L. Frank Baum and Oz

I am making steps toward my goal of cleaning my office this summer. Yesterday, I tackled one of my bookshelves and encountered my 1929 edition Oz book, Ozma of Oz. I’ve always loved the art by John R. Neill, and I especially like the 1929 art nouveau cover. Finding this book raised many fond memories for me. I learned to read with the Oz books, starting with my father reading them to me, and then me slowly taking over and reading ahead. I’ve always loved Baum. Not many people know that he wrote a whole series of fourteen Oz books, as did several other authors after he died.

Many have heard the idea that The Wizard of Oz is a “parable for populism,” referring to William Jennings Bryan, the populist movement, and the gold standard. Of course many people have disputed this idea as well. Baum was politically progressive, and even had feminist influences. His wife was Maud Gage, the daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a significant figure in the U.S. women’s suffrage movement of the 19th century. A New York Times review of Baum’s biography quotes him as writing that “men who did not support feminist aspirations were ”selfish, opinionated, conceited or unjust — and perhaps all four combined.’”

jinjurBaum’s stories reflect this. Most of the main characters in his books are girls, and the most powerful characters in his world are female (Ozma, Glinda). Usually the males are bumbling, silly, or pompous (the Wizard, the Scarecrow, Jack Pumpkinhead). Some of his portrayals of strong female characters are also read as parodies of suffragists. For instance, The Marvelous Land of Oz features General Jinjur, who wants to oust her oppressors in the Emerald City (i.e., the Scarecrow) with her all-girl Army of Revolt. (The General proclaims at the gate, “You must surrender. We are revolting.”) Jinjur and her army are eventually routed due to their fear of mice. But as the Oz Enthusiast points out, by the tale’s end, the Scarecrow is indeed replaced by a woman, Ozma.

Baum’s way with language delighted me as a child. There are two examples I remember the most that illustrate how language is ambiguous and relational, and the way that “meanings are in people, not in words.” The first example is in The Marvelous Land of Oz. In this scene, The Scarecrow (who is the current ruler of Oz) explains rather rationally to his visitor, Jack Pumpkinhead, that they need a translator since they come from different lands and therefore must speak different languages. So Jellia Jamb, a citizen of the Emerald City, is summoned to translate. As the go-between, she intentionally bungles what the Scarecrow and Jack Pumpkinhead say to each other to point out their silliness, causing a great deal of strife between the two until they finally figure out what she’s doing. After a series of funny insults, arguments, and misunderstandings, they figure out her duplicity in shock. It’s a wickedly funny scene.

My second favorite scene, found in the Patchwork Girl of Oz, is centered on a pun. My father was a fierce punster, so such things have special resonance for me. Dorothy and her friends encounter two groups of beings at war with each other, the Horners and the Hoppers. The Hoppers have only one leg and one foot, while the Horners are bi-pedal creatures with horns. One of the Horners insulted one of the Hoppers by claiming that Hoppers were “lacking in understanding” since they had only one leg. The Hoppers were upset and failed to see what understanding had to do with how many legs you have. Acting as diplomat, Dorothy confronts the Chief of the Hoppers, who explains the pun: “A Horner said they have less understanding than we, because they’ve only one leg. Ha, ha! You see the point, don’t you? If you stand on your legs, and your legs are under you, then—ha, ha, ha!—then your legs are your under-standing. Hee, hee, hee! Ho, ho!” So, as one of the characters put it, “their understanding of the understanding you meant led to the misunderstanding.”

The character of Ozma always fascinated me the most, though. Ozma, the rightful ruler of Oz, was hidden as a child by the Wizard so that he could claim the throne. He gave Ozma to a witch named Mombi who turned her into a -boy- named Tip. The Marvelous Land of Oz is the story of Tip’s adventures and Ozma’s eventual transformation to girlhood and return to the throne. So, basically, Ozma is a transgendered character.

Dorothy and Ozma of Oz
Ozma of Oz and Dorothy

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