CORRESPONDENCE, REFLECTIONS, RESPONSES, AND INSCRIPTIONS FROM (AND TO) “THE ROYAL HISTORIAN OF OZ” – PART ONE

By John Fricke

Above: All eight of the books on display in this poster were either recently or newly in print in 1901. More remarkably, all were authored by L. Frank Baum across the preceding five years. (Two additional, full-length Baum fantasies, A NEW WONDERLAND and THE MASTER KEY, were published — respectively in 1900 and 1901 — but they’re not represented in this art, as they weren’t put forward by the here-ubiquitous Geo. M. Hill (Publishing) Company.) It’s a remarkable output, to be sure, but beyond the ten titles referenced in this caption and in the poster, Baum also pursued further writing outlets in the same 1896-1901 time period. He was working as editor-in-chief and principal journalist of his own monthly magazine, THE SHOW WINDOW. He placed nearly a dozen of his short stories in print in contemporary magazines. He self-published a small book of his own poetry, BY THE CANDELABRA’S GLARE. He drafted the first version of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ for production on the musical stage and penned various scripts and song lyrics for at least two other potential theatrical entertainments.

There is a major, inherent fact about Chittenango’s native son, L. Frank Baum, in the illustration above, so I’d like to start this month’s blog by encouraging you to please take a moment to take a good look at the art – and to read its caption, if you haven’t already done so 😊. 

What’s represented here Is the incontrovertible proof that Frank – in his early-to-mid-forties across the years under discussion – had at last found his life’s calling. In the preceding decades, he’d attempted a dozen other careers, among them actor, playwright/songwriter, storekeeper, newspaper editor, and traveling salesman. There’s no question that the man was blessed with energy, ambition, intelligence, wit, charm, presence, diverse and (I’ll say it) magnificent creative talents and inventive genius. Yet while traversing the just-mentioned professional byways, he’d been thwarted again and again by fate and had achieved only sporadic (and then invariably skidding) financial stability for himself, his wife, and his four sons.

However! Baum began to write children’s books in 1896 and 1897, putting on paper the fantasies, fairy tales, and nonsense rhymes with which he’d verbally entertained his boys and scores of other children for years. The poster makes as clear as Bungle, the Glass Cat (see picture below) that he’d finally discovered his own rewarding niche. Thereafter, children and those who rabidly enjoyed his children’s literature would never again be the same, or want for magic and fun in their reading, or miss an opportunity for imperishable memories and meanings, or lack transportation to unique and unforgettable realms.

Above: To elaborate on the in-passing comparison just prior to the artwork: Bungle, the Glass Cat, was discovered by Baum during the Ozian escapades he recorded in his seventh Oz book, THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ (1913). The animal was “made of glass, so sheer and transparent that you could see right through it as easily as through a window. In the top of its head, however, was a mass of delicate pink balls which looked like jewels, and it had a heart made of a blood-red ruby. The eyes were two large emeralds, but aside from these colors, all the rest of the animal was clear glass . . ..” Beauty is as beauty does, of course, and while one assuredly could see through Bungle – and she was a creature who would helpfully function in several Oz explorations across the years — the Glass Cat more often expended its energies on mirror-gazing and self-admiration: “[I’m]. . .very pretty, indeed – and I love to watch my pink brains roll around when they’re working, and to see my precious red heart beat.”

For all of Baum’s prodigious productivity, it is Oz — its characters, countries, and settings – that remains the foundation, cornerstone, and skyscraper of the man’s imagination and achievement. The books he wrote about that “over the rainbow” destination have spurred the emotions of uncountable billions, especially children, and one of Baum’s special qualities was his ability to bond with his readers on every printed page — enthusiastically, expressively, and happily.

Moreover, for many of us, such correlation and connection existed not solely on the story-telling pages of those books.

And I’ll explain!

When I discovered the Oz series in 1958, I was seven years old. The tales in Baum’s fourteen titles (and after Baum’s passing, the twenty-six “official” books by six other authors) changed and charged my life and heart. Yet there was, indeed, another aspect of each bound volume that intrigued me on a completely other level — and beyond each full saga itself: the up-front, usually one-or-two-pages of Baum’s various, personal greetings to his readers. He’d provided such a message in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900), although his “Introduction” there was geared more to the adults who might read that book to their children and not to the youngsters themselves. Baum therein philosophized about the need to step away from “the old-time fairy tale” and embrace “a series of newer ‘wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised. . .to point a fearsome moral to each tale.” Though that statement was true to his intent, Baum — having made his point — then quietly, tenderly offered his personal and professional hope: “[This] story. . .aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained, and the heartaches and nightmares are left out. [It] was written solely to pleasure the children of today . . ..”

How well he succeeded! To give it the simplified title of the wildly successful stage musical of 1902-1909 – the four words the book itself would then carry into seeming eternity — THE WIZARD OF OZ was part of that 1896-1901 tidal wave of text that set up and established Baum’s future career. Across the next eighteen years into 1919, he would write dozens of other books, as well as stage shows, film scenarios, and short stories. The Land of Oz, however (initially and completely unintentionally on his part), “just growed” into the pinnacle of his attainment and his supreme gift to the world.

Let’s get, back, however, to the prefatory messages to those who read his Oz books and a very important, not-at-all-random fact: Baum never intended THE WIZARD OF OZ to have a sequel, never mind thirteen of them (plus thirty shorter Oz adventures he devised between 1904 and 1913). Dorothy’s story was, as far as he was initially concerned, all of a piece and concluded with its twenty-fourth chapter in 1900, “Home Again.” Yet two years later, the aforementioned stage musical (though massively different from his book text) began to and eventually introduced to millions of people of all ages the “live” characters of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and (even in an admittedly tangential role) the Cowardly Lion. That show, from its initial season or so on the boards (and for six following years with multiple casts), impacted tens of thousands of children, who fell in love with Oz and its citizenry.

Ever a theatrical at heart, Baum eventually leapt at the chance to try to equal that theatrical experience by penning the book, THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ (1904), with the candid goal of seeing it segue to the musical stage, as well. The subsequent production, titled THE WOGGLE-BUG (1905), was actually one of the signal theatrical “flops” of the age; fortunately, THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ story stood on its own as a victory. It was in that book that his “Author’s Note” began to be a more personal message to his young Oz fans. He referenced the fact that, after publication of THE WIZARD, he “began to receive letters from children,” who told them of their pleasure, “and asking me to write something more about the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman. . ..  The letters continued to come during succeeding months and even years. Finally, I promised one little girl. . .that when a thousand little girls had written me a thousand little letters. . .I would write the book. Either [the girl] was a fairy in disguise, and waved her magic wand, or the success of the stage production of THE WIZARD OF OZ made new friends for the story. For the thousand letters reached their destination long since – and many more followed them.”

Above: Baum dedicated an unexpected second Oz book to David C. Montgomery and Fred A. Stone, former vaudevillians who found superstardom on a 1902 level when they starred in (and then toured for four seasons with) the first stage musical version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. The author wrote this second Oz story in hopes that it, too, could be dramatized and here – on the dedication page of that book – he seems to be lobbying for Montgomery & Stone to continue their same roles in the new venture. The working and initial title of the new Oz book was actually THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THE SCARECROW AND THE TIN WOODMAN.

L. Frank Baum possessed all the necessary hallmarks of a premier entertainer; whether the foregoing numerical statement was truth, or a necessary exaggeration/invention, doesn’t really matter. (He also offers that the “one little girl” referenced above was named Dorothy!) As a book, however, THE LAND OF OZ – to give it its own eventually shortened title – made a sales success that, on publication, initially surpassed that of THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Thus, there’s no question that Baum regularly received a continual and ever-growing tidal wave of enthusiastic correspondence from his child readers. He wrote other fantasies for youngsters between 1901 and 1907, but by the latter year, he’d agreed by contract with his primary publishers (The Reilly & Britton Co. of Chicago) to write several more Oz stories.

In keeping with this, his “Author’s Note” for OZMA OF OZ (1907) is ever more informal and confiding, and he credits “my friends the children” as “responsible for this new ‘OZ BOOK.’” (These last six capital letters are my addition, but I wanted to indicate that this might be the first public usage of what quite quickly became a publishing and concept phrase in widespread use.) Baum continues, “Their sweet letters plead to know ‘more about Dorothy’ and ‘what became of the Cowardly Lion?’. . . and some of them suggest plots to me . . . ‘Why don’t you make Ozma and Dorothy meet and have a good time together?’” Baum’s preamble also adds the word “Ozzy” to the English language, ascribing it to “a little friend who read this story before it was published.” The child used the nomenclature to categorize Baum’s new discoveries: “Billina [the Yellow Hen] is REAL OZZY, Mr. Baum, and so are Tik-Tok and the Hungry Tiger.”

[This “stamped” cloth front cover was used across the first four printings of OZMA OF OZ (from 1907 to 1918-19) and offered a stunning, colorful image of the newly discovered, rightful ruler of the country; the little girl from Kansas; and Billina, the Yellow Hen.]

The author then notes that “if. . .the little folks find this story ‘real Ozzy,’ I shall be glad I wrote it,” and he offers hope that he should “get more of those very welcome letters from my readers.” In such fashion, he threw down the gauntlet, until the “personal” Baum letter was basic to the many of his published works and an intrinsic opening to the Oz titles.

With three Oz books in eight years, Baum’s happy stronghold on readers became ever more pervasive, and he himself became ever more direct and conversational when writing to his audience at the onset of the next titles. Indeed, by the time of “book four,” DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ (1908), Baum [semi?-] mock-protested  at the onset of “To My Readers”: “It’s no use; no use at all. The children won’t let me stop telling tales of. . .Oz. I know lots of other stories. . .but just now my loving tyrants. . .cry: ‘Oz – Oz! more about Oz, Mr. Baum!’ and what can I do but obey their commands?”

He goes on to acknowledge that, “This is Our Book – mine and the children’s. For they have flooded me with thousands of suggestions. . .and I have honestly tried to adopt as many. . .as could be fitted into one story.” Among his gestures of acceptance: the youngsters’ heroine returned without question: “It is evident that Dorothy has become a firm fixture. . .and as one of my small friends aptly states, ‘It isn’t a real Oz story without her’.” So, too, reappeared the title character of the first Oz book, the Wizard himself: “The jolly old fellow made hosts of friends. . .in spite of the fact that he frankly acknowledged himself ‘a humbug.’” The author quite sincerely continued, “I believe, my dears, I am the proudest storyteller that ever lived. Many a time tears of pride and joy have stood in my eyes while I read the tender, loving, appealing letters that have come to me in almost every mail from my little readers. . . . You have helped me fulfill my life’s ambition, and I am more grateful than I can express in words.”

Above: John R. Neill illustrated all of Baum’s Oz books but the very first. His cover painting for DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ prominently features those two characters, along with the Nine Tiny Piglets that the humbug used in his carnival and sideshow acts across the length and breadth of the United States in his pre-Oz and post-first-visit engagements. At the conclusion of this book, however, Dorothy again returned to the heart of the great and western wilderness; Oz the Great & Powerful remained in the Emerald City, as did the nine little porkers!

No matter what he titled his preface, Baum’s salutation pagewas by now established as an Oz book norm, much as a very special holiday greeting card for his partisans. It’s an apt comparison, as many children of the first two-thirds (and beyond) of the twentieth century remember getting the new Oz book — or an Oz book — as a December holiday gift. (Sometimes there were several; my most major Christmas came the year I got six!) In the foreword to THE ROAD TO OZ (1909), he wrote, “TO MY READERS:

“Well, my dears, here is what you have asked for: another ‘Oz Book. . ..’” (Again, it’s clear by his own capitalization of these last two words that Baum’s now five-volume series had taken on its own classification in terms of contemporary juvenile literature.) “Toto is in this story, because you wanted him to be there” — his first appearance since THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ in 1900 – “and many other characters which you will recognize. . ..”  Perhaps as a sop against potential disappointment to children who (in his own words) “fairly deluged” him with ideas and imaginings of their own, the thoughtful and careful Baum added, “If the story is not exactly as you would have written it yourselves, you must remember that a story has to be a story before it is written down, and the writer cannot change it much without spoiling it.”

The sentimental, savvy, and doubtless sincere author went on to say that he was “anxious to have you write and tell me how you like. . .the new characters in this book,” adding his hope that “they ought to win your love.”

[Above: Neill made this sterling painting for the dust jacket of the fifth Oz book — the book I discovered by accident at Gimbel’s Department Store in downtown Milwaukee in summer 1958. I’ve phrased it like this in the past, but there’s no better way to express my emotions at what turned out to be a lifetime Moment of Truth. Via THE WIZARD OF OZ – which at that point meant to me one book and one televiewing of the Judy Garland film musical — the four characters shown by Neill above had become my close, close friends in the preceding twenty-one months, and to find that they’d had further (and accessible) adventures was as divine a revelation as this child had experienced.]

Another brief personal note here (and as somewhat indicated by the immediately preceding caption): THE WIZARD OF OZ was my first Oz book; THE ROAD TO OZ was my second. Baum’s warm and direct language as quoted above – and at greater length in the tome itself – somehow became a personal pipeline to my soul on what was my eighth birthday. The fact that he off-handedly but clearly and seriously presented Oz as “actual” and – to quote the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer THE WIZARD OF OZ movie script – “a real truly live place” was right up my daydreaming street. If that seems foolish, I’ll pretty much gently concede but also counter that it was really all about naivete, as well as typical of the era. “Childlike” was a much more predominant trait at age eight in 1958 than it has long since become, and there’s no question that the youngest and/or most unsophisticated and faithful of the Baum audience believed that there was, indeed, a Land of Oz – and a number of ways to get there!

Baum, however, also provided a cliffhanger ending to his THE ROAD TO OZ opening remarks and cautioned that he had received “some very remarkable news from the Land of Oz, which has greatly astonished me. I believe it will astonish you, my dears, when you hear it. But it is such a long and exciting story that it must be saved for another book – and perhaps that will be the last story that will ever be told about the Land of Oz.”

That didn’t scare me, however. The rear dust jacket flap of my copy of THE ROAD TO OZ listed thirty-four following titles! Yet what Baum wrote in 1909 was true and to some extent panicked the children and critics alike back in the day. Prior to that year’s publication of THE ROAD TO OZ, he and publishers Frank K. Reilly and Sumner S. Britton had agreed to end the Oz series after book six in 1910; THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ was conceptualized to conclusively and (purportedly) irrevocably end Baum’s communication with Dorothy and her friends. In brief, this was accomplished by moving Dorothy, Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and Toto to Oz as permanent residents. Glinda the Good thereafter made the entire country invisible to all outside it, thus sparing the magic land from invasion by either tourists or heinous spirits. (A major coup by a whole flock of such evildoers had been narrowly averted in the EMERALD CITY book.)

Dorothy explained all this in a note to Baum, which he printed in what was intended as the final chapter of the final Oz book: “How The Story of Oz Came to An End.” The girl wrote to him “on a broad white feather from a stork’s wing” and said: “You will never hear anything more about Oz, because we are now cut off forever from all the rest of the world. But Toto and I will always love you and all the other children who love us. ‘DOROTHY GALE.’”

Of course, Oz never went away, and next month’s blog will detail just how Baum explained his necessary circumvention of Glinda’s Barrier of Invisibility and continued to commune with Ozites on behalf of his readers. There’ll also be excerpts from some of the letters he received, some bits of interfamily correspondence, and a remembrance of what is perhaps the most personal and important inscription in one of his books.

For now, though, we’ll close for the moment with just a touch of some of that. These two final quotes ably demonstrate just what kind of impact Baum’s Oz books had on the children who were reading them in his lifetime. Some eight years after Baum’s passing in 1919, a twenty-year-old Baum/Oz fan, Jack Snow began an at-first very sporadic but eventually increasing correspondence with Baum’s widow, Maud Gage Baum. By the mid-1940s, Snow had hopes of writing the first Baum biography, and Maud – then in her early eighties – patiently responded to the lengthy interview “questionnaires” he mailed to her. She then independently provided information about which Snow wouldn’t have known to ask, and she wrote:

“One of the most beautiful letters Mr. Baum ever received was from a mother whose only child had fallen in the water and nearly drowned. [Then] complications set in . . . All he asked was to have the Oz books read to him. The mother said they bought or borrowed all the Oz books that were in the town and read to him night and day – the father, mother, and nurse . . .. The child only lived two days. His last words were ‘Princess of Oz.’”

Above: Mr. and Mrs. L. Frank Baum and their four sons: Frank, Harry, Robert, and (seated) Kenneth. The world owes the Baum boys – and their legions of young friends – a certain percentage of gratitude for Oz; it was their implorations (especially in Dakota Territory and Chicago) that spurred Baum onwards to invent stories for their entertainment. Likewise, credit is due to Baum’s mother-in-law, the redoubtable Matilda Joslyn Gage, who had heard much of her son-in-law’s oral recounting and – in effect and ultimately (if perhaps somewhat apocryphally in terms of language) told Frank he was “a damn fool if” he didn’t “write those stories down and get them published!” Finally — across more recent decades and into and beyond the present day — we owe the Baum grandkids, great-grandkids, and great-great-grandkids for their endorsement and support of (and participation in) Chittenango and the All Things Oz Museum, OZ-Stravaganza! and its attendant activities.

As mentioned, there are a number of surviving children’s letters to Frank Baum to be presented here next month. We’ll end for now with one of the most succinct, direct, and heartfelt communications he received:

“I am going to write you a letter. You wrote a nice book. It’s called THE WIZARD OF OZ. I couldn’t write a book like that. I think I love you.”

The final sentence says it all. What could be more appropriate for those who read here? Or for this life-long admirer who monthly writes here? Baum was most definitively transcribing the words of Princess Ozma herself when he quotes her in his eighth Oz book, TIK-TOK OF OZ:

“The Land of Oz is love.”

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Many thanks for perusing all of that verbiage above! To-be-continued next month! 😊