the lasting popularity of Oz was in no small way aided by film versions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the 1925 silent version with Oliver Hardy as the Tin-Man, and most notably the 1939 classic MGM musical with Judy Garland as Dorothy.

Although Baum's avowed intention was merely to entertain children with unique American creations and American values, his Oz books have been endlessly criticized and analyzed, and they sometimes have been banned from libraries as being too imaginative, too frightening, or even too dull. Nonetheless, they constitute 20th century America's first and most enduring contribution to children's fantasy literature.

Further Reading

Frank Joslyn Baum (Baum's oldest son) and Russell P. MacFall produced an affectionate biography based on personal reminiscences and a variety of family materials, To Please a Child: A Biography of L. Frank Baum, Royal Historian of Oz (1961). This remains the prime source of information on Baum. An excellent introduction to Baum and his works is contained in Daniel P. Mannix's "The Father of the Wizard of Oz" (American Heritage, December 1964). Angelica Shirley Carpenter and Jean Shirley's L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz (1991) is of particular interest because of its many relevant photographs and illustrations. Less valuable are Raylyn Moore's Wonderful Wizard, Marvelous Land (1974) and The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was, by Martin Gardner and Russel B. Nye (1957). Michael Patrick Hearn, the editor of The Annotated Wizard of Oz (1973), presents a fascinating biographical and critical introduction. The book also has an excellent bibliography. Hearn's 1983 The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum is the best collection of critical views on Baum and Oz; it contains essays by the professor Edward Wagenknecht, who in 1929 was one of the first to view Baum's work as an important contribution to American literature, and by James Thurber, whose 1934 essay reveals him to have been a big Oz fan. Aljean Harmetz's 1977 book The Making of the Wizard of Oz, focusing more on the production of the 1939 musical film, contains "Appendix B: About L. Frank Baum, " a detailed overview of the major events in Baum's life. See also Henry M. Littlefield, whose essay (reprinted from The American Culture, 1968) posited the theory of Oz as a populist fable; Fred Erisman (essay from American Quarterly, Fall 1968), who views the Oz books as Baum's reaction to the Progressive dilemma; and Osmond Beckwith (Children's Literature, 1976), who views Oz through Freudian eyes. Also helpful are Marius Bewley's Masks and Mirrors (1970), which contains a chapter on "The Land of Oz: America's Great Good Place, " and the chapter "L. Frank Baum and Oz" in Roger Sale's Fairy Tales and After (1978). □