26 June 2013

“Tottenhots” in the Baum Bugle

The new issue of The Baum Bugle, which arrived today, includes my article “The Troublesome Tottenhots.” It discusses a set of people L. Frank Baum wrote about in The Patchwork Girl of Oz and briefly in Rinkitink in Oz whose name is obviously based on the “Hottentots” of southern Africa.

Most of the article explores how Baum didn’t just play on the Hottentot name but also invoked a centuries-old tradition in British and American thought that cast Hottentots as the lowest form of humanity, perhaps even a separate species. This article is the first time I’ve been able to cross-pollinate my Oz writing with my research on eighteenth-century history.

The last part of the essay discusses how Baum, despite building on racist stereotypes, also provides his Tottenhots with a voice and a place in Oz. I don’t think he was consciously arguing for racial equality and inclusion. Rather, he couldn’t help having his greatest strength as a writer, the ability to portray different points of view sympathetically, come through for the Tottenhots.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

As a kid I loved the Tottenhots. I thought Neil's drawing of the Tottenhot sticking its head out a trapdoor was rather ugly, and I recognized that there weren't any other people of color in Oz, but I thought the Tottenhots were pretty great for a superfluous little country.

I was puzzled by their place in the transformation hierarchy of goat to prince, but, after all, the goat was as fully sentient as the prince, so it must have been form only, right?, and a stork is 2-legged and tall, whereas a Tottenhot is 2-legged and short. Sorta plausible?

I rec'd the Bugle in today's mail. I look forward to reading your article, John.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Glenn! Given all the little countries in Oz insisting on living life their own way, I didn't think anything of the Tottenhots episode in Patchwork Girl until hearing that Books of Wonder chose not to reprint it as originally published. Words like "dusky," which had a racial overtone in 1913, went right over my head in 1973 or whenever I first read that book. The actual interchange between Dorothy and the Tottenhot spokesman is about as clear an expression of live-and-let-live as possible.

On the other hand, I did notice the racism in Rinkitink when I first read that book, probably a couple of years later. [No Rand McNally paperback.] The problem wasn't the jump from ostrich to Tottenhot, but how Baum described the jump from Tottenhot to Mifket as a great leap forward.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I misremembered the transformation order, didn't I? Tottenhots and Mifkits are fairy creatures ... there's a hierarchy of fairy creatures with some more "advanced" than others? Yeah. That bit doesn't read well.

J. L. Bell said...

Both Tottenhots and Mifkets live in fairylands, but they don't seem to be inherently magical like Knooks or Ryls or whatever type of Fairy Lurline rules. In John Dough, furthermore, one of the Mifkets posits that he and the Arab villain have a common ancestor. Details like that haven't aged well.

Vinny said...

Button Bright would be a relative then (to the Mifkets). In Sky Island it's revealed that he is of Arab ancestry. There's nothing racist in evidence there, Cap'n Bill explains that most American families started somewhere else, and Baum leaves it at that and never retracts it. There's more of a cultural chauvinism that pops up here and there than a race doctrine in his thinking (not to paint over the genuine ethnic stereotypes that crop up in some of his non-Oz books), but one which he frequently deflates by shifting the focus to the shared follies and evils of humankind in general. I think it's apparent that he generally knew better but sometimes fell back into struggling with what he grew up hearing and what he learned later through learning and experience. Disappointing, yes, but not the hallmark of a systematized racial theory. I think the Tottenhot case is way overstated, all of the traits that would have "read" (or signaled to the reader) as a racial stereotype (laziness, low intelligence, servile nature, dialect speech etc.) are absent, so I personally wouldn't identify them as a caricature, I think the joke begins and ends with the name.

J. L. Bell said...

As the article discussed, the Tottenhots shared multiple traits with the European idea of the Hottentots: not just darker skin but also small stature, fur clothing, round houses, and dancing in the moonlight. And the Hottentots were a specific type of African, held up by European thinkers for centuries as the most primitive form of man. The brief reference to Tottenhots in Rinkitink is quite clearly an echo of that dominant “systematized racial theory.” Just by using a term based on “Hottentots” Baum cued Neill into drawing a stereotypical African with exaggerated features, and in the Patchwork Girl movie the Tottenhots are played by white men in minstrel-show makeup.

At the same time, as the article pointed out, Baum gave the Tottenhots their say in Patchwork Girl, and in the movie one sits on an Emerald City jury at a time when most African-Americans were excluded from such civic participation. Thus, while it’s impossible to divorce the Tottenhots from the prevailing racial and racist ideas of Baum’s time, we can also see where he differed from that ideology.

Vinny said...

I was responding to the post not the BB article, which leads to a dead link. I'll try to get hold of the article itself.

I would still caution against conflating received stereotypes and racial bias with a personal, systematized ideology. Richard Wager, for instance, had a fully developed racial philosophy, which he wrote at length about and which does permeate his work on a 1x1 ratio: one can draw a clear line between his elaborate racial theories and elements of his work and life. While it's apparent that Baum sometimes fell back on entrenched stereotypes and biased assumptions, I'm not aware of any full statement of a developed creed regarding race on his part; even when the infamous editorials are included, he seems confused (or conflicted) on that issue.

Scraps herself can be described as having "minstrel face" and the actress portraying her wears similar make-up in the Baum film, but I don't think she's ever been seriously marked as a stereotype.

J. L. Bell said...

The posting, like the article, discusses how Baum undercut the same racial stereotype he invoked by how he characterized the Tottenhots fully, so I’m not sure whom you’re seeking to caution. Of course his storytelling wasn’t consistent in how it played off cultural racism—it wasn’t consistent in most things. That makes it possible to overlook or even deny how those biases affected Baum’s work. But deeper examination of Baum’s writing and the culture of his time leads to better understanding.