The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
To me, the title alone stirs up images from my childhood, curled in bed as my mother made the story come alive or hiding my face behind the pillow every single time Margaret Hamilton’s neon face came on screen during the classic film adaption. It’s a tale universally known by readers and non-readers alike, the names “Dorothy and Toto” firmly cemented into pop culture even now, almost a hundred and twenty years since their inception, spanning countless books, art, films, and adaptations. It is, quite simply, one of the best known and well-loved children’s stories of all time.
But, as is often the case, the story behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been lost behind the sheer inertia of the enterprise itself. To so many, it seems as if Dorothy and her companions have simply always existed, a part of Americana before Americana was a thing. L. Frank Baum, the book’s author, added to this aura by claiming his inspiration from the book came out of thin air, telling his publisher “The story really seemed to write itself.”
Yes, the legend around Oz is one befitting of a tale filled with witches and munchkins and magic shoes. The only problem is that, like the Wizard himself, its all humbug.
The story was actually born from a lifetime of failures and rejections.
Lyman Frank Baum was born to a wealthy family in upstate New York in May of 1856, a sickly child whose weak heart gave him an inclination towards reading and writing, rather than games and athletics like his other siblings. Although sharp-witted, handsome, and bright, Frank (as he preferred to be called) spent most of his life wandering, much like the heroine of his yet-to-be-written story, searching for a place, a meaning, a purpose.
At age thirteen, he was sent to the Peekskill Military Academy, his father’s answer to “toughen up” his frail and sensitive son. Not surprisingly, military life did not suit him. In his second year, during a caning for idle behavior, Frank suffered a heart attack–or, perhaps, faked one incredibly well. Whatever the case, his time at Peerskill was at an end.
In 1881, he was introduced by his sister to Ms. Maud Gage, the woman who would later become his wife…but not without obstacles. For Maud’s mother was none other than Matilda Joslyn Gage, the prominent suffragette and women’s rights champion. She disapproved of Frank immediately, citing his propensity for daydreaming and his by-now failed attempts as an actor and playwright. He was no good as a man, and especially no good as a husband.
Determined to prove his mother-in-law wrong, Frank embarked on several businesses, including chicken farmer, oil salesman, and novelty store owner. Each and every single endeavor eventually failed. Despite his creativity and passion for writing, even his attempt at running a newspaper came to nothing. By age 43, Frank was in Chicago, trying to support his four children by selling china in a local shop and barely making ends meet.
He was, by all accounts, a middle-aged failure. In every respect, that is, except inside his own head.
Swallowing self doubt and digging deep into the rejections of his past, Frank began working on the story that would eventually become Oz. The pain he first felt at Peerskill and that lingered in the background during his entire meandering life became the catalyst for Dorothy’s journey, the longing for home, not only as a physical place, but also as a sense of meaning within our own hearts. The experience so haunted him, in fact, that even the road to the academy–lined with Dutch bricks known as pavers, famous for their bright yellow color–found a way into his story.
The brainless Scarecrow, born from his frustration over having the intelligence but not the wit for business, the broken-hearted Tin Man, a euphemism for the heartache he felt from Matilda’s initial rejection of his relationship with Maud, and the Cowardly Lion, a product of residual guilt for his military failure while other men his age thrived, all stemmed from defeats Frank felt during his lifetime. The witches–both good and bad–were inspired by his complex relationship with Matilda, who challenged, not only Frank’s family connections, but also society’s view of strong women. Even the City of Emeralds, the centerpiece of Baum’s Oz, came from a visit to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, during which Frank was confronted with the luxuries and extravagances of a world he as a struggling salesman would most likely never see.
After of lifetime of rejections and failures, L. Frank Baum finally found victory as a writer of books for children. In 1900, the first print run of 10,000 sold out in a month. Printing after printing after printing followed, spawning sequels, a stage musical, and eventually a hit Hollywood movie.
But despite its commercial success, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became a thing unto itself, bigger than any book or movie bearing its name. Although dissected by countless scholars who insist on its political, religious, or even feminist allegory, the story remains, at its core, a fantasy for children, born out of a lifetime of hardships and adventure, defeats and triumphs, a tale to remind kids of the power of friendship and imagination.
But, for Frank, it was a message of hope, of self-discovery through perseverance, a lesson that took him decades but, nevertheless, became the root of his most famous work. As verbalized through Glinda, the voice of gentle wisdom to a scared and confused Dorothy: “You’ve always had the power, my dear. You just had to learn it for yourself.”