After the jump you will find an article written by Baum that speaks of his great grandfather.
These words were written over one hundred and twelve years ago by my great grandfather, L. Frank Baum. Since its publication in 1900, readers and scholars alike have marveled at The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s ability to remain one of the most popular books ever written and for having found its way into so many aspects of our daily lives.
As the great grandson of L. Frank Baum I am often asked two questions. The first is “Where did he get the ideas for his stories?” and the second question is “Where did the name Oz come from?” I wish there was a quick answer to these questions, but the real answer is as complex as his life. In the next few paragraphs, I will share with you my answers to those questions.
In 2000 my wife and I traveled back to Chittenango, New York, the birth place of L. Frank Baum in 1856. We wanted to see if we could find the answers to these very questions. Even though none of his early homes exist anymore, the surrounding area still maintains some of the rural feeling that was present during his early childhood. With a little imagination it was possible to envision a young L. Frank with his siblings and friends, playing in the fields, being scared by the occasional scarecrow or exploring the nearby swamps and woods. There were even plank roads made of cut oak timbers, which, when new had a golden color. For children, all roads lead to new places and adventures. One can only imagine what wondrous games and imaginary characters L. Frank and his friends came up as they played together.
The Baum’s lived on several different farms in the local area and eventually settled near Syracuse, New York, in the 1870’s. Even though the family occasionally hired a tutor, L. Frank had little in the way of a formal education. I truly believe this is what made it possible for Frank’s childhood imagination to remain relatively untouched by the restrictions that schooling can place on it. Throughout his life, Frank never lost his ability to listen carefully to children and understand what it was they wanted. His stories “spoke their language of imagination.”
Later, as a parent of four boys, Frank would make up stories to tell them in the evening or at bedtime. He drew upon his wealth of childhood experiences and imaginative play to construct new worlds, characters and adventures. L. Frank felt that the old European fairy tales were dated and full of “stereotyped genies, dwarfs and fairies,” not to mention “horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised to point out a fearsome moral to each tale.” He felt it was time for a new generation of “modernized” fairy tales to be written “just to entertain.”
As his four boys grew, the story telling time moved to the front steps of their home and now often included some of the neighborhood children. Not only did the children enjoy the stories, their reactions told Frank if he was on the right track with a “new” idea. I am sure this is where the Oz stories first began to take shape. It is also where he began to form his idea of what the new “modernized” fairy tale should contain.
By 1899 the Baum’s had lived in Chicago for several years and Frank’s literary career was beginning to bloom. Two of his books, Mother Goose in Prose and Father Goose, His Book, illustrated by W.W. Denslow, were doing very well. Frank now realized he was in a better position to write his “modernized” fairy tale. The following family story reveals some insight as to where L. Frank Baum got his ideas for Oz and his other stories. It took place one evening in the hallway of their Chicago home.
“I was sitting on the hat-rack in the hall, telling the kids a story and suddenly this one moved right in and took possession. I shooed the children away and grabbed a piece of paper that was lying there on the rack and began to write. It really seemed to write itself. Then I couldn’t find any regular paper, so I took anything at all, even a bunch of envelopes.”
This remembrance was often shared by my grandparents at family gatherings. They also delighted in the tales of how L. Frank had a habit of getting up in the middle of the night and not being able to find a slip of paper, writing his notes for future stories on the wallpaper in their bedroom. This much to the annoyance of Maud, his wife!
These glimpses into the life of L. Frank demonstrate to me that Baum’s stories and characters came from his imaginative mind and were well formed and thought out before he ever wrote them down. My favorite story came from Maud. It happened one summer at their Hollywood cottage, “Ozcot” when L. Frank was having a lot trouble with part of a new Oz story. For several weeks, no matter how he tried, he was not able to get his characters to do what he thought was best.
“Then one day Frank came in with kind of a smile on his face,” she would said. “I see you are writing again, did you find a way to solve your problem?”
“No, Sweetheart,” he answered thoughtfully, “I just let my characters do what they wanted.”
Now the question as to where the word “Oz” came from has no easy answer either. As I grew up, I was always told that during one of his early story telling sessions in his living room or was it on the steps of “Baum’s Bazaar?... anyway, the assembled children wanted to know the name of the magic land Dorothy had been whisked away to by the tornado. Stumped for a quick answer, Frank looked around the room for an answer. It was then his eyes fell on his filing cabinet in his study. The top two drawers labeled A-N and O-Z. Thus the Land now had a name! Within family members, the location and time of the story may have changed but not the idea of a filling cabinet.
On the other hand, if you asked Maud, she steadfastly maintained that the word Oz, as well as his characters and lands, came out of his imagination. No one or anything suggested the the word, or any of his characters. She never wavered from this.
There is still another group who tend to favor Jack Snow’s explanation offered in the introduction to his book Who’s Who in Oz. He thought that L. Frank liked stories that caused the reader to exclaim with Ohs” and “Ahs” of wonder. Although scholars and fans alike will continue to seek the answer to this question and others, perhaps the true origin of Oz is best left up to each of us to discover for ourselves.
Often the most difficult of questions has the simplest of answers. So may be the case with Oz. All of my experiences lead me to believe my great grandfather’s success came about because he never lost sight of the audience he wrote for. He wrote just to please children of all ages. He wrote his stories while looking at the world through the eyes of a child, just one step beyond reality. Oz has become a home away from home, a safe haven where dreams are real and reality can be put aside, at least for awhile! Oz is imagination unleashed, allowing all who enter, to soar “somewhere over the rainbow.”
The Baum family has always valued reading and imagination. The Oz books were always read to our children and the books been passed from one generation to the next. Some of my most treasured childhood memories are of my grandmother reading to me from my favorite Oz stories.
In 1897, L. Frank Baum wrote the following in a copy of Mother Goose in Prose which he gave to his sister Mary Louise Brewster. It states in part:
“I have learned to regard fame as a will-o-the-wisp which, when caught, is not worth the possession, but to please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one’s heart and brings its own reward.”
I am sure my great grandfather came to understand the full meaning of this with the fame his Oz stories brought to him.
Thank you for allowing me to share some of my family stories and thoughts about Oz with you. Clare and I hope you will stop by “All Things Oz” at 211 Genesee Street in Chittenango, New York and pass “behind that curtain” and let the child in you roam about in the Land of Oz. Who knows, you might even meet the Wizard himself!
Robert A. Baum