A Week to Remember: L. Frank Baum and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
American author L. Frank Baum
Portrait of Lyman Frank Baum, [ca.1890]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

This week, we celebrate a double anniversary. On May 15, 1856, L. Frank Baum was born; and on May 17, 1900, the first copies of his classic novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz were printed, though the book did not officially go on sale for another six months.

Book cover for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum

Baum was the seventh of nine children born into a prosperous family. His father was successful in real estate, the oil business, and several other enterprises. Baum and his siblings were mostly tutored at home, though Baum was sent to military school when he was twelve. He was miserable there; he found it difficult to focus and didn’t respond well to the school’s strict discipline. After two years, he was sent home when he had a mild heart attack—at 14!—after being disciplined for daydreaming.

Writing and publishing were always part of Baum’s life. While still a child, he started a local newspaper with his younger brother. They sold advertisements to local businesses and gave the paper away to their friends and family. By the time he was 17, Baum had started a more serious journal, The Stamp Collector, and gone into business as a stamp dealer.

A few years later, he began raising specialty poultry, which was something of a fad in the United States at the time. He established another trade journal, The Poultry Record, in 1880. His first book, published in 1886, was a guide to raising the Hamburg chicken, his favorite breed.

Another consistent love during Baum’s life was the theater. In 1880, his father built a theater, Baum’s Opera House, where he could put on plays, including those he had written himself. Baum had some success managing the theater, but it was burned down in 1882—ironically, during a production of his play Matches, and never rebuilt.

In 1888, Baum and his wife moved to the Dakota Territory and opened a general store. It didn’t last long; Baum was overly generous in extending credit to his friends and neighbors, and the store went bankrupt. By 1891, the Baums had left the Territory and moved to Chicago.

Baum worked for a few years as a traveling salesman and founded yet another trade journal,The Show Window, on the art and craft of merchandising displays. Unlike his earlier journals, this one has actually survived to the present day; it’s now called VMSD, for visual merchandising and store design.

In 1897, Baum ventured into writing for children with Mother Goose in Prose, which was moderately successful. The 1899 follow-up, Father Goose: His Book, was a collection of nonsense poetry that sold even better.

And then came The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The first printing of 10,000 copies was sold out within a month, and the second printing of 15,000 copies sold out almost as quickly. It was the best-selling children’s book in the United States for the next two years.

A stage musical version opened in Chicago in 1902 and played on Broadway for much of 1903 and 1904. It was the first adaptation to shorten the title to The Wizard of Oz. This production took some major liberties with the plot. Toto was absent, replaced by Imogene the Cow; and the story was so dramatically different that there was no Wicked Witch of the West

Book cover for The Master Key
The Master Key
L. Frank Baum

Like many authors of popular books, Baum came to feel trapped by the success of Oz. He kept saying that he was done with Oz but wrote sixteen more Oz books, the last two of which were published posthumously. He did have success outside the world of Oz. The Master Key, a fantastic fable about a boy’s adventures with the “demon of electricity,” was popular, and continued to see well into the 1920s. And under the pseudonym Edith Van Dyne, Baum wrote fifteen volumes in the “Aunt Jane’s Nieces” series, aimed at the audience of girls who had loved Little Women.

On May 5, 1919, Baum suffered a stroke and slipped into a coma. He awoke only briefly before dying the following day. His final words to his wife were, “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands,” a reference to the desert that surrounds Oz, separating it from the rest of Baum’s fictional universe.

Baum’s last Oz book was published in 1920. The series continued to be popular enough that his publisher was reluctant to let it die, and Ruth Plumly Thompson was recruited to keep the series going; she wrote 21 Oz novels. She was followed by John R. Neill, who had illustrated all of the Baum and Thompson novels except the original Wonderful Wizard, then by Jack Snow. Snow was a Baum scholar who had loved Oz so deeply as a child that he had first offered to write new Oz novels after Baum’s death, when Snow was only twelve years old.

The series became part of the country’s holiday traditions. Between 1913 and 1942, spanning the Baum, Thompson, and Neill authorships, there was a new Oz book published every Christmas season.

Book cover for Tin Man: The Complete Miniseries
Tin Man: The Complete Miniseries
Nick Willing

Baum’s story has been retold, and his characters adapted, by many authors. The 1939 film version with Judy Garland as Dorothy is surely the best known of many film versions. More recently, the 2007 television miniseries Tin Man put a cyberpunk spin on the story.

Novels inspired by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz include Geoff Ryman’s Was, which imagines Baum as a Kansas schoolteacher, telling his stories to the “real” Dorothy Gale; Danielle Paige’s series of YA novels beginning with Dorothy Must Die, in which another girl from Kansas is recruited by the wicked of Oz to fight Dorothy; and Gregory Maguire’s series of four novels beginning with Wicked, which re-tells the story from the perspective of the Wicked Witch, to whom Maguire gives the name Elphaba, derived from Baum’s initials.

Wicked went on to great success as a Broadway musical in 2003. That was the second major Broadway version of the story; in 1974, The Wiz had re-imagined the story with an all-black cast.

Also This Week

May 14, 1930

Maria Irene Fornés was born. Fornés was a Cuban-American playwright and director, a major figure in the off-off-Broadway movement of the 1960s. She wrote more than 50 plays; their styles varied greatly, but she frequently returned to the themes of women fighting sexism, and the impact of poverty on personal relationships. The 2018 documentary The Rest I Make Up looks at Fornés’s attempt to find new creative outlets late in her life, after the onset of dementia made writing more difficult.

May 15, 1930

Jasper Johns was born. Johns is a painter and sculptor who has for more than 60 years been one of America’s finest artists. His work is associated with the abstract expressionist and pop art movements, and he is known for his depictions of the American flag. Catherine Crafts offers an overview of Johns’s career in Jasper Johns; and Kanopy has three short documentaries about his work: Jasper Johns: Decoy, Jasper Johns, and Jasper Johns: Take an Object.

May 15, 1940

The first McDonald’s restaurant was opened in San Bernadino, by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald. In 1954, as the brothers began franchising their concept, they took Roy Kroc on as a partner. After several years of struggling for control, Kroc bought the McDonald brothers share of the business in 1961 and began growing it into a global business. Kroc’s autobiography is Grinding It Out; Lisa Napoli writes about his marriage, and the couple’s philanthropic efforts, in Ray & Joan.

May 12, 1950

Gabriel Byrne was born. Byrne is an Irish actor who has appeared in more than 70 movies. In recent years, he has appeared more often in television, and on Broadway, where he has starred in three of Eugene O’Neill’s plays. His 1992 movie Into the West is available for streaming at Hoopla; it’s a story with strong elements of magical realism, about a family of Irish travelers and the white horse who comes into their lives, offering an escape from their lives in a drab corner of Dublin.