Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

The secret history of Oz: the first two books

In a recent Greg Hatcher repost, Greg ummed up the existence of the sequels to The Wizard of Oz: “It was a success and naturally the creator wants to follow that success up. So he does a sequel.” In reality, Wizard would probably have been a standalone if Lyman Frank Baum hadn’t wanted to break into show business.By the time Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz he’d had multiple careers: salesman, store owner, theatrical manager, playwright, newspaper publisher. Bad luck and bad decisions dogged him in many of them; according to one account when the theater staging Baum’s drama Maid of Arran burned down it took the props, costumes, sets and scripts with it. His newest career was a side-hustle as a children’s author. He’d had success with Mother Goose in Prose, a book offering explanations of the nonsensical events in nursery rhymes. He followed that up with a book of his own nonsense poetry, Father Goose.

Then came The Emerald City as Baum originally called his most famous work. Baum wrote it with an eye to creating a modern American fairy story, one that didn’t depend on Old World trappings such as princesses, knights, witches, dragons and genies. In his book the wizard is a humbug in the mode of P.T. Barnum. The protagonist is a Kansas girl in a gingham dress, accompanied not by knights but by a scarecrow, a man hammered out of tin, and a cowardly lion. Two of the witches in the book are good and neither one is the crone of stereotype; Baum’s mother-in-law Matilda Gage was a prominent feminist and the book matches her belief witches were scholars and scientific thinkers condemned for pissing off the church authorities.

The result was a book different from anything anyone had seen before. Baum realized how popular it was when he asked the publisher for an advance royalty check so he could buy Christmas presents for his kids. Suffice to say, he could afford a lot of Christmas presents (the exact amount of the check grew larger with repeated retellings).

Baum showed little interest in following up his success with a sequel. He turned to other fantasies including Queen Zixi of Ix, The Master Key and The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which explained Christmas traditions as he’d once explained nursery rhymes. This is probably his best known work besides Oz, due to the excellent Rankin-Bass stop motion version.

There’s a popular legend that Baum plucked the name for Oz from an O-Z drawer of a filing cabinet but Mrs. Baum says that’s completely untrue. Given that Baum used lots of one-syllable names for fairylands — Mo, Ix, Ev — I don’t see any reason to doubt her.

It’s not even clear Oz is the name of the country. Nobody calls it such and everyone refers to the Wizard as “the Wizard Oz,” not the Wizard of Oz. The land Oz rules appears to be a lost land somewhere in North America; that sounds ridiculous today but it was a lot more plausible before planes were everywhere. Who’s to say countless Western pioneers and explorers couldn’t have passed the land by, given it’s isolated by the deadly desert surrounding it.

While Baum did do some non-fantasy series, such as The Boy Fortune Hunters and Aunt Jane’s Nieces, his fantasies were one-offs. Oz might have been the same except Baum desperately wanted to see his work on stage. After some failed attempts to find backers for an Oz play he’d written, he turned the story over to Chicago theatrical impresario Julian Mitchell. The result had only a tangential resemblance to Baum’s book but it was the kind of lively extravaganza audiences loved. It also benefited from the comic team Fred Stone and Dave Montgomery as the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman (Ray Bolger in the 1939 Wizard of Oz film modeled his rubber-limbed scarecrow on Stone’s performance).

The children’s book had been a money-maker; Mitchell’s production made Baum rich. It also ended his collaboration with W.W. Denslow, the artist and co-copyright holder on Wizard of Oz. Denslow claimed a half of Baum’s profits from the show even though he hadn’t contributed much. When Baum finally got around to an Oz sequel, he hired John R. Neill as artist and did not share the copyright with him.

As Greg says, Baum did want a sequel but to the stage play, not the book. He pitched some plays of his own but despite the success of Wizard of Oz on stage, nobody was interested. But wait — what if he wrote a second Oz novel and turned it into another play? How could anyone turn that down?Baum wrote his sequel with the stage in mind. Dorothy had been a minor character in the show so she didn’t appear in Land. Hoping Montgomery and Stone would return, Baum gave the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman leading roles. When it turned out Stone and Montgomery were sick of touring with Wizard, let alone reprising the roles in a new show, Baum created a new comedy team, plain-spoken, simple Jack Pumpkinhead (an animated stick figure with yes, a pumpkin for a head) and the Wogglebug, an intellectual, enlarged insect with a pompous streak.

The book has a young boy, Tip, flee his life as servant to the wicked witch Mombi, accompanied by Jack. They stumble into the midst of a feminist revolution against the Scarecrow’s wise rule. Baum supported the suffragette movement but he knew parodying it would appeal to theater goers more than taking it seriously, plus the all-girl army would provide a chorus line.

At the end of the book, it turns out that Tip is the rightful ruler of Oz. When the Wizard landed he kidnapped the infant Princess Ozma and gave her to Mombi so he could rule unopposed. Mombi turned Ozma into a boy to hide him; her last magic act is to turn him back. The Scarecrow steps down as king and Ozma assumes the throne.

This is a radical retcon of the Wizard’s backstory in Wizard of Oz. As he told it, the land of Oz was four provinces (Quadlings, Munchkins, Gillikens, Winkies) two of which were ruled by evil witches. It was not in any way a united country until he arrived by balloon and gave the witch-oppressed natives someone to rally around. Now it turns out that rather than being “a good man but a bad wizard” he was rotten and power-hungry enough to give a small child to an evil witch. When Roy Thomas and Alfredo Alcala adapted the book for Marvel in 1975, he has Mombi state the Wizard made her promise never to hurt Ozma, softening the situation a little.The book came out in 1904 and it was a hit. The play that inspired Baum to write it? Not so much. The Wogglebug, as one critic put it, “failed to woggle” and closed quickly. However now that Baum had written one sequel, he couldn’t say no to the kids asking for more Oz … as I’ll get into in a later post.

Or you can simply read my book.#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Denslow, Neill, John Romita and unknown.

2 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Everyone knows that Oz is down under, where women glow and men plunder……..

    ….wait…….

    Can’t you hear, can’t you hear that thunder?

    You better run….you better take cover!

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