By John Fricke
Let’s begin by referencing last month’s blog (located just below this one, if you care to scroll down). And as the magazine, newspaper, and movie “cliffhanger” serials of many decades ago might have put it:
“When last we left our intrepid hero, he had – after little more than ten years – come face-to-face with the fact that all ties with his discovered land of glory had been severed, and he set himself adrift on a sea of new, uncertain, but hopeful fulfillment.”
(And now I’ll translate!)
In acquiescence to literally thousands of demanding requests from his readers (most sent via United States Postal Service mail), author L. Frank Baum had written six Oz books across eleven years. Yet as he explained in the last of these (THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ, 1910), Glinda the Good had effected a magic spell so powerful that Oz had become invisible, unreachable and “uncontactable” by anyone from the Great Outside World. This included even Baum himself, who had been “appointed Royal Historian” of that extraordinary realm. Well . . . Baum’s vast audience was decimated by the news of the disappearance of Oz, and as he later reported, “They wrote many letters asking if the Historian did not know of some adventures to write about that happened before the Land of Oz was shut out from all the rest of the world. But he did not know of any.”
In truth, what Baum wanted to do (at least at that point in time) was pretty much completely distance himself from Oz, so as to be able to write some of the other fantasies his ever-active imagination had been (apparently ceaselessly) conjuring up. In 1911, he launched what was to be a new book series about a little girl from the West Coast of California and her grizzled old sailor companion. THE SEA FAIRIES was published that year, and took little Trot and Cap’n Bill on a wondrous excursion beneath the ocean. They companied with mermaids, including their Queen Aquarine; found a convivial friend and defender in King Anko, the world’s oldest sea serpent; and survived capture and death threats by Zog, heinous undersea creature of evil. Beautifully told – and beautifully illustrated by John R. Neill, artist of five of the Oz books — THE SEA FAIRIES was well-received but achieved only half the sales of THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ a year prior.
This spelled temporary but telling disaster for Baum. A financially unsuccessful business venture from 1908 led him into bankruptcy the same year THE SEA FAIRIES appeared, and although he proceeded to write SKY ISLAND — a second Trot-and-Cap’n-Bill saga for 1912 — both Baum and his publishers were already planning to return to Oz in 1913. Baum even added the LITTLE WIZARD STORIES OF OZ to his output that year: six short tales, issued as six tiny picture books. But as the Royal Historian of Oz, he made his major “comeback” contribution with THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ, textually the longest of all his Oz tales.
Beyond the financial straits that pummeled him back to Oz, Baum also had to feel some relief and comfortability in “going home.” His Oz-related projects for 1913 were both personally and professionally auspicious and the cause for major rejoicing amongst his fans, friends, family, and following. Of course, having reported in 1910 that Oz had become isolated and inaccessible, it fell to Baum to find his own means of reestablishing contact with his creation. Customarily, he gave all credit to his readers – and one in particular — in the “Prologue” letter he composed for the onset of the PATCHWORK GIRL book. He first explained again everyone’s enforced-via-Glinda separation from Oz (and the youngsters’ frustration with this) and then went on to exult,
“Finally, one of the children inquired why we couldn’t hear from Princess Dorothy via wireless telegraph, which would enable her to communicate to the Historian whatever happened in the Land of Oz without his seeing her, or even knowing just where Oz is.” Baum also offered appreciation to both the “clever man [who] invented the ‘wireless’ and an equally clever child [who] suggested the idea of reaching . . . Oz by its means.” He explained that he’d “rigged up a high tower in his back yard and took lessons” in telegraphy, “and then began to call ‘Princess Dorothy of Oz’ by sending messages into the air.” Glinda, of course, read about Baum’s efforts in her Great Book of Records, which notates every incident, large or small, that happens in the universe . . . AT the very moment it happens. (That magical volume was, after the earlier Oz Books, a concept and an enchanted device with which Oz readers were universally familiar.) The Shaggy Man – an Ozzy immigrant from the United States – was then given permission by Princess Ozma to “wire” all the latest news to Baum, and the result was an annual, full-length Oz book from the Historian from 1913 through 1920.
In 1914, Baum opened TIK-TOK OF OZ with the declaration “To My Readers” that “the very marked success of my last year’s fairy book . . . convinces me that my readers like the Oz stories ‘best of all’ as one little girl wrote me.” He went on to discuss his latest entry, alerting the reading audience to the fact that they would “find in this story a lot of strange characters and adventures they have never heard of before.” He concluded with a loving tribute: “I want to tell all my little friends – whose numbers are increasing by the thousands every year – that I am very grateful for the favor they have shown my books and for the delightful little letters I am constantly receiving. I am almost sure that I have as many friends among the children of America as any story writer alive; and this, of course, makes me very proud and happy.”
For his ongoing Ozian homecoming, Baum wisely marshalled his resources and dovetailed his still burgeoning creative endeavors. TIK-TOK OF OZ (1914) drew a decent percentage of inspiration and plot points from his successful stage musical, THE TOK-TOK MAN OF OZ (1913). Indeed, Baum further coalesced those new adventures and characters with a variation of several plot points from 1907’s OZMA OF OZ! The Oz Book for 1915 was THE SCARECROW OF OZ, and it pulled some major story incidents from Baum’s 1914 HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ, a silent feature film produced by the author’s own Oz Film Manufacturing Company. In 1916, he took one of his unpublished (circa 1905) fantasy manuscripts and apparently replaced its original finale with an Ozzy denouement; the rewritten title was issued as RINKITINK IN OZ.
Each of these Oz Books – and the three that followed — began with Baum’s customary personal message, whether titled “’Twixt You and Me,” “Introducing This Story,” or the ubiquitous “To My Readers.” In his annual message, he sometimes mentioned contemporary, stateside Oz news; in the foreword to THE SCARECROW OF OZ, Baum references the fact that “there have been many formed many ‘Oz Reading Societies,’ where the Oz Books owned by different members are read aloud.” He eventually (honestly and directly) solicited a certain amount of help with his fan mail and observed that “a good many of my correspondents neglect to slip a 3-cent postage-stamp into their letters for the answer. You are sending but one letter, you know, while I get so many hundreds of letters that to prepay postage on all the answers to them would be no small burden to me.”
Mostly, however, Baum simply acknowledged gratitude for their letters (“all of which are lovingly cherished”), their help (“don’t fail to write me and often and give me your advice and suggestions”), and their participation in the series (“these stories of Oz are just yours and mine, and we are partners”). He was particularly gracious about expressing appreciation for their ideas: “There has been an urgent appeal for me to write a story that will take Trot and Cap’n Bill to the Land of Oz,” a task to which he tended in THE SCARECROW OF OZ. (Such lobbying by the children offered proof-positive that the two protagonists of Baum’s “interim” fantasies, THE SEA FAIRIES and SKY ISLAND, had garnered their own adherents.) In 1917, he quoted “a sweet little girl of eleven who called to see me and talk about the Land of Oz. Said she, ‘I s’pose if Ozma ever got lost, or stolen, ev’rybody in Oz would be dreadful sorry.’” This led him to record the tale of THE LOST PRINCESS OF OZ. A year later, Baum began his introduction with the pronouncement that, “I know that some of you have been waiting for this story of [THE] TIN WOODMAN [OF OZ], because many of my correspondents have asked me, time and again, what ever became of the ‘pretty Munchkin girl’ whom Nick Chopper was engaged to before the Wicked Witch enchanted his ax, and he traded his flesh for tin.”
Delightfully, the preface to THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ book (1918) reflects a certain “turnabout is fair play” attitude, and the Historian either found or invented a happy means of sharing some of his correspondence. He expounded, “A learned college professor recently wrote me to ask: ‘For readers of what age are your books intended?’ It puzzled me to answer that properly, until I looked over some of the letters I have received. One says, ‘I’m a little boy five years old, and I just love your Oz stories. My sister, who is writing this for me, reads me the Oz Books, but I wish I could read them myself.’ Another letter says, ‘I am a great girl thirteen years old, so you’ll be surprised when I tell you I am not too old yet for the Oz stories.’ Here’s another letter: ‘Since I was a young girl, I’ve never missed getting a Baum book for Christmas. I’m married now, but as eager to get and read the Oz stories as ever.’ And still another writes, ‘My good wife and I, both more than seventy years of age, believe that we find more real enjoyment in your Oz books than in any other books that we read.’ Considering these statements, I wrote the college professor that my books are intended for all those whose hearts are young, no matter what their ages may be.”
Occasionally, Baum drifted into a more serious approach to his personal messages. The opening of his introduction to THE LOST PRINCESS OF OZ, if of its time (1917), is both delicately, directly philosophical as well as topically impactful: “Some of my readers are developing wonderful imaginations. This pleases me. Imagination has brought mankind through the Dark Ages to its present state of civilization. Imagination led Columbus to discover America. Imagination led Franklin to discover electricity. Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine, and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams — day dreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain-machinery whizzing – are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization. A prominent educator tells me that fairy tales are of untold value in developing imagination in the young. I believe it.” [The power of those words of Baum’s – some 105 years later – impressed artist Gabriel Gale to quote them when he dedicated his 2021 book, THE ART OF OZ, to his new-born nephew. “For . . . Niko,” Gale wrote, “in the hope that this book contributes to your growth as an imaginative individual, thus helping you become someone who is (in the phrase of L. Frank Baum) ‘most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization.’”]
A somber note crept into what would be Baum’s final “To My Readers” letter, and thus such solemnity must come to this blog. He penned – or possibly dictated to his wife – these words in early 1919, in his novelist’s “overture” to THE MAGIC OF OZ. As often in the past, Baum began with several statements about the book itself, making passing references to “the incidents so marvelous and inspiring . . . which have taken place in the last few years in our ‘great outside world’ . . . that I cannot hope to equal them with stories of The Land of Oz.” But his next comment – though casual and incidental – conveyed a more muted tone as he mentioned that “A long and confining illness has prevented my answering all the good letters sent me . . . .” That illness would carry him off just months later, on May 6, 1919, and as Russell MacFall and Baum’s eldest son, Frank Joslyn Baum, put it in the TO PLEASE A CHILD Baum biography (Chicago: Reilly & Lee Co., 1961), “It was just ten days before his sixty-third birthday, and half a continent away, the presses were pouring out copies of THE MAGIC OF OZ.”
News of Baum’s passing was carried in newspapers across the country, and his final Oz manuscript, GLINDA OF OZ, was published a year later, in 1920. It contained a beautifully phrased introductory greeting “To Our Readers” — this time signed, “Cordially, your friends, The Publishers.” True to Baum’s tradition, they began with a gentle paean to the new book and then segued to a tender explanation: “Mr. Baum did his best to answer all the letters from his small earth-friends before he had to leave them, but he couldn’t quite answer all, for there were very many. In May, nineteen-hundred-and-nineteen, he went away to take his stories to the little child-souls who lived here too long ago to read the Oz stories for themselves. We are sorry he could not stay here, and we are sad to tell you this is his last complete story. But he left some unfinished notes about the Princess Ozma and Dorothy and the Oz people, and we promise that some day we will put them all together like a picture puzzle and give you more stories of the wonderful Land of Oz.”
There was a most necessary measure of hope and an appeal to expectation in those words from Baum’s publishers, even though their concluding sentence was fabrication; there were no unfinished notes. But there WOULD be a new Oz book in 1921. And in 1922. And annually from 1923 through 1942. And again in 1946, 1949, 1951, and 1963. AND another lot written in succeeding years by some of the eight women and men who’d been responsible for writing or illustrating those referenced in the preceding sentences or beyond. Not to mention the countless Oz books and Oz stories put forward in the last century (or more) by the fans themselves – some of them writers, all of them enthusiasts.
So even as L. Frank Baum went on to what one (this one, anyway!) hopes is a celestial Emerald City, his creation has not only flourished but lived on and on and on. And ON! Next month, we start off the new year by celebrating all things Oz with part three of this brief series, saluting Chittenango’s native son, the Royal Historian of Oz! We have more remarkable quotes from children’s letters to Baum. We have quotes from two letters he wrote to family members. And we have several of his book inscriptions — one of which is (to my mind, anyway) perhaps the most personal and important of anything he penned and signed in one of his books: the perfect, nineteen-word summation of his credo.
But that’s for next month. Before that, please watch here next WEEK — for a special Christmas blog, too!
Many, many thanks for reading. 😊