24 August 2009

The “First Literary Biography”? Then What’s This?

In today’s New York Times, Janet Maslin reviews Rebecca Loncraine’s The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum. With eyebrows rightly raised, Maslin notes how this book is being touted as the “first literary biography” of Baum.

In fact, it’s not even the first biography of Baum published in the last twelve months. We’ve seen Evan Schwartz’s Finding Oz (not to mention Kathleen Krull’s picture book, The Road to Oz).

As for “literary,” Katharine M. Rogers, author of L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz (2002), was a professor of English and a literary scholar who analyzed Baum’s fiction in detail. So, you know, I’m going to show the cover of that book instead of the new one.

Maslin’s description of The Real Wizard of Oz offers no news or insights that would come as a surprise to a well-read Oz fan. She notes that Loncraine avoids presenting Baum’s life story as success with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz after years of failures, as both Schwartz and Krull do. That approach misses the irony of Baum’s last decade:

He filed for bankruptcy in 1911, lost the copyrights to his best work and hacked out books under numerous pseudonyms to stave off financial ruin.
Maslin’s summary implies, however, that Baum turned to pen-name potboilers after his financial problems. In fact, he drafted and signed this contract to write series under pseudonyms years before the bankruptcy.

Baum hacked out books because he liked hacking out books, and because they made him money. He also designed an elaborate stage show to promote his best-known books because he liked going on stage, and that cost him his money.

No comments: