22 April 2011

Visiting the Wonder City of Oz

Earlier this week the auction house Doyle New York sold some Oz-related items from the estate of Fred Meyer, long-time secretary of the International Wizard of Oz Club. One of the most interesting items was John R. Neill’s manuscript for The Wonder City of Oz, along with the heavily edited version that saw print. As the auctioneer explains:
Neill was informed in early 1940 that Ruth Plumly Thompson was to retire as an Oz author. Asked to write the next book in the series himself after 35 years as the series illustrator, Neill pieced together sketches and stories he had been gathering and submitted the typescript. Reilly & Lee hired a ghost writer to alter and complete the story, evidenced by the second typescript and the finished book. The two drafts are drastically different, from the titles of the chapters to seemingly disconnected parts of the plot.
The main restriction on Reilly & Lee’s new story, it appears, was to string together as many of Neill’s illustrations as possible, so the publisher wouldn’t have to ask him for more. One result appears on another item in this auction, consisting of two pictures of Number Nine, the Munchkin boy who becomes a secondary protagonist.

Neill originally drew Number Nine clinging to a frozen rail, perhaps while being blown off. There’s no such scene in the finished book, but there is a moment when the boy is plummeting through the atmosphere. (As I recall, he threw his hat into the hair and forgot to let go.) So the Reilly & Lee production department painted the railing out of Neill’s sketch, and that drawing became a picture of Number Nine’s plunge through the air.

Oz fans have few good things to say about The Wonder City of Oz as published: the narrative is almost incoherent, the main protagonist unlikable, the picture of life in the Emerald City unrecognizable. One potential strength of the book, I think, is that it shows daily life in the capital of Oz for working kids who don’t get to hang around Ozma’s palace all day—but that strength remains more potential than realized.

Despite those flaws in the final book, Neill’s original manuscript probably wasn’t any better. I’ve read a summary of that disjointed story and his subsequent two Oz books (published without the same sort of editing, or possibly any), and they show similar problems. Neill was a fine fantasy illustrator, but not a great storyteller.


Chaucerian said...

The sheet with the two drawings of Number Nine sold for $1125. Chaucerian is baffled.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m rather fond of Number Nine, so that was the only lot in the auction I wanted. Not at that price, of course, but I’m not as surprised that those Neill drawings went for four figures. There’s a limited supply, after all.