The Amazing Author of Oz | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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The Amazing Author of Oz

Evergreen at 100 years old, L. Frank Baum's gentle fable of Dorothy and the wonderful wizard keeps his memory alive with movie fans and readers the world over

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Lyman Frank Baum loved to spin stories for children, and children loved to listen to them. When he finally set down his stories, he wrote more than 70 books in a career of just two decades. Many are long forgotten, but one was called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It's about a girl named Dorothy from Kansas who meets a scarecrow, a tin woodman and a cowardly — well, perhaps you know the story. But you may not know that Oz is more than a single book that inspired one of Hollywood's greatest movies.

Born in 1856, Baum seems to have suffered from angina pectoris, a heart disease causing severe chest pain. His delicate condition made him a sedentary, solitary, mostly home-schooled child who read constantly, often fairy tales. At 18 he left home to become an actor.

Baum married Maud Gage in 1882 and in 1888 moved his growing family west to the prairie boomtown of Aberdeen, in present-day South Dakota. Left broke when a store he had started went belly-up, he moved the family again — to Chicago — in 1891, where he worked at a variety of jobs.

Oz was born, as Baum recalled it, sometime in May 1898, when he was spinning a story for neighborhood children that he called "The Emerald City," featuring a tin woodman, a scarecrow and a cowardly lion. One evening a girl asked where the scarecrow and tin woodman lived. Stumped, Baum began scanning the room. Finally he noticed the filing cabinet in the corner. There he saw two drawers, one labeled A-N, the other O-Z. The Wonderful Wizard of An didn't seem very catchy, but Oz! The instant he saw it, he knew. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It remains one of the best-selling children's books of all time, translated into 22 languages, including Tamil and Serbo-Croatian.

An exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz will run until September 23 at the Library of Congress. The exhibition can be accessed on the Internet at lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/oz/.

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