January 20, 2010

Tales from the Completist: The "Oz" books, by L. Frank Baum

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

The 14 'canonical' Oz books, by L. Frank Baum

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900); The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904); Ozma of Oz (1907); Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908); The Road to Oz (1909); The Emerald City of Oz (1910); The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913); Tik-Tok of Oz (1914); The Scarecrow of Oz (1915); Rinkitink in Oz (1916); The Lost Princess of Oz (1917); The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918); The Magic of Oz (1919); Glinda of Oz (1920)
By L. Frank Baum

I think it's fairly safe by now to assume that nearly everyone in Western society is familiar with The Wizard of Oz, most of us because of the classic 1939 movie adaptation; and many realize as well that author L. Frank Baum ended up penning a whole series of sequels, because of the original book's astounding success back at the turn of the 20th century when it was first published -- 13 sequels altogether, before his death in 1919, which after the movie's success twenty years later became a literal merchandising empire, spawning hundreds more official sequels by various authors and hundreds more unofficial ones once the characters moved into the public domain. And like many others, I've always been interested in what these 14 "canonical" Oz books have to say; and that's why I decided this winter to sit down and read them all in a row for the first time, easy to do because of them being available for free at both Project Gutenberg and the email subscription service DailyLit (which is how I myself read them, and in fact is how I read many of the older books you see reviewed here; I'm a big fan of theirs, and highly recommend them).

But of course, to even approach these books with the right mindset, it's important to understand that like so many other one-hit-wonders, Baum was not only eluded by success in most of his other endeavors but was an active failure at them -- in the 1870s, for example, he unsuccessfully tried his hand at breeding fancy poultry (a national fad at the time), then in the 1880s opened his own theatre and became one of the first-ever Americans to produce modern-style stage musicals, apparently a little too ahead of its time, then in the 1890s moved to the Dakota Territory and opened a dry-goods store that eventually failed, as well as starting a newspaper that folded too. So it was sort of a case of random lightning in a bottle when he decided in the late 1890s to try his hand at children's literature, and ended up with his very first title being the most popular kid's book in America for two years straight, and no surprise that Baum then spent the rest of his life desperately trying to figure out how to bottle that lightning again. Because now that I've read it myself, I can confirm that the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz is astonishingly great, a sort of miraculous combination of traits that makes for an almost perfect children's story; and although most of it follows the same storyline seen in the '39 movie, there are also significant differences, making it worth your while to sit and read the book version if you have the interest. (And by the way, for some really interesting reading, check out the academic analysis that was done of this book in the 1960s, arguing that most of its details symbolically correspond almost exactly to various political and economic issues of the late 1800s, including the yellow brick road representing the much-discussed gold standard of that age, the scarecrow representing the then-hot Populist Party, Toto representing the teetotaler [prohibitionist] movement, and a lot more.)

But of course, there are a couple of details about this book that have been forgotten over the decades too, which also help explain its record-shattering success -- it was an unusually lavish book for its time, for example, with two-toned illustrations on every page and several full-color plates, and let's also not forget that Baum himself mounted a Broadway-style musical of Oz just two years after the book was published, a huge hit which toured nationally for a decade and that was even more insanely popular than the book itself (including making national stars out of vaudeville performers Fred Stone and David Montgomery, playing the Scarecrow and Tin Man; the stage production left out the Cowardly Lion altogether, which is why he is also barely seen in any of the 13 canonical sequels). And so that's why when Baum attempted starting up other fantasy series in the wake of Oz's success, hoping to turn all of them into lucrative franchises like the original, the audience mostly responded with yawns; and that's why Baum eventually went back to writing more and more Oz books as the 20th century continued, because by now the strength of the brand far outweighed the relative writing skills of Baum when it came to any particular volume.

Map of Oz and surrounding lands

Map of Oz and surrounding lands

That's why, at least to adults, it's perhaps actually the introductions to each book that are the most fascinating thing about them; because to be frank, most of the books follow a pretty familiar formula, with a danger-filled quest involving various kooky characters that is usually finished about two-thirds of the way through, followed by a massive parade or party that lets Baum trot out the growing number of main characters added to this universe with each title. (And by the way, prepare yourself for Baum's unending love of the deus-ex-machina plot device; over half the books end along the lines of, "And then our heroes took possession of a super-duper magical device, which they waved in the air and all their troubles went away.") In fact, for those who don't know, that's why the official map of Oz and its surrounding lands eventually grew so large, because Baum still hadn't given up on his dream of having a whole series of kid-lit cash cows out there generating revenue for him, and so would use many of these Oz sequels to introduce entirely new casts of characters who live in entirely new lands, "just over the mountains" or "just past the desert" of Oz itself. By the end of the original 14 books, in fact, Baum had built up a virtual aristocracy of licensable characters, all of whom would have to be dragged out for a cameo at some point in each book to remind the audience of their existence -- not just the cast of the original book and '39 movie but also various other princesses like Ozma and Betsy Bobbin, boy characters like Ojo the Unlucky and Button Bright, adults who help them like the Shaggy Man, Cap'n Bill and Ugu the Shoemaker, and of course a whole litany of quirky fantastical sidekicks, including but not limited to Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Great Jinjin, Billina the Angry Hen, Scraps the Patchwork Girl, and Polychrome the Rainbow Fairy. Whew! And so did the Great Oz Merchandising Experiment keep limping along for two decades, with each sequel selling less and less and getting lazier and lazier (for example, the tenth book in the series, 1916's Rinkitink in Oz, was actually a non-Oz book written a decade previous, published almost unchanged except for a hasty final chapter full of Oz regulars slapped onto the end); and thus did Baum's bad luck in business come back with a vengeance as well, with three more Broadway productions that were all flops, and even the establishment of a film production company in 1914 that eventually went bankrupt.

You can see the progression of all this reflected in Baum's first-person introductions to each book, which like I said is why they might be the most fascinating parts of all for adult readers -- how in the first sequel, for example, he expresses legitimately gleeful surprise and joy at how passionate his fans were, and how thousands of children had literally written to him out of the blue demanding more Oz stories, while with each subsequent sequel his tone becomes more and more snarky, ala "Well, dear and wonderful children, you've yet again demanded another Oz book like the sheep you are, so here it is, you screeching little monsters." In fact, in book six of the series, 1910's The Emerald City of Oz, Baum flat-out states that it's going to be the very last Oz book, and it's no coincidence that many fans actually consider this one to be the best of the original fourteen, because of Baum's extra attention to and enthusiasm for this particular storyline, thinking as he erroneously did that it would be the grand finale of the entire Oz universe; but after his later financial failures forced him back into the Oz business again, the gloves finally come off in his introductions, with most of the rest sounding to today's ears something like, "Well, okay, here again is the sugary teat you all apparently can't get enough of suckling, you infuriating little animals, so open wide and take your medicine." Now, of course, you shouldn't feel too bad for Baum; by the last years of his life, his combined books and plays were generating for him in today's terms roughly a quarter-million dollars a year just in personal royalties.

So all in all, an experience I'm glad I had, reading all fourteen original Oz books in a row, but not something I'd recommend to others; instead, maybe better just to read the first, then skip to the sixth, then skip straight to the 14th, 1920's Glinda of Oz, because of its unusual darkness (probably caused, many scholars agree, by Baum knowing that he was near death). As with many authors I've looked at here at CCLaP, history seems to have correctly adjusted itself in Baum's case, with most of his books now rightfully falling into the obscurity they deserve, even while his one true masterpiece is still rightfully recognized as such.

Read even more about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:52 PM, January 20, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles | Reviews |