Back to Where it Began – OZ and Frank Baum
When I began my weekly blog in June 2016, I focused on all things OZ for the first six months until it morphed into more. December 2016 shifted to Oz’s second coming as in Star Wars’ Dorothy/Princess Leia/Carrie Fisher. This was followed by a very contentious 4 years of political unrest and women finding their voices. So, here is where the rest of Frank’s story is revealed and who he truly was.
Frank was a feminist. His wife’s mother was Matilda Joslyn Gage, an American author and women’s rights advocate. Gage cofounded the National Woman Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony. When she heard her son-in-law telling his children fantastical stories, she encouraged Frank to write them down.
Frank met his future wife Maud at Cornell University, one of but a few women students. Fortunately, Frank was not among the badly behaving other male students who took every chance to tease and torment her. He was captivated by her strength of character and brilliant mind. He’d found his “soul-mate.”
First, it’s worth knowing that Baum married a daughter of Fayetteville’s anti-Christian feminist firebrand, Matilda Joslyn Gage. Baum was fascinated by his brilliant mother-in-law and spent many hours in her company, absorbing her conviction that Christianity was a false religion that oppressed women; her radically advanced ideas of gender equality; and her sophisticated theories about nonauthoritarian governance, inspired by her studies of the Iroquois Indians. All of these notions color the Oz books.
Think of the preponderance of strong female characters (Dorothy, Glinda, the Wicked Witch of the West), quite extraordinary by the standards of Victorian literature. Think of the utter and pointed omission of religion and central government in the land of Oz: in the words of Baum scholar Katharine M. Rogers, “Oz is a utopia where people are naturally inclined to help and respect each other because they are happy.” And consider the climax of the movie, where Toto goes behind the curtain and exposes “the great and powerful Oz” as a false god.
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains many of the ingredients of the magic potion” that Oz audiences have come to know and love, writes Salman Rushdie in his influential essay on the MGM adaptation that hit screens in 1939. “But The Wizard of Oz is that great rarity, a film that improves on the good book from which it came.” Rushdie refers only to the MGM movie, which he loved as a child, but this idea applies to other interpretations of the book, many of which are arguably artistically richer and more internally consistent than Baum’s original Oz series. Baum wrote an optimistic American fable about one group of friends’ path toward happiness; latter-day artists have seen its potential, and flown. In celebrating the MGM movie, Rushdie puts his finger on a few qualities that define many post-Baum Oz-inspired stories. He loves the MGM movie for being humanist—a quality many Oz adaptations share. The film is “breezily godless,” he writes; it creates a world in which “nothing is deemed more important than the loves, cares and needs of human beings (and, of course, tin beings, straw beings, lions and dogs).”
But perhaps Rushdie’s most perceptive observation is his point about the MGM The Wizard of Oz’s unusual focus on a triangle of powerful female characters—Dorothy, Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West. The Wizard’s influence, which seems so huge at the beginning of the story, eventually melts away. In an oft-quoted line, Rushdie observes that in the film, “The power of men is illusory…The power of women is real.”
So, in honor of the man behind the curtain, I give praise and thanks to his voice. Quite the feat of helping shift the narrative over the last century, beginning in the “Victorian” age, all because he listened and told fantastical tales that inspire still. Just like Lucas and Star Wars, the narrative continues to unfold. Use your voice. It honors those who have paved the way to equal rights for all.