Frank Baum, the Man Behind the Curtain

The author of The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, traveled many paths before he found his Yellow Brick Road

Images and phrases from The Wizard of Oz are so pervasive that it's hard to conceive of it as the product of one man's imagination. (The Everett Collection)

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It seems appropriate that a story with such mythical dimensions has inspired its own legends—the most enduring, perhaps, being that The Wizard of Oz was a parable for populism. In the 1960s, searching for a way to engage his students, a high-school teacher named Harry Littlefield, connected The Wizard of Oz to the late-19th-century political movement, with the Yellow Brick Road representing the gold standard—a false path to prosperity—and the book's silver slippers standing in for the introduction of silver—an alternate means to the desired destination. Years later, Littlefield would admit that he devised the theory to teach his students, and that there was no evidence that Baum was a populist, but the theory still sticks.

The real-world impact of The Wizard of Oz, however, seems even more fantastical than the rumors that have grown up around the book and the film. None of the 124 little people who were recruited for the film committed suicide, as is sometimes rumored, but many of them were brought over from Eastern Europe and paid less per week than the dog actor who played Toto. Denslow, the illustrator of the first edition, used his royalties to purchase a piece of land off the coast of Bermuda and declare himself king. Perhaps intoxicated by the success of his franchise, Baum declared, upon first seeing his grandchild, that the name Ozma suited her much better than her given name, Frances, and her name was changed. (Ozma subsequently named her daughter Dorothy.) Today, there are dozens of events and organizations devoted to sustaining the everlasting emerald glow: a “Wonderful Weekend of Oz” that takes place in upstate New York, an “Oz-stravaganza” in Baum’s birthplace and an International Wizards of Oz club that monitors all things Munchkin, Gillikin, Winkie and Quadling related.

More than 100 years after its publication, 70 years after its debut on the big screen and 13 book sequels later, Oz endures. “It’s interesting to note,” wrote the journalist Jack Snow of Oz, “that the first word ever written in the very first Oz book was ‘Dorothy.’ The last word of the book is ‘again.’ And that is what young readers have said ever since those two words were written: ‘We want to read about Dorothy again.’”

About Chloe Schama
Chloe Schama

Chloe Schama is deputy editor of the New Republic and writes regularly about books for Smithsonian magazine. She recently published Wild Romance, a critically acclaimed nonfiction account of a Victorian-era marriage scandal.

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