“DEAR MR. BAUM . . .” AND “BROTHER FRANK” – PART THREE: CORRESPONDENCE TO (AND REFLECTIONS, RESPONSES, AND INSCRIPTIONS FROM) THE ROYAL HISTORIAN OF OZ

By John Fricke

Above: This handwritten letter from L. Frank Baum to young Oz fan, Carleton H. Davis, is reprinted from THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF OZ/AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN CLASSIC (Down East Books, 2013), a book I was privileged to write to detail the history of all-things-Oz from 1900 to 2013. (Such a comprehensive summation, with over four hundred illustrations, could only have been compiled and presented in conjunction with the world’s greatest Oz/Baum assemblage, The Willard Carroll/Tom Wilhite Collection.) As shown here, Baum’s personal stationery depicts nine of his Oz books, plus the “LITTLE WIZARD” compilation of six Oz short stories, two of his “Borderland of Oz” fantasies, and two of his novels for teen readers. Best of all, his text demonstrates the diplomacy and appreciation he would express when dealing with and replying to his enthusiasts.

Last month’s blog spoke of the bittersweet passing of author L. Frank Baum in 1919, a somber note leavened by the happy fact that “official” tales of Oz didn’t end there, but continued – until 1963, in fact! Publishers Reilly & Lee were loath to lose the income and prestige of an annual, new Oz title and invited young Philadelphia writer, Ruth Plumly Thompson, to prepare THE ROYAL BOOK OF OZ for the 1921 trade.

This was done, of course, after negotiations with Baum’s widow, Maud Gage Baum, and several measures were taken to effect an easy segue for Oz readers; they, after all, had known only Baum as “Royal Historian” of the land and characters he’d discovered. So Mrs. Baum herself wrote the ROYAL BOOK’s opening message: “This note is intended for all the children of America, who knew and loved Mr. Baum, and it goes to each of you with his love and mine.” She introduced Miss Thompson to the Oz audience as someone “who has known and loved the Oz stories ever since she was a little girl,” adding that she felt “Mr. Baum would be pleased´ with the new Oz book, “with all the Oz folks in it and true to life. You see,” she pointedly added, “I am Mrs. Baum . . . and so I know how he feels about everything.”

Above: Maud Gage Baum; she and Frank were married from November 1882 until his death in May 1919. Maud continued to live in Ozcot, their Hollywood, California, home until she passed away in 1953.

In her “Dear Children” letter, Maud also continued the fiction begun by Reilly & Lee the preceding year in their introductory remarks to Baum’s final Oz book (GLINDA OF OZ, 1920). She implied that Frank’s “unfinished notes about the Princess Ozma and Dorothy and the jolly people . . . of Oz” were “made” [into] this new Oz story” by Miss Thompson. As can be seen by the cover label of the book (just below), Baum was indeed credited with the volume for 1921, although the book’s title page carried the additional attribution, “Enlarged and Edited by Ruth Plumly Thompson.” However, there were no “unfinished notes.” THE ROYAL BOOK OF OZ was actually and entirely the work of “RPT” (as she sometimes signed herself), and she would go on to write eighteen more Oz books – these under her own name – through 1939.

Miss Thompson was singularly adept at continuing the Oz saga, and her prefatory remarks to her readers had, as well, a charm and verve all their own, establishing a joyous, wondrous rapport with the fans. Oz remained Baum’s innovation, however, and his own communications would be missed. Parts one and two of this brief series (which can be accessed by scrolling down past this entry) include many quotations from the “overtures” he penned to the initial twelve Oz books.

Meanwhile, if and when you read the preceding blogs, you’ll note that a recurring Baum theme in his prefaces – and across the years — is a frequent acknowledgment of the letters and suggestions he received from all ages of devotees. One fan declaration was quoted in part one; in part two, I promised to provide several others amongst this month’s content. These are offered just below; their enthusiasm may be a bit repetitious, but there’s no counterfeiting the glee of their passion – or the shared and sometimes very personal bits of their own history that has become interwoven with a genuinely sincere love of Oz and its people.

Above: This John R. Neill illustration was initially prepared for Baum’s 1908 Oz book, but it was considered too large for its original purpose. It then went unused in an Oz title until designer Dick Martin coopted it for a new edition of DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ in 1965. As shown, Dorothy and her kitten Eureka are apparently wading through some of the Royal Historian’s postals from the loyal readers of Oz.

Most of these communications originally came from preteens; several were shared by Baum with Reilly & Lee for use In AN OZ PICTURE BOOK, a promotional/advertising gimmick they circulated in 1917. The sometime misspellings and mispunctuations of the correspondence have been corrected here for easier reading:

“Mother tried to get an Oz book at the library yesterday, but they were all gone. You can tell the Oz books by the outside. They are used so much, they are worn into rags and have to be pasted . . . My papa is too nervous to read novels or magazines. But he listens with much interest while Mamma read[s] aloud from an Oz book. Mamma is so glad and proud that we have at last an American writer of fairy tales.”

“I was too little to read [THE LAND OF OZ] to myself . . . so my nurse read it to me. As soon as she got to the end of it, I turned right back to the beginning again. After a while, I got so I could say it word for word. My mother used to make mistakes on purpose, and I could correct her.”

“My sister and I always get an Oz book for our birthdays and Christmas . . . I hope you will write some more Oz books. I can’t ever get tired of them. My mother likes them, too. I read them aloud to her before I go to bed.”

“Your Oz books are the nicest books we have ever read.”

“I love your Oz books so. I have almost every one. I read them over and over and never get tired.”

“Everyone in my family likes your books, and last Thanksgiving, four Harvard boys were here, and right after dinner, they sat down to read your stories. You see, they enjoy them, even as dignified as they seem.”

Above: This classic photograph of Baum captures his delight in sharing his stories with children. It was taken in the Coronado, CA, area, during one of his frequent stays there.

“I have had a lot of story books, but I like your books better than any I have ever had, and I think all the other children like them better than any other books. There is another little boy and girl, [and] I lent them some books of yours. They like to read them as much as to go to a show.”

“I’ve read all the Oz books and all the others, and I think they are the bestest best kind of best books. They are like a dream without the nightmares. Please, please, PLEASE write some more . . ..”

“I just love THE WIZARD OF OZ. I have read it three times, and the pictures are just lovely . . . We had a cyclone here once, but I wasn’t born. If I were born then, maybe I would have gone to the same place as Dorothy did.”

“My uncle told me to write you and ask if you would make me a sequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ, which I have read with great interest. My grandma, with whom I have lived since my papa died, has lost her eyesight and likes to have me read to her, so I read some every day. I think she would like to have me read a new book you write.”

Later in life, L. Frank Baum once offered in a letter of his own that his ambition was to write books which would do “a bit to brighten up a few lives.” How well he succeeded might be seen in the foregoing outpouring, which are mere excerpts from only ten — of the tens of thousands — of letters he received over the years.

The letter at the top of this blog also gives a fair example of Baum’s personal, emotional response and dedication to those strangers who wrote him. Not surprisingly, though, his correspondence or communications with his closest family members was even more intimate, trusting, and/or supportive. Baum was basically bedridden the last couple of years of his life; still, in September 1918 (and just eight months before he died), he made the effort to write to his eldest son, Frank Joslyn Baum, who was then serving in the military during World War I. Despite his own frequent discomfort, Baum found the strength and heart to deliver an encomium of literary praise, knowing it would bolster and please the young man: “Your last letter from ‘somewhere in France’ was very welcome . . . [and] your descriptive account of recent army activities is fascinating and vital – and gives an extremely vivid picture of what goes on around you. In descriptive writing, you do a job far superior to anything I have ever done or am capable of doing.”

Above: MOTHER GOOSE IN PROSE (1897) was not only Baum’s first published book for children but holds additional historical importance as the first book to be illustrated by the soon-to-be-renowned Maxfield Parrish. Its relevance to this blog is explained in the following paragraph.

For more than two decades (and like many authors), Baum personally inscribed copies of his books for numerous family members, harking back to the beginnings of his career as a children’s author. Mary Louise Brewster received such a presentation copy of Baum’s initial children’s book, MOTHER GOOSE IN PROSE; at that time, in 1897, the author wrote to his treasured sister, “When I was young, I longed to write a great novel that should win me fame. Now that I am getting old, my first book is written to amuse children. For, aside from my evident inability to do anything ‘great,’ I have learned to regard fame as a will-o’-the-wisp which, when caught, is not worth the possession; but to please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one’s heart and brings its own reward . . .. “

I added the boldface type, italics, and underlining on that final phrase, although I doubt that anyone reading here really requires the emphasis; Baum’s thoughts are so emotionally sound and central to his life that all can understand them. How fitting for him to come to such a realization – two years BEFORE discovering Oz – and his choice of words has since been cited over and over as his credo, however accidentally he initially penned them. (The phrase TO PLEASE A CHILD was adopted by Russell P. MacFall for the first full-length Baum biography, published in 1961 by The Reilly & Lee Company of Chicago, who’d issued all but the first of the Oz book series, beginning in 1904.)

Baum had a favorite brother, as well – Dr. Henry (Harry) Clay Baum — to whom he wrote an omniscient letter on April 8, 1900. Therein, the author comments at reasonable length on the success of his second children’s tome, the 1899 FATHER GOOSE: HIS BOOK, and then describes in some detail the forthcoming Baum product for 1900: THE SONGS OF FATHER GOOSE, THE ARMY ALPHABET, THE NAVY ALPHABET, and A NEW WONDERLAND. (The original covers of four of these titles may be seen in the 1901 book poster, reproduced with the November blog.) After referencing that massive amount of journalistic work, Baum concludes, “Then there is the other book, the best thing I ever have written, they tell me . . ..”

Above: The book that started it all.

And that letter and that particular referenced book bring us full circle, as “the best thing I have ever written” was THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. However unintentionally and unexpectedly, it started the “Oz Book Series” as well as the “blizzard of Oz” mail from fans of all ages that swamped L. Frank Baum for the rest of his life. Indeed, even decades after Baum’s passing, it was noted by biographer MacFall in TO PLEASE A CHILD, “. . . the most touching tribute to the continuing power of these [Oz] books is the average of four letters a week, addressed in childish hands, to L. Frank Baum, which come to the Reilly & Lee Company, forty years after the author’s death.”

I know that to be a fact. In the late 1950s, I was one of them.

The magic of Oz. The magic of L. Frank Baum. He was born — and remains vibrantly celebrated on a daily basis — in Chittenango, NY. But the same sort of happy heralding takes place on that same schedule all around the world, and his capacity “to please a child” – indeed, to captivate, enrich, entertain, and motivate, stimulate, and spur the imagination and the dreams of children — has never diminished.

All imaginable (and imagination) honors are his. His legacy continues to be ours.

Thank you . . . “Dear Mr. Baum.”