By Evan I. Schwartz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 400 pp., $27.
Everybody loves the 1939 MGM Wizard of Oz, but for some aficionados of L. Frank Baum's works, the film that better captures the essence of Baum's vision is the 1985 Disney-produced Return to Oz. Directed by Oscar-winning sound and film editor Walter Murch, it was a critical and commercial flop, perhaps because it doesn't stint on the dark and scary. Any kid who was freaked out by the witch and the flying monkeys of the MGM movie will be traumatized by the genuine weirdness of the Disney version, which begins with Dorothy consigned to a mental hospital because she can't stop talking about this place she calls Oz.
The truth is, Baum's Oz was always a weird and scary place, but what Murch's film gets particularly right is the author's very American ambivalence toward technology. Production designer Norman Reynolds nails it brilliantly with some steampunk-inspired creations: on the one hand such late-Victorian horrors as the gruesome electroshock machine with which Dorothy is threatened in the hospital, and on the other the lovable mechanical man Tik-Tok. The film underscores what Evan I. Schwartz suggests in his new book on the life and times of L. Frank Baum, that the road to the Emerald City began in the White City: the lathe-and-plaster facades of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, behind which such technological innovations as electric light, the phonograph and motion pictures mingled with carnival humbug. And that among the prototypes for Baum's Wizard of Oz were both the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas A. Edison, and the master of conning the suckers, P.T. Barnum.
Baum was 44 when he published the story that made him rich and famous. He had been a chicken farmer, an actor and playwright, a marketer of petroleum products, a shopkeeper, a newspaperman and a traveling salesman. He restlessly moved his family from Syracuse, New York, to the Dakota Territory, to Chicago and – after the success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – to the place where restless Americans usually wind up: California. And in all of these places he encountered things that would work their way out of his memories and into his fiction. As Schwartz says, “Things he had seen in his life and had filed away for some later use were now rushing back and coming out on scraps of paper,” from the yellow brick road that led to the military school he attended (and hated) as a boy, to the fragile porcelain dishes and figurines he lugged about in his suitcase as a salesman, the inspiration for the first Oz book's Dainty China Country.
Schwartz does a fine job of unearthing the origins of Oz, and of portraying Baum as very much a man of his times – the era of the vanishing frontier and the uneasy transition from Victorianism into modernity. Among the major influences Schwartz singles out is Baum's mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, an ardent proponent of women's rights. Although Baum fathered four sons and no daughters, he gave his first Oz book a heroine, and the hero of his second Oz book, the boy Tip, turns out to be the princess Ozma, the victim of a sex-change spell. Matilda Gage was also a devotee of Theosophy, the belief system that Helena Petrovna Blavatsky synthesized out of elements of neo-Platonism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Baum was intrigued by Theosophy and by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, who made a sensational appearance at the Columbian Exposition.
Schwartz observes that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “is less a coming-of-age story ... and more a transformation-of-consciousness story. Like the Buddha, Dorothy attains enlightenment.” Still, he maybe lays it on a bit thick by describing Dorothy's travels as “a journey guided by Eastern philosophy” or suggesting that Oz exists on Theosophy's “Astral Plane”: “To embark on her journey, the girl would have her own samadhi moment, projecting herself through the eye of the cyclone into the mystical realm.” Schwartz is better at dealing with the physical world than the spiritual one, as was Baum: “Frank understood from the start that the entire premise was absurd, which is why he presented the goal of his main character with humor, the real lessons of the journey to be learned from encounters with comedic characters.”
Finding Oz is underpinned by solid research, although there are times when Schwartz's sleuthing into the things Baum “had filed away for some later use” leads him into some strained conclusions. For example, he posits some kind of imaginative link between the field of lethal red poppies Dorothy encounters on the way to the Emerald City and the killing fields of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. And perhaps his assessment of Baum's achievement is a shade on the hyperbolic side: “Certainly no one on any list of American luminaries has ignited the imagination of the world quite like L. Frank Baum.”
If we put Baum in the company of such “luminaries” as Washington and Lincoln, Edison and the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford, Mark Twain and Walt Disney, he may not seem like as much a standout as Schwartz thinks. But the fact remains that, 109 years later, Oz continues to inspire sequels and prequels on page and stage, and the traces of Baum's fantasy can be discerned in everything from the Star Wars movies to the Harry Potter books. As Schwartz's book informs us, Baum's strange and essential gift was to see the outlines of myth within the machinery of the modern world.