IT'S NOT EXACTLY "Move over, Alice, here comes Dorothy" time yet. After all, Lewis Carroll wrote about Wonderland 35 years before L. Frank Baum gave us Oz, so he had quite a head start in attention from scholars and other learned sorts. What's more, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland had only one sequel while The Wizard of Oz generated 40 in all (by six different authors), enough to give even hardened exegetes pause. But the trickle of informed criticism in book form has started to become a fitful stream, beginning with Michael Patrick Hearn's own annotated Wizard in 1973, followed by Raylyn Moore's 1974 Wonderful Wizard, Marvelous Land, Dick Martin and D.L. Greene's Oz Scrapbook in 1977 and Aljean Harmetz's The Making of The Wizard of Oz, in 1977.
Now Hearn, who's at work on a Baum biography, has produced what the publishers are calling a "critical heritage" edition. That is, it's the complete text of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Baum's original 1900 title) accompanied by essays--21 in all--that pretty much do just one thing: examine the phenomenon that is Oz. Spanning the years since the appearance of the Wizard, these pieces include the original New York Times review of the book ("ingenuously woven out of commonplace material . . . it will indeed be strange if there be a normal child who will not enjoy the story"), as well as its editorial upon Baum's death in 1919 ("L. Frank Baum is dead, and the children, if they knew it, would mourn"). The other articles Hearn has selected reveal to us what James Thurber, Ray Bradbury and Gore Vidal, to name three, have felt about Oz, in periodicals as diverse as Library Journal and The Village Voice. Two of these essays, in fact, first saw the light of day in the very un- Ozzy New York Review of Books, providing a definite leg up on (high) cultural respectability.
You will note, please, that I refer to what Thurber et al. "feel"--not think--about Oz. This is important, and if one thing's clear from reading the pieces here, it's that Oz is really an emotional, rather than an intellectual, experience. The majority of the writers, grown men and women all, "came to" Oz as children, and the child in them, still vulnerable to the spell cast by Baum's fantasy, has its hands on the typewriter, too. Thurber, for example, reread the first two Oz books for The New Republic in 1934, when he was 40, and reports that he "was happy to find out" that, a second time around, he loved them as much as he did when he was a boy.
He recalls: "I know that I went through excruciatingly lovely nightmares and heartaches when the Scarecrow lost his straw, when the Tin Woodman was taken apart, when the Saw-Horse broke his wooden leg." Both the first and second time. And says novelist Paul Gallico, talking about his relationship to Dorothy and her comrades, in a piece he wrote for Esquire in the late '50s, when its target audience was sophisticated males, "Sometimes I joined them in my dreams and, when once you have dreamed, that dream becomes a part of your existence." But it wasn't just dreams; reading the Oz books felt like life and putting them down, to rejoin a world without wizards and witches, Munchkins and Winkies, created definite Oz lag. That someone could attempt to convey this in a men's magazine in the button-down, gray flannel '50s is a measure of the lasting power Oz exerts.
Alice is cerebral, Oz is visceral. Here's Ray Bradbury on the two: "Oz is muffins and honey, summer vacations, and all the easy green time in the world. Wonderland is cold gruel and arithmetic at six a.m., icy showers, long schools." But the two greatly beloved stories, despite the distinctions drawn by Bradbury and others, are not mutually exclusive. What they have in common is spunky heroines whom boys don't mind liking--"I read Oz books periodically until I entered the army," one of Hearn's essayists remarks--and kids acting bossy to great effect. Wordplay, political satire, picaresque structure--these are a few of the other elements Oz and Wonderland share. Where they differ has to do with the background and milieu of their authors. Yet, little Anglophile that I was, I never wanted to visit down-the- rabbit-hole or meet any of Carroll's characters. The lilt and the language and the nonsense, plus the innate snobbery, were enough to intrigue me, but at a distance. Oz, on the other hand, was a place I've never stopped wanting to be. Perhaps, though, the main difference between Oz and Alice lies in the affections of librarians, who have long approved the latter and shunned the former.
Knowing this to be so, I never quite believed it. What could it mean, that the librarians of America turned up their noses at this national anthem of a fairy tale series? ("Utopia Americana," Edward Wagenknecht called Oz in a seminal 1929 essay.) Luckily, I had my own set of Oz books, with their fat, flat, different-colored spines, and relied on the library for other titles. But how about less fortunate children? Thanks to Michael Hearn's giving over a section of this edition to "Librarians and Oz," I now better understand the extent of the problem, a state of affairs that probably exists to this day in some corners of our land. What made librarians dislike the writings of Lyman Frank Baum?
It seems that the answers range from labeling Oz adventures "dated and stiff" to the lamentable fact that "Dorothy has no inner problems." Martin Gardner, one of Oz's truest defenders, lists seven possible reasons for library rejections, including bureaucratic annoyance at having to stock so many books in one series, poorrediting of the texts, inconvenient size for shelving and what are wrongly considered less-than-first-rate illustrations. He goes on. "Consider, now, the poor librarian. What sort of mind is most attracted to such a profession . . . An individual with a soaring imagination is not likely to be happy shuffling file cards." That's a harsh indictment (although he mentions "there are of course exceptions"); nonetheless an angered Ozophile is dangerous.
Perhaps one or two of the other articles here might change some librarians' minds. As I've already pointed out, most of Hearn's choices ring changes on the love of Oz, expounding the theme that The Wizard of Oz and its sequels do nothing for a child "but give him joy." (Absorbing and passionate as these are, they preach best to the converted.) However, a few are more Serious, like Henry M. Littlefield's analysis of the Wizard as a "parable on populism." Proposes Littlefield, who sees the long shadow of William Jennings Bryan on Oz, "Silver shoes walking on golden road; henceforth Dorothy becomes the innocent agent of Baum's ironic view of the silver issue." Then there's Osmond Beckwith, a man with a Freudian outlook on such icons of Oz as the Tin Woodman. "The drama of decapitation (in the psychoanalytic vocabulary, decapitation and castration are synonymous) is played over and over again as entr'acte." In other words, says Beckwith, the Tin Man's longing for his lost "heart" is merely euphemistic.
Take that, librarians!
Naturally, for Oz buffs, it's swell to have all these essays in one place. (For those who have an appetite, The Baum Bugle, the magazine of the International Wizard of Oz Club, comes out quarterly.) But whether they're loving, pedantic or provocative, they send one back to the books themselves. This, in turn, reminds us what it was that the Oz books gave us, in addition to an enduring fantasy world. "I developed the literary habit," declares Bernard M. Golub. "No child can make the journey to Oz without acquiring in the process a fascination for books," states C. Warren Hollister. And, says Gore Vidal, with characteristic grace and uncharacteristic benevolence, those who read the Oz books "are often made what they were not--imaginative, tolerant, alert to wonders, life."