Let me begin with a confession: I’ve never much liked The Wizard of Oz.
I refer, of course, to the 1939 movie of that name – not to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel (properly titled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) on which it is based, or to the still wonderfuller series of Oz books that followed it.
I began reading the Oz books in 1970, when I was six, and had acquired most of them (the original ones by Baum, I mean) by 1972. They were among my very favourites as a child – probably second only to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books. (Indeed, I suspect I owe my east/west dyslexia to the early influence of the Oz books’ famous map, which had east on the left and west on the right – just where my brain still thinks they should be.) I had definitely read at least Wizard and Ozma when I first saw the 1939 movie; since I saw it in a theatre (we didn’t have a tv at that time), that must have been either later that year or some time the next, as the film was re-released theatrically in 1970 and 1971.
Thus the books, not the movie, were my introduction to Oz (though before seeing the movie I did already know most of the songs, for somewhat odd reasons I’ll explain in a future post).
So I mean, it’s not as though I didn’t enjoy the movie. Certainly the Scarecrow and the Witch were well done, and I did generally like the songs. But I found the film patronising and corny and talk-down-y in a way the book is not – with the inane “Lollipop Guild” and the idiotic refrain “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” being especially annoying. Dorothy seemed more helpless and less resourceful than her counterpart in the book, despite being older; and Billie Burke’s simpering Glinda was an insult to Baum’s dignified sorceress (Oz’s equivalent of Galadriel should not coo and gurgle).
Making Glinda the first person Dorothy meets in Oz, rather than (as in the book) the last, also creates some problems. If the one person who knows how Dorothy can get back to Kansas is now one of the first, rather than one of the last, people she meets in Oz, then Glinda seems to be simply withholding crucial information for no good reason. (Also, does Glinda know that the Wicked Witch can be destroyed by water? If so, that first meeting would have been a handy occasion on which to mention it – or better yet, to toss the bucket herself when the Witch makes her appearance.)
As for the Witch, having her show up repeatedly in person before Dorothy gets to her castle gives her more opportunities to be scary, which is good, but it makes less sense: if she can just pop up wherever Dorothy is, why does she never try to kill Dorothy directly? It’s as though Palpatine were to stroll into the Mos Eisley cantina in Episode IV, make a threatening speech to Luke, and then stroll out again without doing anything.
The film also left out the green spectacles, thus negating the whole theme of the Emerald City’s fakery; and softened the original by having the Wizard ask for the Witch’s broomstick rather than, as in the book, plainly telling Dorothy to kill her (though the change could be redeemed if we interpret it as a responsibility-evading bureaucratic euphemism on the Wizard’s part rather than as a don’t-scare-the-kiddies euphemism on the filmmakers’ part). And the film couldn’t even leave alone the iconic line “I am Oz the Great and Terrible. Who are you and why do you seek me?” but had to change it to “I am Oz the Great and Powerful. Who are you? who are you?” (I suppose the change from “terrible” to “powerful” was driven by concern to avoid the modern connotation of “lousy” – though I’m glad that Peter Jackson didn’t scruple to have Galadriel call herself “beautiful and terrible” in the Lord of the Rings films just as she does in the book. In any case, having Oz ask the same question twice seems pointless.)
It also bugged me (and still does) that the Cowardly Lion was just a man standing upright in a suit. (Was this an inevitable constraint, given 1939 sfx technology? Well, it’s a hurdle that the 1902 stage production had managed to surmount.) Moreover, Baum describes the yellow brick road as looking like a real road: in places “rough” and “uneven,” with bricks “broken or missing,” leaving “holes that Toto jumped across and Dorothy walked around.” It should look like the crumbling elven road in The Desolation of Smaug (only, well, yellow), not like an expanse of shiny plastic as in the movie.
Alissa Burger strangely contrasts Baum’s version, which apparently “romanticizes the Kansas prairie” and “the safety of home,” with the MGM version, which through “its Depression-era setting” reminded audiences that “home was precarious, with the family farm economically threatened.” (The Wizard of Oz As American Myth, p. 157) This is a bit puzzling. (Read the first chapter of Wizard and see if you think Baum is romanticising Kansas.) The farm in the movie is a decent-sized and moderately prosperous concern, with a number of farmhands, compared with the book’s drab and miserable farm with a one-room house and no apparent employees. It is Baum’s farm, not MGM’s, that seems economically precarious (as indeed it proves in the later books when the Gales are unable to pay their mortgage). The 1930s were not the only period of depression in u.s. history; Baum in 1900 was writing in the wake of the fairly severe depression of 1893-1898. As for “the safety of home,” in Baum’s book the Gales’ house is, y’know, destroyed by a tornado; in the movie, by contrast, the destruction is only a dream.
Which brings us to the film’s worst departure, which, of course, is having the whole story turn out to be Dorothy’s dream – something that is decidedly not the case in the book. Baum does say elsewhere that “in a fairy story it does not matter whether one is awake or not,” but I suspect few readers will agree. (Moreover, if everything is reset at the end to the status quo ante, then Miss Gulch’s threat to Toto is still in effect, so why isn’t Dorothy worried?)
The film’s protagonist was also not my image of Dorothy, though this isn’t really a case of infidelity to the (first) book. Judy Garland’s Dorothy, with her long dark braids and solemn demeanour, was based (loosely) on W. W. Denslow’s depiction in the first book; but in all the later books, illustrated by John R. Neill, she has shorter, lighter hair and a more spirited attitude. Neill’s Dorothy is admittedly a bit too glamorous and fashionable to be plausible as the ward of two dirt-poor farmers in a one-room house on the prairie; but to my six-year-old male eyes she was more appealing than Denslow’s dowdy, somber Dorothy. Baum’s wife Maud incidentally shared my preference: “I have always disliked Mr. Denslow’s Dorothy. She is so terribly plain and not childlike.” (quoted in Michael Patrick Hearn, The Annotated Wizard of Oz, p. xlii)
|Top: Denslow’s Dorothy. Bottom: Neill’s Dorothy.|
In any case, I generally preferred the later Oz books to the first one. Evan Schwartz writes: “Clearly, all of Baum’s Oz books derived their magic from the original one, and nothing else that Frank created would ever approach the brilliance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” (Finding Oz, p. 297) But for me the Oz series in its canonical form didn’t really get started until the third book, Ozma of Oz; I found its plot more complex and engaging, its ideas more inventive, and its art (Neill’s) more beautiful (though I appreciate Denslow’s art now much more than I did then – particularly his exquisite sense of composition). Plus Dorothy seems to be enjoying herself, and relishing her adventures in Oz, much more in the later books than in Wizard, where she is single-mindedly focused on getting home. “I don’t like your country, although it is so beautiful,” she tells the Wizard (ch. 11), and “became very sad” and “would cry bitterly for hours” at the realization that “it would be harder than ever to get back to Kansas.” (ch. 12) By contrast, when she is thrown overboard in a chicken coop at the beginning of Ozma, she takes the situation cheerfully in stride:
“Why, I’ve got a ship of my own!” she thought, more amused than frightened at her sudden change of condition ... Just now she was tossing on the bosom of a big ocean, with nothing to keep her afloat but a miserable wooden hen-coop that had a plank bottom and slatted sides, through which the water constantly splashed and wetted her through to the skin! And there was nothing to eat when she became hungry – as she was sure to do before long – and no fresh water to drink and no dry clothes to put on. ... “Well, I declare!” she exclaimed, with a laugh. “You’re in a pretty fix, Dorothy Gale, I can tell you! and I haven’t the least idea how you're going to get out of it!” ... Many children, in her place, would have wept and given way to despair; but because Dorothy had encountered so many adventures and come safely through them it did not occur to her at this time to be especially afraid. ... So she sat down in a corner of the coop, leaned her back against the slats, nodded at the friendly stars before she closed her eyes, and was asleep in half a minute. (Ozma, ch. 1)
And when she finds she has come ashore near Oz, her reaction is enthusiastic: “Dorothy clapped her hands together delightedly. ... ‘I’m glad of that!’ she exclaimed. ‘It makes me quite happy to be so near my old friends.’” (ch. 4) Indeed she is “anxious to see once more the country where she had encountered such wonderful adventures.” (ch. 20) Similarly, in a later book when Dorothy finds herself once again in Oz with no clear way of getting home, she responds rather lightheartedly: “There isn’t so much to see in Kansas as there is here, and I guess Aunt Em won’t be very much worried; that is, if I don’t stay away too long." (Road, ch. 3) The change from Denslow’s stolid Dorothy to Neill’s lively one reflects the increased adventurousness with which Baum endows Dorothy as the stories proceed. (Yet according to Laura Miller, in the Oz books “[c]haracter is fixed, and no one really changes.” Dorothy, Miller complains, “remains exactly the same, ‘a simple, sweet and true little girl,’ throughout the entire series.” Note that Miller’s evidence is based on the narrator’s say-so rather than on what actually happens in the books; as we’ll see, this is a common problem with Baum’s critics. In claiming that Oz characters never change, Miller also seems to have forgotten, e.g., the Wizard, and Jinjur, and the Nome King.)
|Left: Denslow’s Dorothy & Wuizard. Right: Neill’s Dorothy & Wizard|
As for the new Dorothy’s being prettier, given his preferred style Neill would probably have done this anyway, but he may also have taken a cue from Baum’s text; in Ozma it is a crucial plot point that Dorothy is “rather attractive,” since it explains why Princess Langwidere covets her head (ch. 6), whereas Dorothy is never so described in Wizard. And while the move to a more conventionally pretty and feminine Dorothy is potentially problematic from a feminist perspective – in ways which were not on my radar at age six – the accompanying move to a more intrepid and self-assured Dorothy is certainly a feminist plus.
So anyway, that’s the story as to why it was Neill’s version of Dorothy that became my vision of the character, which gave me one more reason for dissatisfaction with the MGM version.
Today I have greater appreciation for the 1939 movie’s artistic achievement; and I have to admit that “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” (not in the book) is one of the greatest lines in cinema history. Plus of course if I had seen the 1925 version, the infidelities of the 1939 version would have seemed comparatively minor. (Indeed, Wizard had been adapted for stage or screen half a dozen times before 1939, and the MGM version was by far the most faithful of the lot.)
All the same, for me Oz is: the later, Neill-illustrated Oz books first; the first, Denslow-illustrated book second; and the 1939 movie last.
So I still find it annoying that the 1939 movie is most people’s first reference point for Oz; that new Oz projects nearly always feature a Denslow/Garland-derived Dorothy; and that even a book like Richard Tuerk’s Oz in Perspective, whose focus is on the novels rather than the movie, still has it cover marred by an image of MGM’s goddamn ruby slippers. (They’re not even slippers, anyway; they’re pumps. Why bother to change Baum’s silver “shoes” to ruby “slippers” and yet not have them actually be slippers?)
Even in scholarly articles by knowledgeable authors, the 1939 film manages to insinuate itself whether reference to it makes sense or not. Jené Gutierrez, for example, begins a recent article this way:
Since the film premiered in 1939, The Wizard of Oz has been the subject of numerous interpretations. In 1964, Henry Littlefield’s American Quarterly essay entitled “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism” espoused a political connection, illustrating the story’s alignment with Populism. (“Psychospiritual Wisdom,” p. 54, in Durand and Leigh, Universe of Oz, pp. 54-60)
The clear implication of this passage is that Littlefield’s essay was proposing a connection between populism and the MGM movie; but of course Littlefield’s thesis, whatever its merits, was about the book, not the movie. Kevin Tanner, hypothesising a connection between Dorothy’s silver shoes and the “silver slippers” in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, repeatedly refers to Baum’s Dorothy herself as wearing slippers, a term that comes solely from the movie. (“Religious Populism and Spiritual Capitalism,” p. 211; in Durand and Leigh, Universe, pp. 204-224) And I’ve lost track of how many discussions of the book refer to Aunt Em as “Auntie Em,” a nickname that likewise comes from the movie.
|The shadow of MGM|
The massive gravitational pull of the 1939 movie even manages to obscure the recollection of previous adaptations. Kevin Durand, who surely knows better, writes:
The canon of the universe of The Wizard of Oz ... can be divided roughly into two epochs – pre-1939 and post-1939. Before the movie roared into theatres, the Oz-verse was a purely literary one. L. Frank Baum’s books formed not only its core, but its entirety. (“The Emerald Canon,” p. 11, in Durand and Leigh, Universe, pp. 11-23)
Here Durand consigns to the memory hole three Oz stage musicals (at least one of which was a solid success, running for 293 performances on Broadway), eleven Oz movies (eight of which survive in some form), and one Oz presentation that mixed film and live performance, all prior to 1939.
Plus in addition there’s the problem that the MGM movie apparently drives people insane:
“Since 1939,” says Durand, “the movie has set the stage for reading the book, not vice versa.” (“The Emerald Canon,” p. 11) Well, not here, mate.
As I’ve mentioned, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was illustrated by W. W. Denslow, while all of Baum’s subsequent Oz books were illustrated by John R. Neill. Denslow and Neill each did the art for several of Baum’s non-Oz books as well (indeed Baum’s Sea Fairies arguably contains some of Neill’s best work ever), and after Baum’s death Neill continued to provide illustrations for works by new authors continuing the series (and even wrote three himself). I griped about Denslow above, but they’re both really good; and it’s fascinating to contrast the bold strokes and stark simplicity of Denslow’s art with the dense textures and feverish, proto-Seussian inventiveness of Neill’s.
Despite their differences, both Denslow and Neill were clearly influenced by Art Nouveau artists like Alfons Mucha – of whom Baum’s wife, at least, was a fan (Other Lands Than Ours, ch. 18) – with a touch of influence from Pre-Raphaelites like J. W. Waterhouse as well, in Neill’s case.
Note also how on the accompanying cover from Jugend, the Art Nouveau journal that gave Jugendstihl its name, the style looks as though it’s halfway between Denslow and Neill:
The 1939 movie’s transition from black and white (or, originally, sepia) for Kansas to Technicolor for Oz was anticipated by a 1933 cartoon; but the idea really originates with Denslow’s colour scheme for the 1900 novel, where the Kansas chapters are tinted in sepia tones, which give way to brighter colours for the Oz chapters.
Baum himself was not crazy about Neill’s work; at one point he called it “perfunctory and listless,” and lacking a “spirit of fun” (quoted in Loncraine’s Real Wizard, p. 270) – which is perhaps the craziest thing ever said about Neill’s art.
|Perfunctory, listless, and lacking a spirit of fun?|
The best versions available today appear to be those from Books of Wonder, which are beautiful editions and have most of the illustrations (including colour plates); however, these editions evidently delete some pictures, and also alter the text, in order to censor some of Baum’s offensive racial stereotypes. (While I sympathise with the motive, I don’t believe in censoring what children read or see; far better to explain to children what’s wrong with certain things rather than simply pretending they don’t exist. At least that’s how I was raised, for which I am profoundly grateful.) The Bradford recreations of the first editions are presumably uncensored, if one is willing to shell out $50 a pop for them. But apparently even they have some missing art, and have also botched what art they do have (see here, here, here, here, and here). In short, there is no version in print that does full justice to the art. Not yet.
For my information about Baum’s life, I rely primarily on four biographies: Katharine Rogers’ L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, Rebecca Loncraine’s The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, Nancy Koupal’s Baum’s Road to Oz: The Dakota Years, and Evan I. Schwartz’s Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story.
Each of the four books has fascinating information the other three don’t, so none is superfluous. But I must warn that the Schwartz book should be used with caution. Schwartz has a tendency to present speculation as though it were established fact. For example, he writes (p. 236) that Baum “continued to suppress his guilt for his Aberdeen editorials against the Native Americans, which was still a touchy subject with his mother-in-law” – when in fact we have no evidence as to whether Baum regretted the editorials or indeed whether his mother-in-law even knew of them. (More about those editorials next time.) Or again, we’re told (p. 245) that Baum “would later allude to this critical point of departure in his life [i.e. his stint as a commercial traveler] by writing of the four companions as they headed into the dangerous Winkie country to find the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West” – despite there being no basis for knowing whether Baum intended any such allusion; certainly one does not need to have been a travelling salesman to come up with the idea of a difficult journey.
There are also some puzzling errors. Schwartz quotes (p. 101) as an in propria persona political opinion of Baum’s a line Baum actually gives to one of his fictional characters; he anachronistically attributes (p. 100) to Baum’s mother-in-law Matilda Gage the use of the phrase “the religious right” when he is actually quoting the modern scholar Sally Roesch Wagner; and in discussing the revelation of the Wizard’s true nature he describes the version from the 1939 movie – saying that the humbug is “revealed when Toto notices something behind a screen in the corner and essentially pulls away the curtain” (p. 280) – but attributes it to Baum’s 1900 novel instead. In fact what happens in Baum’s version is quite different: the Cowardly Lion “gave a large, loud roar, which was so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner.” (Wizard, ch. 15) In the book Toto does not “notice” the Wizard or intentionally disclose him; the revelation is accidental.
Baum had decided views on the appropriate content of children’s literature, and presented his own works as exemplary of his preferred criteria. I’m personally rather skeptical of “children’s literature” as a category; not every good book for adults is suitable for children, to be sure, but as C.S. Lewis observes, any good book for children should be enjoyable for adults. In any case, Baum’s books do not reliably follow his own advice.
For example, Baum held that children’s stories should dispense with both descriptive passages and love stories, since children, he thought, tended to be bored by both. (This wasn’t true of me; at age nine I was haunted by the opening descriptive lines of Dunsany’s Charwoman’s Shadow, and the female pulchritude in Neill’s drawings was one of their chief attractions for me.) But there are some fine descriptive passages in Baum’s work (the first chapter of Wizard being the most obvious example), and several of his books contain love stories.
Baum also criticises Dina Mulock’s book The Little Lame Prince for focusing on a disabled protagonist. With proto-Randian severity, Baum explains that while perhaps “many crippled children have derived a degree of comfort” from the book, “a normal child should not be harrassed [sic] with pitiful subjects,” and “even the maimed ones prefer to idolize the well and strong.”
Yet one of Baum’s major recurring protagonists, Cap’n Bill, has an artificial leg; and although he claims that his “wooden one was the best of the two,” Baum makes clear that it is in fact an impediment to Bill’s full mobility:
Cap'n Bill's left leg was missing, from the knee down, and that was why the sailor no longer sailed the seas. The wooden leg he wore was good enough to stump around with on land, or even to take Trot out for a row or a sail on the ocean, but when it came to “runnin’ up aloft” or performing active duties on shipboard, the old sailor was not equal to the task. The loss of his leg had ruined his career and the old sailor found comfort in devoting himself to the education and companionship of the little girl. (Scarecrow of Oz, ch. 1)
Moreover, Baum stresses Bill’s disability repeatedly. His wooden leg is “not so useful on a downgrade as on a level, and he had to be careful not to slip and take a tumble.” (Sea Fairies, ch. 2) “They could not go very fast because the sailorman’s wooden leg was awkward to run with and held them back” (Sky Island, ch. 11) “Cap’n Bill’s wooden leg would often go down deep and stick fast in this mud, and at such times he would be helpless.” (ch. 17) He once “stepped his wooden leg into a hole in the ground and tumbled full length.” (ch. 21) “It was no trouble for the girl to keep her footing on the steep way, but Cap’n Bill, because of his wooden leg, had to hold on to rocks and roots now and then to save himself from tumbling.” (Scarecrow, ch. 1) He is found “creeping along awkwardly because of his wooden leg,” and finds “hobbling on a wooden leg all day ... tiresome.” (ch. 3) “It was so difficult for Cap’n Bill to kneel down, with his wooden leg.” (ch. 5) “I’m not much good at [walking] because I've a wooden leg.” (ch. 8)
Cap’n Bill’s brother, who is similarly one-legged, “began to stump toward the door, but tripped his foot against his wooden leg and gave a swift dive forward,” where he “would have fallen flat had he not grabbed the drapery at the doorway and saved himself by holding fast to it with both hands,” but “rolled and twisted ... awkwardly before he could get upon his legs,” prompting Trot to uncharacteristically unkind laughter. (Scarecrow, ch. 14)
In a later episode, Bill and Trot, the latter now apparently chastened by her own temporary disability of being unable to move her feet from the ground, reflect more generally on the issue:
“... I’m gett’n’ tired standing here so long,” complained the girl. “If I could only lift one foot, and rest it, I’d feel better.”
“Same with me, Trot. I’ve noticed that if you’ve got to do a thing, and can’t help yourself, it gets to be a hardship mighty quick.”
“Folks that can raise their feet don’t appreciate what a blessing it is,” said Trot thoughtfully. “I never knew before what fun it is to raise one foot, an’ then another, any time you feel like it.”
“There’s lots o’ things folks don't ’preciate," replied the sailor-man. “If somethin’ would ’most stop your breath, you’d think breathin’ easy was the finest thing in life. When a person’s well, he don’t realize how jolly it is, but when he gets sick he ’members the time he was well, an’ wishes that time would come back. Most folks forget to thank God for givin’ ’em two good legs, till they lose one o’ ’em, like I did; and then it’s too late, ’cept to praise God for leavin’ one.” (Scarecrow, ch. 15 – a rare mention of God in Baum’s writings.)
Cap’n Bill is not presented as an object of pity; he lives a full life and makes important contributions to the protagonists’ adventures. All the same, Baum is inviting his able-bodied readers to empathise with the difficulties of the disabled, and at the same time presenting his disabled readers with a similarly disabled hero to admire – both things that Baum elsewhere warns writers against.
When Dorothy calls Cap’n Bill a “one-legged man,” Betsy Bobbin corrects her: he “isn’t one-legged” but simply “has one wooden leg” (Scarecrow, ch. 21) – thus resisting Dorothy’s presumption that two-leggedness must take a standard, “normal” form. Dorothy retorts that having a wooden leg is “almost as bad” as being genuinely one-legged; and it’s true, as we’ve seen, that Bill’s leg gives him trouble. But Bill can also turn his disability to advantage. He uses it to rescue the Scarecrow: “Cap’n Bill had the presence of mind to stick his wooden leg out over the water and the Scarecrow made a desperate clutch and grabbed the leg with both hands.” (Scarecrow, ch. 23) On a later occasion he uses it as a weapon to impale a predator, who tells him: “If you hadn’t had a magic leg, instead of a meat one, you couldn't have knocked me over so easily and stuck this wooden pin through me.” (Magic, ch. 9) The wooden leg also proves invulnerable to a spell that affects only flesh: “my wooden leg didn't take roots and grow, either,” for “it’s only flesh that gets caught.” (ch. 10) What counts as a handicap is thus shown to be context-relative.
Nor does Baum’s engagement with the concerns of the disabled end here. As Joshua Eyler points out in “Disability and Prosthesis in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 38.3 (Fall 2013), pp. 319-334), “the idea of disability unquestionably and powerfully appears as a thematic current” throughout the first Oz book (the only one Eyler considers): “From the well-known quest for the brain, the heart, and the courage that Dorothy’s three companions believe they are lacking, to the prosthetics they are given by the Wizard to appease them, to the unusual chapter on the brittle residents of the Dainty China Country, the novel’s use of disability is pervasive.”
Eyler points out an odd passage in which Dorothy and her friends stay overnight in a farmhouse on their way to the Emerald City. Baum tells us, concerning the father of the household: “The man had hurt his leg, and was lying on the couch in a corner.” (Wizard, ch. 10) As Eyler notes, Baum “jars the reader by mentioning the man’s injury out of the blue and then never referring to it again,” not even to tell “how the leg is injured or what caused the injury.” Eyler suggests that Baum “intentionally constructs this passage in such an ambiguous manner in order to set up the role disability will play in the novel.”
“I do not want people to call me a fool,” says the Scarecrow, explaining his desire for a brain. (Wizard, ch. 3) Eyler describes this as “an outward pressure, a construction of disability by society that manifests itself as an intrinsic devaluing of his own importance,” and notes that Baum “at every turn ... undercuts the Scarecrow’s socially constructed disability by demonstrating that he already has that which others tell him he is lacking.” Once the Scarecrow and his companions receive their gifts from the Wizard, they have not “actually changed in any way”; but “their prostheses have simply ameliorated the degree to which they feel the weight of society’s disapprobation.” One would not have expected these sorts of concerns from an author who had elsewhere insisted that children’s literature should concern itself exclusively with the “normal,” the “well and strong,” rather than with the “crippled” and “maimed.”
By contrast, Burger accuses Baum of demonising “bodily difference” through “freak discourse” (American Myth, p. 74), because the Wicked Witch is ugly – as though bodily difference were not likewise characteristic of the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, the Munchkins, and a good many other positively depicted characters.
Admittedly, Baum’s attitude toward difference can be hard to track. In one of the Oz books we’re told that “to be different from your fellow creatures is always a misfortune” (Emerald City, ch. 8); and in another, the normalisation of the Flatheads is presented as a desideratum: Glinda “caused the head to grow over the brains – in the manner most people wear them – and they were thus rendered as intelligent and good looking as any of the other inhabitants of the Land of Oz.” (Glinda, ch. 24)
But elsewhere Baum has the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion embrace diversity, at least partly on elitist grounds:
I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration in this world are the unusual ones. For the common folks are like the leaves of a tree, and live and die unnoticed. (Scarecrow, in Land, ch. 16)
Were we all like the Sawhorse we would all be Sawhorses, which would be too many of the kind; were we all like Hank, we would be a herd of mules; if like Toto, we would be a pack of dogs; should we all become the shape of the Woozy, he would no longer be remarkable for his unusual appearance. Finally, were you all like me, I would consider you so common that I would not care to associate with you. To be individual, my friends, to be different from others, is the only way to become distinguished from the common herd. Let us be glad, therefore, that we differ from one another in form and in disposition. Variety is the spice of life and we are various enough to enjoy one another's society; so let us be content. (Cowardly Lion, in Lost Princess, ch. 10)
The elitist aspect of the sentiment should probably not be taken too seriously; Baum regularly satirises those who cultivate eccentricity solely in order to feel superior to the majority:
People who are always understood are very common. You are sure to respect those you can’t understand, for you feel that perhaps they know more than you do. (Sea Serpent, Sea Fairies, ch. 5)
[A]s for doing anything, there’s no use in it. All I meet are doing something, so I have decided it’s common and uninteresting and I prefer to remain lonesome. (Lonesome Duck, Magic, ch. 15)
But the endorsement of diversity may be sincere on Baum’s part even if the elitist overtones are at least partly satirical.
|Boys and girls of every age, wouldn’t you like to see something strange?|
|Nothing scary to see here. Move along, move along.|
Four years later, in publicity for Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz, Baum elaborates:
I demanded fairy stories when I was a youngster ... and I was a critical reader too. One thing I never liked then, and that was the introduction of witches and goblins into the story. I didn’t like the little dwarfs in the woods bobbing up with their horrors. ... That’s why you’ll never find anything in my fairy tales which frightens a child. I remember my own feelings well enough to determine that I would never be responsible for a child’s nightmare. (Visitors, p. 217.)
And he adds elsewhere: “there should never be anything except sweetness and happiness in the Oz books, never a hint of tragedy or horror” (quoted in Hearn, Annotated Wizard, p. xcv).
But it’s hard to see how Baum could have said any of this with a straight face, inasmuch as his work is – to his credit – filled with creepy and frightening creatures and situations, which is one of the reasons children love them. He clearly knew that such material has uses other than to point morals, since he makes entertaining use of them himself, usually with no moral attached – though he is certainly capable of yoking them to heavy-handed sermonising on occasion, despite his disclaimers. The Scarecrow himself, though not scary in Baum’s treatment, had been based on a recurring nightmare from Baum’s own childhood, showing that Baum clearly understood the artistic potential of nightmares.
Moreover, at the time that Baum made his remarks about not using witches, dwarves, and goblins, he’d already put three wicked witches (East and West in Wizard, Mombi in Land) into the Oz books, and Nomes – surely a cross between dwarf and goblin – would soon follow in Ozma.
|More cloying sweetness and happiness from Baum.|
All the same, there is much to produce anxiety. Baum continually emphasises the dependence, fragility, and vulnerability of mere human flesh. In The Lost Princess of Oz, for example, the Wooden Sawhorse says: “you are all meat creatures, who tire unless they sleep, and starve unless they eat, and suffer from thirst unless they drink. Such animals must be very imperfect ....” (ch. 10) Likewise, the Patchwork Girl remarks: “You're afraid ... because so many things can hurt your meat bodies.” (ch. 18)
Yet at the same time Baum underlines the contingency of this dependence. Human beings can be transformed into nonmeat materials as Nick Chopper is, losing old vulnerabilities – though at the same time gaining new ones (e.g., Nick is vulnerable to rust, as the Scarecrow is to fire; and we’ve seen that in replacing his leg with a wooden one, Cap’n Bill likewise gains both advantages and disadvantages). But in any case, material embodiment is not destiny: girls can be transformed into boys (and back again), and royal families into bric-a-brac (and back again). Baum’s emphasis on corporeality coexists with a gesture toward the transgender and the transhuman.
Anxieties of material groundedness and vulnerability manifest in Baum’s economic realism, from Uncle Henry’s mortgage problems in Emerald City and the financial anxieties of Aunt Jane’s Nieces, to the grinding poverty that pervades the tales in Mother Goose in Prose. Yet he can also, sometimes, imagine post-scarcity utopias like Mo, Ev, and Oz, where, e.g., food grows on trees already cooked.
|This floating head is guaranteed to be not creepy at all.|
Examples of body horror are equally plentiful in Baum’s non-Oz work: an animated mannequin gets her ear torn off and her head caved in; a dragon is killed by stretching its body as thin as a fiddlestring; a bruised and bleeding gopher has his tail cut off and sold for two cents; a boy who is accidentally flattened by a clotheswringer must be reinflated through a hole cut in his head; a missionary is made into soap and cut into bars; a prince has to pluck out his own eye to prevent it from taking over his mind; the Sky Islanders use people as living pincushions, or punish them by splitting them in half and then mismatching the halves; a “somewhat brittle” candy man falls downhill and is broken into pieces, which his neighbours, also made of candy, promptly devour; one of the candy people’s babies partially melts through being inadvertently left in the sun; and Humpty-Dumpty lies “crushed and mangled among the sharp stones where he had fallen,” while his friend Coutchie-Coulou is “crushed into a shapeless mass by the hoof of one of the horses” as “her golden heart” is seen “spreading itself slowly over the white gravel.”
As Vivian Wagner writes: “Baum’s novels worry over bodies, animation, meat, and survival.” (“Unsettling Oz,” p. 28; Lion and the Unicorn 30 (2006), pp. 25-53)
In light of these passages, Baum’s insistence on a vast gulf between his kind of horror and the kind that pervades, say, Grimm’s fairy tales is about as credible as the distinction between good and bad taste in the 1954 testimony of Baum’s great successor, EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines, before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency:
Mr. BEASER: There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?
Mr. GAINES: Only within the bounds of good taste.
Mr. BEASER: Your own good taste and salability?
Mr. GAINES: Yes.
Sen. KEFAUVER: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
Mr. GAINES: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
Sen. KEFAUVER: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
Mr. GAINES: A little.
C. S. Lewis says, of those who object to scary stories for children, that he himself “suffered too much from night-fears ... in childhood to undervalue this objection.” Nevertheless, he worries that such objections too often mean that we should “keep out of [the child’s] mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil.”
There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. ... Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons .... Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.
As Rebecca Loncraine points out, Baum’s interest in body horror may stem in part from his own historical context:
The Civil War was one of the first conflicts to use amputation on a large scale. ... People whom the Baums knew before the war would have been recognizable but changed. Many men walked with a limp, with the aid of a stick, and concealed prosthetics arms and legs beneath their clothes. ... One veteran, Henry A. Barnum (no relation to P. T. Barnum), became widely known in Syracuse in the years following the war, and young Frank Baum was sure to have seen him. The veteran had been shot through his side, and the bullet’s passage through him remained open. He displayed it as a curiosity, pushing a long stick all the way through his flesh, following the line of the original wound, as though he were made of dough .... (Real Wizard, pp. 33-34)
An uneasy – but at the same time playful – tension between bodily alteration as horror and bodily alteration as salutary difference runs through Baum’s work. Nick Chopper’s fate, for example, initially seems horrific, as his body is “chopped ... into several small pieces,” leaving his “arms and legs and head” to be “picked up ... and made [into] a bundle.” But after all his parts have been replaced with tin, he comes to consider “the tin head far superior to the meat one.” (Tin Woodman, ch. 2)
Not all of Baum’s examples of body horror have such a silver (or tin) lining, however. This blog takes its name from a particularly disturbing example originally intended for The Patchwork Girl of Oz: “The Garden of Meats,” in which conscious, ambulatory vegetables plant human children in the ground and raise them for food. The sequence was cut by the publisher’s request:
We are inclined to believe it would be best to omit Chapter XXI, ‘The Garden of Meats.’ As we see it, this chapter is not at all essential to the movement of the story, and we do not think that the ideas therein are in harmony with your other fairy stories. If this chapter remains in the book we should fear (and expect) considerable adverse criticism. (Rogers, Creator of Oz, p. 198)
– but not before Neill had illustrated it:
How could Baum fill his stories with horror and still believe that they were horror-free? Well, I’m inclined to think he couldn’t. In particular, I have a hard time imagining that he could sincerely slam the use of witches in children’s stories without remembering that he had just written two good witches and three wicked ones, with more on the way.
As I see it, Baum was faced with a problem: the adults who buy books for children, and the children who are supposed to end up reading them, are two different audiences with different demands. The difficulty was to deliver the goods to the second group, providing young readers with the creepy thrills they quite properly wanted, while not getting shut down by the gatekeepers from the first group, all too often in thrall to insipid Victorian fantasies about the need to provide children with a diet of sweetness-and-light mush.
|Alan Moore channels his inner Baum.|
As Baum wrote in the newspaper he edited in Dakota Territory in the early 1890s:
There is no vice so prevalent, nor one with which the public is more familiar, than that of mercantile fabrications, or, more plainly, trade lies. It is the age of deception and adulteration, and the people know it; yet they accept the most preposterous statements of the purity and honesty of goods without emotion, knowing at the same time that the gentle shopkeeper’s claims will not hold water. Nor do they attach blame to the merchant, who is frequently well meaning and who (outside his store) would scorn to utter an untruth or mislead his friends. After giving the matter careful thought, we have arrived at the conclusion that the public likes to have the goods they buy pronounced of superior quality .... Merchants seldom acknowledge, even to themselves, the various devices employed to hook a customer, or the deceptions practiced to make them believe in the value of an article. ... Barnum was right when he declared the American people liked to be deceived. At least they make no effort to defend themselves. The merchants are less to blame than their customers .... (Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, 8 February 1890; quoted in Koupal, Baum’s Road, pp. 111-114)
Or likewise, as he wrote in a later and better-known work:
Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Lion exactly what they thought they wanted. “How can I help being a humbug,” he said, “when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can't be done? ...” (Wizard, ch. 16)
My guess is that Baum sailed as close to the line as he thought he could get away with; when the “Garden of Meats” chapter made what he was doing just a bit too obvious, he backpedaled and assured his publisher: “I am glad you objected to the 21st. chapter of The Patchwork Girl, for I do not like it myself.” Believe him if you like.
Unfortunately, many of Baum’s critics seem to have fallen for the humbug. Gillian Avery, for example, writes:
[Baum] aimed ... to exclude ‘all disagreeable incidents ... heartaches and nightmares’ and to retain only ‘wonderment and joy’. ... Those who have been reared from earliest childhood on the traditional European tales expect shadow as well as light, are used to violence and the suffering endured by the heroes and heroines as well as by the villains, and do not expect these to be glossed over and eliminated – even when presented to children .... The Wizard of Oz has the easy optimism ... the message that nothing is unpleasant if you don’t want it to be; together with a blandness that the European reader finds cloying. (Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books, 1621-1922, pp. 144-145)
And more recently, Laura Miller has described Oz as a “sanitized” fantasy with no real danger or fright. Evidently Baum’s introductory remarks to Wizard act on some readers as a kind of posthypnotic suggestion – or green spectacles –preventing them from seeing horror and suffering even when they are plainly in the text. (Avery also refers to the 1939 film as “a rare instance of a film that improves a book,” so there you go.)
Happily, not all critics have been so easily taken in. Richard Tuerk, for example, writes: “L. Frank Baum’s Oz books are richer than most critics recognize. They are also darker. Many critics seem to have allowed Baum’s own statements about his intentions in his works to mislead them.” (Oz in Perspective, p. 201) Katharine Rogers notes that if Avery “had valued [Baum’s] books enough to read them with attention, she would have found that they include both alarming perils and recognition of human folly and evil.” (Creator of Oz, p. xvi) And the great James Thurber sensibly observes:
I am glad that in spite of his high determination, Mr. Baum failed to keep [the heartaches and nightmares] out. Children love a lot of nightmare and at least a little heartache in their books. And they get them in the Oz books. I know that I went through excruciatingly lovely nightmares and heartaches when the Scarecrow lost his straw, when the Tin Woodman was taken apart, when the Saw-Horse broke his wooden leg (it hurt for me, even if it didn’t for Mr. Baum). (quoted in Hearn, Annotated Wizard, p. 7)
Thurber was a man who could taste the difference between apple juice and hard cider.
Thurber does seem to think, however, that the gap between theory and practice was inadvertent on Baum’s part, a case in which he “failed” to live up to his “high determination.” Burger likewise writes that “Baum failed in this goal” (American Myth, p. 214), seemingly implying that he did nonetheless have such a goal. And Charity Gibson, while noting that “it is questionable whether or not he succeeded in leaving out heartache and nightmares,” still takes Baum at his word that “he was trying.” (“The Wizard of Oz as a Modernist Work,” p. 110; in Durand & Leigh, Universe of Oz, pp. 107-118) As noted above, I am rather more inclined to agree with Tuerk when he writes: “That so many nightmarish episodes could result by accident or that Baum could have been unaware of them or their implications seems preposterous.” (Oz in Perspective, p. 204) Rogers seems to express a similar skepticism. (Creator of Oz, p. 265)
Before he became a children’s writer, Baum worked inter alia as an actor, a special-effects stage technician, a salesman and ad-copy writer, and the editor of a journal devoted to methods for creating alluring shop-window displays. He was a master of presentation, of illusion, of misdirection. Of course he knew what he was doing. The only difference between Baum and his wizardly creation is that the Wizard was concealing an innocuous reality behind a hair-raising front, while Baum was concealing a hair-raising reality behind an innocuous front. So which is truly the greater and more terrible wizard?
[To be continued.
Next up: Philosophy! Feminism! Fission!]