How L. Frank Baum Discovered
the Great American Story
Evan I. Schwartz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 400 pp., $28
Cheek by Jowl
Talks & Essays on How & Why
Ursula K. Le Guin
Aqueduct Press: 150 pp., $16 paper
In classic fairy-tale tropes, L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" impresses its vision upon the reader. A girl left with no biological parents is banished from home. There is the eerie place that is not-home; the meek's triumph; the toppling of all that false power. "It is a long way to the Emerald City, and you must pass through rough and dangerous places before you reach the end of your journey," notes the wisest Munchkin. In Oz, Dorothy and her animalish friends confront evil with nonviolence and mindful Goodness; and at last our girl goes home. Most people know the movie, but they should read the series. It's beautiful -- sparse and weird. (They should also read the great, much lesser-known Baum book, "Queen Zixi of Ix.")
In "Finding Oz," Evan I. Schwartz's appropriately speculative, wide-eyed biography of Baum, one learns the curious fact that "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was greatly influenced by a Theosophy volume the Baum family reportedly passed around religiously (like Zooey Glass' prayer book), "The Astral Plane: Its Scenery, Inhabitants, and Phenomena." Love that title.
"The Astral Plane," Schwartz tells us, purports that your thoughts can project you into an Astral Body and from there, to a new plane of existence, a kind of "Greenland." As my favorite episode of "Teletubbies" -- whose munchkins live in a sort of Ozland -- goes: green, green, green, green!
"Fantasy's green country is one that most of us enter with ease and pleasure, and it seems to be perfectly familiar to most children even if they've never been out of the city streets," writes Ursula K. Le Guin in "The Critics, The Monsters, and The Fantasists," which appears in her collection of essays "Cheek by Jowl," just published by the valiant, feminist press Aqueduct.
Le Guin continues, "I will defend fantasy's green country. . . . Although the green country of fantasy seems to be entirely the invention of human imaginations, it verges on and partakes of actual realms in which humanity is not lord and master, is not central, is not even important." For Le Guin, as for Baum, nonanthropocentric realms are visionary and true.
According to Schwartz -- and he makes a good case for this in very consciously embellished language -- Oz represents an occult, intuitive realm where the human mind must give up its control, not to a higher power but to a more Eastern vision of Totality, represented by . . . Toto? This interpretation makes sense as rendered by Schwartz, who has meticulously researched the spiritual, cultural influences on Baum. And, I think, his view dovetails, elliptically, with scholar Jack Zipes' Socialist interpretations of the novel. (For Zipes, Oz represents a sort of inversion of the American dream -- in Oz the capitalist lie is revealed.)
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" has always struck me as slightly inscrutable, not as accessible as the awkwardly translated European fairy tales I so easily love. That is why I was happy to come upon news of Theosophy's influence on Baum, about which I hadn't known. His love of Theosophy's science fiction explains a lot about the novel's celebration of intuitive logic, an animal-human collapse that always struck me as a hybrid of fairy tale -- "something I cannot name." In "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," Baum tackles the problem of human disconnection from nature: a disconnection Le Guin calls "radical . . . alienation complete."
As in other Baum biographies, he is first depicted in the familiar trope of being a loser. We learn how Baum failed "as a breeder of chickens, as an actor in stage plays, as a purveyor of petroleum products, as an owner of a variety store, as a traveling salesman of fine china" before he found material success as a writer.
Baum was self-employed as the founder of the National Assn. of Window Treatments of America at the time he found Oz -- or Oz found him. As "Finding Oz" suggests, the novel, completely and already imagined, came to him "one day in 1898" when "an unusual sequence of images leaped from one man's mind: A gray Kansas prairie. A lively girl with a brave little dog. A terrifying twister. A mystical land ruled by both good and wicked witches."
It is unfortunate that this interesting biography begins with such a pesky myth about art -- that works of art emerge self-formed from the artist. That is one of my quibbles with "Finding Oz": The book over-glorifies the Writer as Hero. I like, instead, Baum as the Loser, for to embrace him would be very fairy-tale like (instead of propagating the myth that success always involves other humans' recognition). It is nice to see books still coming out about Baum. One can find lineage to Oz in contemporary novels as diverse as "Patchwork Girl" by Shelley Jackson, "Wicked" by Gregory Maguire and "Flet" by Joyelle McSweeney; and in artworks such as "Ever Is Over All" by Pipilotti Rist (YouTube her!) and "the Vivian girls" series by Henry Darger. It has long been acknowledged by scholars that Baum's series opened the path for the serial works of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Francesca Lia Block and Philip Pullman to reach such wide audiences.
Hundreds of writers still work today from fairy tales and for the green country in large part because of Baum's popular series. For more exploration of why fantasy and its astral-ecology is the Real Thing, Le Guin's "Cheek by Jowl" is the source.
Bernheimer is the editor of the Fairy Tale Review. Her most recent novel is "The Complete Tales of Merry Gold."