It seems apt to me that this exhaustive biography of L. Frank Baum is written by a woman. Only a woman could have put up with Baum's mercurial personality, his peripatetic wanderings, his entrepreneurial ventures and failures. Perhaps like Baum's wife, Maud, author Rebecca Loncraine was able to see the potential in the man. And of course, with the hindsight of history, we can all see and marvel at his greatest venture, penning the story of "The Emerald City," later to be called
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Baum was born in upstate New York to
respectable, solidly middle-class burghers. His childhood was colored by the sight of amputee veterans of the Civil War returning home, by the commonplace tragedy of infant mortality which took five of his siblings, by the curiously dark fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, by major advances in American home life including the invention of electric light, and by the ascension of the great "wizard" P.T. Barnum, the master of "humbug." As a youngster Baum showed his entrepreneurial skills by writing and printing a family newspaper, then publishing a book about stamp collecting. In early adulthood his career of choice, after dabbling in the family business, was the theater, where he was actor, producer, director, and
- again - writer. He also had a fair talent as a promoter. It was during this phase that he met Maud Gage, daughter of outspoken suffragette Matilda Gage. They married and moved to Aberdeen in the South Dakota Territory.
It's obvious that life on the great plains influenced Baum's later
composition about a little girl from Kansas who is swept away by a huge tornado.
Subsistence outside the small civilized enclaves was almost maddeningly lonely,
the endless flat landscape uncluttered by greenery. In Baum's book, Dorothy did
not long to go home as she is sentimentally depicted in the movie version. Why would anyone want to leave the fascinating bright world of Oz to go back to a dirt farm in Kansas?
Baum ran a large emporium in Aberdeen and spiced up the social life there by bringing to the town many wonders of the big city to adorn the local homes. But his business acumen lagged behind his exotic tastes and flair for design, and the enterprise failed. He did some writing for the town newspaper and muddied his own intellectual legacy somewhat by his articles on the Indians, seemingly admiring their culture while stating that they should be annihilated. Eventually he and Maud and four children wound up in Chicago, where the family languished in poverty as Baum sought to support them as a peddler. His spirit of salesmanship rose to the fore again, however, when he got into the store-window decor business, not only demonstrating beautiful displays but
also writing about them.
In 1891, the Chicago World's Fair lit up Baum's life with its White City, a virtual palace illuminated at night by thousands of light bulbs surrounded by shimmering lagoons. White City contained 65,000 exhibits,
yet the palace was in its own way a humbug - the statuary that adorned it was made of thin cement and cardboard, and many of the exhibits were fakes. No doubt Baum tucked this combination of outward splendor and inward chicanery in his mind, and in 1899, he found a storehouse of images there that became the book he called "The Emerald City." The work glorified females, from Dorothy to Glinda the Good, undoubtedly influenced by the forthright, independent Maud, the only love of Baum's life. It drew together many of the disparate elements of Baum's childhood, and like all great children's books, it did not talk down to its audience.
Though the book, along with his other children's work, Tales of Father Goose, did bring him the fame and fortune he sought, its blessings were not permanent. He found he had to go on writing about Oz for his addicted fan base of American children, and no other book in the series came up to the standard of the first. Baum loved to spend money and invested heedlessly. In fact, without Maud to keep a hand on the checkbook, Baum might have driven the family to ruin several times over with his speculations in theater and film. It was not until 20 years after his death that the book was finally turned into
the highly successful, in fact legendary, film starring Judy Garland.