Centenary of a sixty-one-year-old hit…
The Wizard of Oz
Lyman Frank Baum was born near Syracuse, New York on 15 May 1856. For the sixty-three years up to his death in 1919 he pioneered his way through a variety of small-town enterprises: travelling theatre company (for which he wrote at least three plays), lubricant salesman, glassware salesman, inventor of the profession of window-dressing, and an early adventurer in the emergent movie industry. Bankruptcy or its threat never seemed to mar his enthusiasms or cause him to lose faith in the potential of his ideas.
Publishing the Book
He started to write for children during his window-trimming days in Chicago. His first book, Mother Goose in Prose (1897) – which was also the first book to be illustrated by the Golden Age painter, Maxfield Parrish – was sufficiently successful to encourage him to a follow-up: Father Goose, His Book (1899), a picture book with remarkable illustrations by another newcomer to children’s books, William Wallace Denslow. This proved an immediate success, which was just as well since author and artist were already well advanced in collaboration on another work, a story ‘written solely to pleasure the children of today’, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, copyrighted 1899 and published in Chicago by George M. Hill in 1900 (the year in which Baum also published The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors). The Wizard was slower to catch on than Father Goose, but once it got going it was – in the USA – unstoppable and Baum, to his dismay, found himself having to write a dozen or so sequels, all of which were illustrated by John R. Neill. That still wasn’t enough, and after Baum’s death the series was continued by Ruth Plumly Thompson.
approaches banality sufficiently closely for us to feel no surprise at its status as the U.S.A.’s classic fantasy. Certainly it adopts the traditional patterning of folktales*. The action is triggered by a catastrophe, the heroine sets out on a quest of recovery, she meets companions (known to you all), they undergo dangers, and after reaching their goal they are set tasks before their various quests are (with magic helpers) resolved. The story is told with great geniality, and, by having the Emerald City emerald by means of a goofy trick and by having the Great Wizard a humbug, on his own admission, Baum introduces playful elements ‘for the children of today’. But the book is let down by its casual plotting, with no attempt at dramatic tension (‘disagreeable incidents’ were not wanted) and this is matched by his lumbering prose. What storyteller worth his place in the mead-hall would go in for sentences like ‘They walked along listening to the singing of the bright-coloured birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them.’ It’s no great wonder that the book made no headway in Europe (first London edition 1926) and that it was only with the arrival of Judy Garland, Frank Lahr et al. in 1939, to the tune of an irrelevant song, that classic status was achieved.
it does not do to forget Baum’s collaborator, W. W. Denslow the illustrator. He used his author’s rather mundane text as an excuse for a display of graphic pyrotechnics for which there had been no precedent. Adopting techniques drawn from art nouveau experiments in design and recognizing the potential of photographic plate-making, he threw into The Wizard an array of images that gave it the vigour that was lacking: decorative initials and chapter head-pieces, spot-drawings and marginal drawings enlivening the pages, colour-plates on coated paper and a sequence of tints throughout the book which corresponded to Dorothy’s journey through Oz’s coloured counties. Above all, he ‘did a Tenniel’ by fixing forever the character (beyond anything Baum had done) of Dorothy, Toto, her three companions, and the reluctant Wizard himself. That is classic – absolutely – and how some dimwit reviewer in the TES can call Lizbeth Zwerger’s recent edition – at once weedy and pretentious – ‘definitive’ is beyond belief.
Note: The glimpses of Denslow’s style seen here are from the fully annotated edition of The Wizard of Oz, ed. Susan Wolstenholme, in the ‘World’s Classics’ series (Oxford University Press, 1997, 0 19 283930 6, £4.99 pbk). Not ‘definitive’, but far more in tune with the text than Zwerger’s, are the illustrations also reproduced here by Michael Foreman for ‘The Centenary Edition’ (Pavilion Books, 1999, 1 86205 343 X, £14.99).
* See references ad nauseam to Vladimir Propp in the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (to be reviewed in BfK No.126) – if you can find them.
Brian Alderson is Chair of the Children’s Books History Society and the chief children’s book consultant for The Times.