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L. Frank Baum: Wizard of Oz

Published: 5/6/2014
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L. Frank Baum (Wikimedia Commons / Los Angeles Times)

Author L. Frank Baum is as respected today as his creations – among them Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion – are unforgettable. Before his death May 6, 1919, at 62, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz completed more than 55 novels, 200 poems and dozens of short stories and scripts.

But Baum was not an overnight success. He long struggled to support his wife and four sons on a writer's earnings. By all accounts a gentle man who loved spinning stories aloud to the delight of his children and their friends, Baum tried his hand unsuccessfully at breeding poultry, selling fireworks and hawking dishes door-to-door.

On the eve of Christmas 1900, the 44-year-old Baum was worried about having enough money to buy gifts for his family. He decided to ask his publisher for an advance on the royalties for the five books he'd written that year, according to a biographical article by Kelly K. Ferguson in Mental Floss magazine. Baum took the check and, without looking at it, went home and handed it to his wife, Maud, who was ironing.

What happened next, according to Ferguson: "At the same moment, they both discovered that it was for $1,423.98 – roughly $40,000 today. Paralyzed with disbelief, Maud burned a hole through the shirt. The book, of course, was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

Born May 15, 1856, to a wealthy New York family, Baum was always drawn to writing. As a teenager, he and his brother wrote and published The Rose Lawn Journal, a newspaper named after their family's home. In his 20s, he wrote, produced and acted in plays.

In the 1890s, Baum settled in Chicago with his wife and growing brood of children. In 1897 he published Mother Goose in Prose followed by Father Goose, His Book a few years later. Both sold well, with the latter book becoming the best-selling book of 1899.

"Kids loved his tales because they weren't thinly disguised morality lessons. Instead, Baum's stories were fantasies filled with candy, toys, magic and adventure," Ferguson noted.

Baum recognized that his story of a magical world of witches and Munchkins was special. Baum's children loved the stories of Dorothy's travels and he began to write them down in longhand. Baum told Publisher's Weekly in 1903 that he came up with the name "Oz" by looking at drawers of his office filing cabinet: one labeled A-G, the next H-N and the last O-Z. "This is the story Baum himself told, and I have no reason to doubt it," said Michael Hearn, author of The Annotated Wizard of Oz. "Of course, the man was a great storyteller, and the name could have come from anywhere – even a tube of toothpaste."

In the book's introduction, Baum wrote that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written "solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out."

The book proved an instant success. The reading public called for more tales and Baum eventually wrote 13 sequels, becoming known as the "Royal Historian of Oz."

"It seems that Baum did not want to write as many sequels as he did, for he wanted to write other kinds of children's books but the children's requests were incessant," according to the Literary Traveler website.

In 1903, a musical based on the book began an acclaimed run on Broadway. The movie starring Judy Garland was released in 1939, 20 years after Baum's death. The production was more faithful to Baum's story than the play had been, although there were some Hollywood touches: Dorothy's shoes in the book are silver. MGM turned them ruby red to show off the relatively new Technicolor film process. The famous line, "And your little dog, too!" does not appear in the novel. But the key difference? In the film, Oz is a dream. In Baum's novels, it was a real place and Auntie Em and Uncle Henry later joined Dorothy there. As Ferguson noted, "As it turned out, nobody really wanted to go home to Kansas."

Baum once said that his books "are intended for all those whose hearts are young, no matter what their ages may be." Today, his books are still being discovered and enjoyed by a new generation.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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