The Literary Imagination of L. Frank Baum
L. Frank Baum’s literary imagination is firmly woven into the American fabric. He will be forever remembered for his story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the various versions his vision has inspired—from the MGM classic The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the updated version by Gregory Maguire Wicked (1995) and the wildly successful Broadway musical of the same name. In his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), Baum acknowledges that the “winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations” but “the time has come for 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 by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale.“ With that in mind, he created his “modernized fairy tale” which continues to enchant people to this day.
A year after the publication of his iconic book, he published a collection called American Fairy Tales (1901) to further explore this notion of “newer ‘wonder tales’” for America. Inspired by both the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, he produced a collection of 12 stories reflecting the American spirit. Set in contemporary America, the tales are firmly rooted in his time and place while simultaneously introducing wondrous elements. Inspired by the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Baum believed he was living in a miraculous age, and many of the stories introduce the wonders of invention and modernity. His story “The Dummy That Lived,” for example, features a department store dummy that comes to life (a convention that reappears in the 1987 film Mannequin), and in his delightful tale, “The Glass Dog,” the main character goes into a dime store and tells the operator to dial up “Pelf 6742” reflecting the modern invention of the telephone—an inclusion that Baum would have seen as in keeping with the magical element of fairy tales. He also calls upon the mythology of the American West as his tale “The Capture of Father Time” employs a cowboy who mistakenly lassos Father Time.
Unfortunately, as America has always had racism as part of the cultural fabric, Baum also includes this element in some of his stories. The first story “The Box of Robbers” includes the stereotype of Italians as possessing “badly tanned” complexions and being lawless, and Baum’s abhorrent views on Native Americans is on display with the following line: “I have been told these Americans are painted Indians, who are bloodthirsty and terrible.” He also portrays elements from non-Western cultures as exotic and backward and uses non-Western people as props for the Western imagination. This is particularly true in “The Mandarin and the Butterfly” which involves a Chinese immigrant and “The Laughing Hippopotamus” which is set in Africa by the Congo River. While Baum may have been blind to his racism due to his “taken-for-granted assumptions” to quote Toni Morrison, the Congo is not Oz, and this regrettable ingredient to some of his tales detracts from the magic in these “newer ‘wonder tales’” set in America.