05 June 2008

Edward Bok and John Dough

In the first decade of the 20th century, Edward Bok was without doubt the leading magazine editor in America. Born in Holland in 1863, he had come to America as a child, entered publishing, and taken the reins of The Ladies' Home Journal at the age of 26.

By filling that magazine with a not-unfamiliar combination of advice, practical and moral; contests; and celebrity names, Bok pushed its circulation to record numbers. It was the first magazine in the world with more than a million subscribers. (The picture of Bok here comes courtesy of the Historic Bok Sanctuary, an elaborate public garden in Florida that he helped to establish after retiring from being a famous editor and becoming a famous author.)

When I say "celebrity names," I don't mean Bok traded in gossip. Rather, in those pre-broadcasting days, the Ladies' Home Journal and similar magazines were where middle-class Americans turned for entertaining stories to enjoy at home. Bok pursued big-name authors of both fiction and nonfiction. For example, he commissioned some of Rudyard Kipling's Just-So Stories. Bok paid very well, but he paid only after an author had delivered something he thought was worth publishing.

And that's where L. Frank Baum ran into trouble. Around 1904 he was as hot as he'd ever be, with two nationwide bestsellers (Father Goose and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and a smash stage show (freely adapted from Wizard). Bok talked to Baum about writing an original fairy tale for The Ladies' Home Journal, floating a figure of $2,500 for serial rights.

Baum responded with "John Dough," about a life-sized gingerbread man brought to life in an American city. Years ago, I had the impression that Baum sent Bok an entire story, most of which he later rewrote. I now think Baum sent only what would become the first four chapters of John Dough and the Cherub. My study of his manuscript for The Magic of Oz indicates that Baum rewrote as little as possible.

Bok looked at that story and felt it needed significant rewriting. In particular, he suggested that Baum should include a child character for young readers to relate to. Indeed, the first four chapters of John Dough contain only one child, and not a very sympathetic one.

I think the irony of the situation is that Baum had probably written while thinking of Bok's typical readers: contemporary American homemakers. John Dough starts out in a small bakery and then moves to the streets of an American city, places that Ladies' Home Journal readers would have known well. Two of the strongest characters in those first chapters are the baker's wife and a housewife who thinks the gingerbread man is just right for eating. In the introduction to the new edition of John Dough I note other ways that Bok's magazine might have influenced Baum's creation.

After Bok turned down "John Dough" in its current form, Baum put it aside and nursed his grievances for a while. Eventually he went back and resumed the story in a more fantastic and broadly comical vein. Baum even added the child Bok recommended, one whom both sexes might relate to: the genderless Chick the Cherub. But he never sent it to Bok again; instead, he offered it to the more malleable small publishing firm of Reilly & Britton. John Dough left America and the Ladies' Home Journal world behind forever.

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