L Frank Baum (1856 – 1919)

Lyman Frank Baum (May 15, 1856- May 6, 1919) was an American author, philatelist, and the creator, along with illustrator W.

W. Denslow, of one of the most popular books ever written in American children's literature, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Frank was born in Chittenango, New York, into a Protestant family of German origin, the seventh of nine children born to Cynthia Stanton and Benjamin Ward Baum, only five of whom survived into adulthood. He was named "Lyman" after his father's brother, but always disliked this name, and preferred to go by "Frank". His mother, Cynthia Stanton, was a direct descendant of Thomas Stanton, one of the four Founders of what is now Stonington, Connecticut.

Benjamin Baum was a wealthy businessman, who had made his fortune in the oil fields of Pennsylvania. Frank grew up on his parents' expansive estate, Rose Lawn, which he always remembered fondly as a sort of paradise. As a young child Frank was tutored at home with his siblings, but at the age of 12 he was sent to study at Peekskill Military Academy. Frank was a sickly child given to daydreaming, and his parents may have thought he needed toughening up. But after two utterly miserable years at the military academy, following an incident described as a heart attack, he was allowed to return home.

Frank started writing at an early age, perhaps due to an early fascination with printing. His father bought him a cheap printing press, and Frank used it to produce The Rose Lawn Home Journal with the help of his younger brother, Harry Clay Baum, with whom he had always been close. The brothers published several issues of the journal and were even able to sell ads. By the time he was 17, Baum had established a second amateur journal, The Stamp Collector, printed an 11-page pamphlet called Baum's Complete Stamp Dealers' Directory, and started a stamp dealership with his friends.

At about the same time Frank embarked upon his lifetime infatuation with theater and the performing arts, a devotion which would repeatedly lead him to failure and near-bankruptcy. His first such failure occurred at age 18, when a local theatrical company duped him into replenishing their stock of costumes, with the promise of leading roles that never came his way. Disillusioned, Baum left the theatre-temporarily-and went to work as a clerk in his brother-in-law's dry goods company in Syracuse.

At the age of 20, Baum took on a new vocation: the breeding of fancy poultry, which was a national craze at the time. He specialized in raising a particular breed of fowl, the Hamburg chicken. In 1880 he established a monthly trade journal, The Poultry Record, and in 1886, when Baum was 30 years old, his first book was published: The Book of the Hamburgs: A Brief Treatise upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Different Varieties of Hamburgs.

Yet Baum could never stay away from the stage long. He continued to take roles in plays, performing under the stage names of Louis F. Baum and George Brooks.

In 1880 his father made him manager of a string of theaters that he owned, and Baum set about writing plays and gathering a company to act in them. The Maid of Arran, a melodrama based on William Blacks' novel A Princess of Thule, proved a great success. Baum not only wrote the play but composed songs for it, and acted in the leading role.

On November 9, 1882, Baum married Maud Gage, a daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a then famous women's suffrage activist.

The South Dakota years

In July 1888, Baum and his wife moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he opened a store, "Baum's Bazaar". His habit of giving out wares on credit led to the eventual bankrupting of the store, so Baum turned to editing a local newspaper, The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, where he wrote a famous column, Our Landlady. Baum's description of Kansas in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is based on his experiences in drought-ridden South Dakota.

After Baum's newspaper failed in 1891, he and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Baum took a job reporting for the Evening Post. For several years he edited a magazine for advertising agencies focused on window displays in stores. The major department stores created elaborate Christmas time fantasies, using clockwork mechanism that made it seem that people were moving.

Children thought it was magic, and adults wondered if there was not a man behind the curtain pulling the levers. In 1897 he wrote and published Mother Goose In Prose a collection of Mother Goose rhymes written as prose stories, and illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. Mother Goose was a moderate success, and allowed Baum to quit his door-to-door job.

In 1899 Baum partnered with illustrator W. W. Denslow, to publish Father Goose: His Book, a collection of nonsense poetry. The book was a success, becoming the best selling children's book of the year.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Baum and Denslow were deeply involved in both the politics of the 1890s and the images that were used. Drawing on this experience they constructed a "modern fairy tale". In 1900, Baum and Denslow (with whom he shared the copyright) published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to much critical and financial acclaim. The book was the bestselling children's book for two years after its initial publication. Baum went on to write thirteen other novels based on the places and people of The Land Of Oz. The book was heavily influenced by landmarks in Holland, Michigan where he would stay with his great-grandfather. In fact, the Yellow Brick Road was named after winding cobblestone roads in that town.

Two years after Wizard's publication, Baum and Denslow teamed up with composer Paul Tietjens and director Julian Mitchell to produce a musical stage version of the book. It ran on Broadway 293 stage nights from 1902 to 1911, and also successfully toured the United States. The stage version starred Dave Montgomery and Fred Stone as the Tin Woodman and Scarecrow respectively, which shot the pair to instant fame at the time. The stage version differed quite a bit from the book, and was aimed primarily at adults. Toto was replaced with Imogene the Cow, and Tryxie Tryfle, a waitress and Pastoria, a streetcar operator were added as fellow Cyclone victims. Baum had the actors make explicit reference to President Theodore Roosevelt, Senator Mark Hanna, and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller.

Later life and work

With the success of Wizard, Baum and Denslow hoped lightning would strike a third time and in 1901 published Dot and Tot Of Merryland. The book was one of Baum's weakest, and its failure further strained his faltering relationship with Denslow. It would be their last collaboration.

Several times during the development of the Oz series, Baum declared that he had written his last Oz book and devoted himself to other works of fantasy fiction based in other magical lands, including Queen Zixi Of Ix. However, persuaded by popular demand, letters from children, and the failure of his new books, he returned to the series each time. All of his novels have fallen into public domain in most jurisdictions, and many are available through Project Gutenberg.

His final book, Glinda Of Oz was published a year after his death in 1920 but the Oz series was continued long after his death by other authors, notably Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote an additional nineteen Oz books.

Baum made use of several pseudonyms for some of his other, non-Oz books. They include:

* Edith Van Dyne (the Aunt Jane's Nieces series)
* Laura Bancroft (Twinkle and Chubbins, Policeman Bluejay)
* Floyd Akers (the Sam Steele series)
* Suzanne Metcalf (Annabel)
* Schuyler Staunton (Daughters of Destiny)
* John Estes Cooke
* Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald

Baum also anonymously wrote The Last Egyptian: A Romance of the Nile.

Baum died on May 6, 1919, aged 63, and was buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California.

Baum's beliefs


During the events leading up to the Wounded Knee Massacre, Baum wrote a racist editorial for the Saturday Pioneer stating that the Native Americans (whom he described as "whining curs" in sharp contrast to the opening lines of the same editorial in which he speaks respectfully of Sitting Bull and expressed contempt for the behavior of white men toward him*) should be completely annihilated.

A contradictory opinion points out that his overall writing is remarkably inclusive and his characters diverse; though vocabulary was racist by today's standards, he did, at least, acknowledge Americans of non-European ancestry. And much of his writing, such as the short story, The Enchanted Buffalo, which purports to be a Native American fable, speaks with utmost respect for tribal peoples. It is unfortunate that these two short editorials, written when he was ill and the community was living in terror, continue to haunt his legacy.

* [Sitting Bull] was an Indian with a white man's spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his. In his day he saw his son and his tribe gradually driven from their possessions: forced to give up their old hunting grounds and espouse the hard working and uncongenial avocations of the whites. And these, his conquerors, were marked in their dealings with his people by selfishness, falsehood and treachery. What wonder that his wild nature, untamed by years of subjection, should still revolt? What wonder that a fiery rage still burned within his breast and that he should seek every opportunity of obtaining vengeance upon his natural enemies. The proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies inherited through centuries of fierce and bloody wars for their possession, lingered last in the bosom of Sitting Bull. With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished..."

Was The Wizard Of Oz a political allegory?

In 1964, a high school history teacher named Henry Littlefield published an article in the journal American Quarterly analyzing characters and elements in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as metaphors for political figures and events of the 1890s, in particular the Populist movement and debates over the gold standard. Many scholars, economists and historians have expanded on Littlefield's interpretation ever since, pointing to multiple similarities between the characters (especially as depicted in Denslow's illustrations) and stock figures from editorial cartoons of the period. Baum had been a political editor in the 1890s, and Denslow was an editorial cartoonist as well as an illustrator of children's books.

Baum inserted a series of political references into the 1902 stage version, such as references by name to the President and a powerful senator, and to John D. Rockefeller for providing the oil needed by the Tin Woodman. Scholars have found few political references in Baum's Oz books after 1902. When Baum himself was asked whether his stories had hidden meanings, he always replied that they were written to please children and generate an income for his family. As a staunch Republican and avid supporter of Women's Suffrage, Baum personally did not support the political ideals of either the Populist movement of 1890-92 or the Bryanite-silver movement of 1896-1900. He published a poem in support of William McKinley.

Whether this invalidates the political interpretation or not depends in part on the reader's attitude towards authorial intent and what literary critics have termed the intentional fallacy.

Most fans of the Oz books reject any political interpretation. Since lovers of Baum's fantasy and students of America in the 1890s approach the text with different intentions, it is perhaps not surprising that they come to different interpretations.

Books by L Frank Baum