13 July 2010

How Much Can Change in Two Years

Eric Gjovaag’s Wonderful Blog of Oz notes an Ozzy challenge on Jeopardy last night, and notes that the “answer” was inaccurately worded in two ways. The more interesting error was that, having died in 1919, L. Frank Baum was in no position to publish or manage any active verb a year later.

I’d seen this challenge in the show’s daily New York Times ad, and also noted that inaccuracy. In addition, I was struck that the category for this challenge was “1920s LIT.” Glinda of Oz was published in 1920, and thus indeed entered the cultural discourse of that decade. But it could only reflect the previous decade when Baum wrote. Like Billy Budd, which Herman Melville left unfinished when he died in 1891 but came into print in 1924, the book is part of two cultural eras.

Of course, a lapse of two years between composition and publication doesn’t mean much for Glinda. Hey, authors today have to expect to wait at least that long! (Good thing they can work on their book trailers.) But in one respect I think we can see that time gap affecting Baum’s last three Oz books.

Baum apparently wrote The Tin Woodman of Oz, The Magic of Oz, and Glinda of Oz one after another in 1917-18. He finished Magic in the fall of 1917, and Glinda in February 1918 (as I reconstructed events in an article for The Baum Bugle a few years back).

All three of those books depict soldiers or war, none in particularly favorable terms. They don’t show the boosterism of Baum’s Army Alphabet and Navy Alphabet rhyming books from 1900. We don’t see any military as an efficient source for good, like Glinda’s army in The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904).

Instead, Baum’s last two books revolve around wars motivated by egotistic, greedy manipulators. The Tin Soldier in the preceding novel is a stiff personality, not particularly useful, and harder to love than the Tin Woodman. We never see the harmless bumbling of Ozma’s army in Ozma of Oz.

However, larger events soon changed the environment for those books. In mid-1917 Woodrow Wilson decided not to keep us out of war after all. Baum’s eldest son, Frank Joslyn Baum, rejoined the army. (He’d previously served in the US attempt to subjugate the Philippines.) Both personally and politically, poking fun at warriors probably became harder for Baum.

I think we can see that atmosphere affect The Magic of Oz, even though the World War was over by the time it was published in 1919. At one point a villain plots to turn each of several monkeys into “a giant man, dressed in a fine uniform and armed with a sharp sword.” The “sword” suggests Baum pictured the sort of comic-opera soldiers who had appeared in his previous stories. But John R. Neill drew those giants as modern US soldiers straight off a recruiting poster.

Similarly, Magic shows the Nome King conning animals into a war that’s in nobody’s best interest, the way people against US entry into the World War described that situation. Yet Baum’s dedication says:

I dedicate this Book to the Children of our Soldiers, the Americans and their Allies, with unmeasured Pride and Affection.
Baum’s manuscript indicates that he added that line months after writing his story.


Eric said...

Oh, dear. Today seems to be my day to nitpick. I'm not sure how to tell you this, but there's a big ol' mistake in your post! Baum did not die in late 1918, but May 6, 1919.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks! I made the correction. I got Baum’s death mixed up with the time after which he effectively stopped writing.