"There's no place like home."
It's hard to imagine a more iconic scene from Hollywood. The Wizard of Oz has become one of the best known and beloved films, honored by the Library of Congress and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Based on L. Frank Baum's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the world of Oz has become a beloved American institution. Published over a century ago, the novel remains an important entry in the children's and speculative fiction canons, entrancing readers for generations.
Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15th, 1856, in Chittenango, New York, to Benjamin Ward Baum and Cynthia Ann Stanton. One of nine children, he was born with a heart defect and tutored at home for most of his childhood in Syracuse, New York. Introduced to a range of books, he was particularly taken with fairy tales, Charles Dickens and others. The desire to write came early: At the age of 15, he received a printing press, with which he put together a small magazine alongside his brother. Shortly thereafter, he began to find work as an editor and writer for other local publications, before turning to writing for the stage in the 1880s.
In 1881, Baum married Maud Gage, the daughter of a feminist writer who had collaborated with such figures as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Throughout this point in his life, he worked a number of additional jobs, ranging from managing theaters to selling oil products. With his father's death in 1887, the family's oil business collapsed, prompting the Baum family to head west.
Impoverished, he found new ways to support his family, often writing and reporting wherever he could. Eventually, he turned to writing children's books. In 1896, he wrote a short fantasy children's novel about the fantastic valley of Mo and its inhabitants. The book, later published in 1900 as A New Wonderland, featured many fantastic and dark elements, blending modern-day innovations such as electricity alongside dragons, wizards and kings. The second world of Mo prefigured that of his better known Oz series, introducing a fantastical world that exists within our own.
His first published book, Mother Goose in Prose, appeared in 1897 and collected 22 stories based on the nursery rhymes. One of the stories, “Little Bun Rabbit,” included a young girl named Dorothy, who would reappear in his later stories. The book sold well, and he then started work on his own book of poetry which he intended just for family and friends. But the collection, titled By the Candelabra's Glare, led to a collaboration with artist William Denslow. Their collaboration led to another project: 1899's Father Goose, His Book, another book of short verses for children. The book was immensely successful, becoming the best-selling children's book of the year.
In 1899, the pair began work on another project, a longer fantasy novel, written by Baum and illustrated by Denslow. The story poured out of Baum, and the two financed the production of the novel themselves. In it, a young girl named Dorothy lives in Kansas with her adoptive Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. When a tornado sweeps through their farm, it carries Dorothy and her dog Toto to the magical land of Oz, where upon landing, she kills the evil Witch of the East, and embarks on a quest to return home, befriending a cowardly lion, a brainless scarecrow and a heartless tin woodsman along the way.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900. It was positioned by Baum in his introduction as the first of a new breed of fairy tale, updated and relevant for the modern youngster: "the time has come for a series of newer 'wonder tales' in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale." Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertaining in its wonder tales." Denslow’s illustrations complimented the prose, using bright, vivid colors.
Baum's novel contains a number of modern elements, and has a distinct American styling that sets it apart from its European counterparts; the large-scale farming of the Munchkins is reminiscent of the vast farmland of the American Midwest, while the Tin Woodsman's story of dismemberment and mechanical replacement is an advanced image for its day—he can be considered a forerunner to the modern cyborg:"I knew a one-legged man could not do very well as a wood-chopper. So I went to a tin smith and had him make me a new leg out of tin. The leg worked very well once I was used to it." Blending science fiction and fantasy elements into the story, Baum put together a new sort of novel, one lighter in tone from his Mo novel.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was well received by the public. The New York Times reviewed the book in September of 1900, noting that “the result has been ‘a book that rises far above the average children’s book of today, high as is the present standard…the book has a bright and joyous atmosphere and does not dwell upon killing and deeds of violence. Enough stirring adventure enters into it, however, to flavor it with zest, and it will indeed be strange if there be a normal child who will not enjoy the story.” Alongside the book, Baum also wrote a stage play for the novel, which was highly successful.
At the time, Baum wasn’t sure of how successful The Wonderful Wizard of Oz book would be, and accordingly, he didn’t plan on doing a sequel, moving onto several other projects over the next couple of years. In 1901, he published The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, described as a “Jules Verne type of story, the adventures of a boy who is able to wield futuristic inventions; on a more personal level, its theme is the same as that of The Wizard, the gaining of wisdom through experience.” 1901 also brought Dot and Tot in Merryland, which featured a boy and girl and their adventures after coming across the seven valleys of Merryland. In 1902, Baum published The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, and in 1903, The Enchanted Island of Yew.
In 1904, Baum returned to Oz with a new adventure: The Marvelous Land of Oz. His motivations for doing so were driven by a couple of factors: The play had done very well, and as it began to wind down, a replacement was needed, with some of the more popular characters, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodsman returning for a new adventure. Baum also faced some issues with his publisher, and with two friends beginning a publishing company of their own and in need of a sure seller, he jumped at the chance to write a sequel. On top of those factors, Baum received hundreds of letters from children, many of which asked for new adventures in Oz.
This new story picked up after the events of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and followed a boy named Tip Gillikin, the northern county of Oz. He flees the witch Mombi after creating Jack Pumkinhead and gets caught up in a new adventure with the Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman as they try and uncover the true ruler of Emerald City, Princess Ozma, who had been hidden by the Wizard. Tip, it turns out, is actually Ozma, and was transformed by the witch’s magic. Money plays a notable role in this story, and it seems as though Baum used the book to experiment with some messaging. At one point, the Scarecrow loses his straw stuffing, only to have it replaced with worthless currency.
Baum’s next novel came in 1905: Queen Zixi of Ix takes on a number of similar themes and locations as that of the Oz novels, even as it’s described as having a more European brand of fairy-tale feel. At the same time, Baum put together a stage production of The Marvelous Land, and a short book of Oz stories, The Woggle-Bug Book, which would also be turned into a play. Ultimately, however, it failed, and Baum took several years away from playwriting. He continued to publish novels such, as John Dough and the Cherub, Daughters of Destiny, and Annabel, all in 1906.
1907 brought the next Oz novel, Ozma of Oz. The book starts with Dorothy on a trip to Australia when she and a chicken are swept overboard in a storm and wash up on shore. There, they learn that they’ve arrived in the Land of Ev, where they meet a clockwork man, Tik Tok, who tells them that the royal family is missing. At the same time, Ozma of Oz embarks on a quest to rescue the Ev family, where she meets Dorothy.
Ozma of Oz is notable for its continuation of Dorothy and Ozma’s stories, but also for the introduction of Tik Tok, who can be considered one of the first robots in fiction.
“For, standing within the narrow chamber of rock, was the form of a man—or, at least, it seemed like a man, in the dim light. He was only about as tall as Dorothy herself, and his body was round as a ball and made out of burnished copper. Also his head and limbs were copper, and these were jointed or hinged to his body in a peculiar way, with metal caps over the joints, like the armor worn by knights in days of old.”
Baum uses Dorothy to point out the differences between Tik-Tok and the Tin Woodsman: “ ‘Once,’ said Dorothy, ‘I knew a man made out of tin, who was a woodman named Nick Chopper. But he was as alive as we are, 'cause he was born a real man, and got his tin body a little at a time.’ ” Tik-Tok has three keys that regulate his thinking, talking and movement, with directions included on a card. His halting speech pattern also seems to have prefigured the idea of how robots in later science-fiction novels, television shows and films were supposed to talk: “Good morn-ing, lit-tle girl. Good morn-ing, Mrs. Hen.”
Tik-Tok wasn’t the first robot to appear in prose: Others, such as Edward Ellis’ The Steam Man of the Prairie (1868) and Frank Reade and his Electric Man by Harry Enton (1885) preceded—and possibly influenced—Baum’s works by several decades. However, Tik-Tok remains an influential figure due to the popularity of the Oz novels. While the word “robot” wouldn’t appear until later, he remains an excellent early example of a mechanical man.
Baum’s novels introduced several interesting concepts to young readers, such as robots and cyborgs, and also included a number of extremely progressive elements. The lead characters for each novel are young women who are placed in perilous situations and escape through their wits. Tip/Ozma presents an interesting case in and of itself, as the character shifts genders from male to female. Additionally, Baum shows off armies composed entirely of women, with female commanders. Baum seems to have been heavily influenced by the politics of his mother and wife, and notably wrote in the defense of women’s suffrage a full two decades before women had the right to vote in the United States.
Baum would continue to regularly publish Oz stories for the rest of his life, 14 volumes in all. Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz appeared in 1908 and was followed by 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); and Glinda of Oz (1920). Baum didn’t live to see the final two books in the series in print: On May 5th, 1919, he suffered from a stroke, and died the following day. His final words were appropriate: “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands.” A month later, The Magic of Oz appeared in bookstores, and in 1920, his final Oz story was published.
Oz began as a stand-alone children’s novel and transformed into a major enterprise that has since become a staple in children’s and genre literature. Read by millions of young readers (such as Ray Bradbury), Baum’s fingerprint remains present in genre history. Baum’s stories also demonstrate the importance of the story’s platform. The novels began their lives as books, before immediately being adapted for the stage and film in the years after. The 1939 film version, starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, has become a major fixture in America’s film canon.
Further adaptations have since been released over the years, most recently, the SciFi channel’s 2007 interpretation Tin Man (not to mention almost continual references in their television show Stargate: SG-1); Walt Disney’s Oz: The Great and Powerful in 2013; and the animated Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, which came out earlier this month. Novels, such as Geoff Ryman’s Was, and Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and its sequels by Gregory Maguire, to Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen, have continued Baum’s legacy a century beyond his first stories.