Here is the sometimes-promised chapter that didn’t make it into Twenty-five Books that Shaped America. We dropped it in favor of one about some crazy man and a whale.
Under the Rainbow
Thomas C. Foster
I shall now perform a public service. Authors should, once in a while. Particularly, as now, when such service is needed. The book that needs my help is perhaps the most cannibalized in American literature. The first cannibal was its own author, who wrote his first (rejected) adaptation just a year after the book appeared, then a second, wildly successful musical version a year later. Two years on he produced a sequel, the first of thirteen novels based upon the wildly successful original. Several times he tried to walk away from the franchise, but like Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, he was forced back to the mother lode by popular demand. Such are the dangers of wild success. Upon his death another writer took over, churning out a further nineteen novels in the series. There have been plays and musicals and radio dramas. Music based on the characters and the story has been performed by artists as various as Michael Jackson, Jewel, Roger Daltry, Joel Grey, Natalie Cole, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, and the Muppets. It inspired a wildly improbable retelling from the villain’s point of view some ninety-five years after its first appearance, which in turn became a wildly successful Broadway musical. Even Pink Floyd has been implicated. Oh, did I mention films? And ONE FILM in particular, probably the best movie of the best movie year in the history of Hollywood. And therein lies the difficulty: everybody remembers the movie.
You doubt? As I was selecting this novel, someone asked me, “But don’t you think its popularity is because of the movie and not the book?” In truth, multiple someones asked variants of that question. My response is always the same: why do you think they made the movie? Even so, ever since 1939, what we think we know is always from the film version, so much so that many Americans who may be otherwise intelligent and informed are not even aware that the novel exists. So here’s my good deed:
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a book. IT CAME FIRST. There, I feel better.
- Frank Baum published said book in 1900, and it was an immediate sensation. The New York Times, no less, declared that it “rises far above the average children’s book of today” even with average quality being quite high. The statement is no less true today.
This tale has embedded itself in the bedrock of American myth. It’s hard to live in this society and not know the basic outline of the story; it’s even harder to know it from the book and not the 1939 MGM extravaganza, so we should return to the basic facts. First, as both the text and the delightful original illustrations by W. W. Denslow make clear, Dorothy is much younger than Judy Garland could play her. She is a young girl, situated in the middle of childhood innocence and the middle of the country. That physical place she occupies, Kansas, is gray and poor. The farm on which she lives with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry provides a scant living for the family; Dorothy has only the dress she’s wearing and one other, and her shoes are too worn for a lengthy journey. When the house is swept up in a cyclone, Dorothy and her little dog, Toto, are whisked into a fabulous, colorful land of strange creatures, prosperity, and magic—all the things lacking from her prairie existence. When her house comes to earth, it does so in the land of the Munchkins, a race of tiny people who live as slaves of the Wicked Witch of the East—or did until that moment, for the house lands on the witch, killing her. This world is divided into quadrants, each governed by a witch. Those of the East and West are wicked, those of the North and South, in a novelty Baum introduces into the lore of witchcraft, good. The only way home, she is told by the Good Witch of the South, is through the agency of the Great and Terrible Wizard, Oz, whose name has come down the years as a byword for “charlatan.” The return passage differs slightly from the film, in that Dorothy has Silver Shoes rather than the Ruby Slippers we all know and love; the latter are more suited to a technicolor extravaganza. The Shoes will take her anywhere she wishes to go, although she loses them en route. Such magical devices, evidently, cannot leave Oz. As in the movie, the hot-air balloon that brought the Wizard to Oz should provide the means for the two of them to return to Kansas, but Toto runs away and by the time Dorothy corrals him, the balloon is taking flight. In some ways, the hot-air balloon is the most remarkable item in the novel. Curiously, for citizens who think nothing of witches and monkeys flying, that device is genuinely miraculous.
In that same review, the Times noted that the story is “ingeniously woven out of commonplace materials” into “an extravaganza.” Indeed it is, provided we stipulate what is meant by “commonplace materials.” Certainly there are things familiar to a Kansas farm girl: field mice, scarecrows, roads, crows, bees, carnival humbugs. But what of witches, good or bad? What of Quadlings, Winkies, Munchkins, yellow brick roads, to say nothing of flying monkeys? What does a child for whom a cottonwood and a willow in the same place constitutes a conspiracy know about a forest of fighting trees? Whatever we might say about the adventures, they’re not just coming out of Dorothy’s commonplace materials. The very nature of her adventure mixes the familiar and the exotic. Many commentators have compared her experiences to those of Alice’s in Wonderland and Wendy Darling in Never-Never Land, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice is almost certainly a source. There may also be an element of the Robert Louis Stevenson of Kidnapped or Treasure Island, where adult forces in the alien land threaten to keep the young protagonist away from home forever. Whatever the sources, though, Baum turns them to his own ends. Dorothy differs from Alice, as J. T. Barbarese notes in the Introduction to the Barnes and Noble Classics edition, in that her perils are all external, unlike Alice’s Freudian projections in Wonderland. And Dorothy is much younger and more in need of aid than Wendy or either of Stevenson’s young heroes, Jim Hawkins or David Balfour. For all her pluck, she could get nowhere without her stalwart gang of misfits. That’s okay, though: she has them. How she gets and keeps them is the point.
If you would understand the structure of this novel, put aside any ideas you have of fairy tales and children’s literature. Think movies. Think The Magnificent Seven. Minus a couple. And the guns. This is what’s known in Hollywood as a specialist story, the tale of a problem solved by an individual or group with a very special skill set. You’ve seen it a hundred times in dozens of forms from the film just mentioned to The Dirty Dozen to Ocean’s Eleven. In a movie, the specialists usually display an array of talents—a gunfighter, a tracker, a sniper, a dynamiter (because what would a specialist movie be without things blowing up?), a smooth operator. In other words, you need between four and twelve persons with specific talents. Or Clint Eastwood. He, however, was unavailable to L. Frank Baum. What we recall, mostly from the Judy Garland film, are the whirlwind and the Wicked Witch and the ruby slippers, but what we ought to notice is the way Dorothy assembles her group of specialists. It’s not an accident. The initial encounters are, of course, but not the outcome. She picks up the Scarecrow, then the Tin Woodman, then the Cowardly Lion and keeps them together because of some very basic traits that we associate with childhood and with our national character: sympathy for the downtrodden, open-mindedness, fairness, loyalty, politeness, compassion. Nor is it only with them. She enlists the help of others, such as the field mice who rescue the Cowardly Lion after he succumbs to the deadly poppies, through her unfailing politeness and kindness. Dorothy exists without prejudices or preconceptions about other beings. For a book that places such emphasis on magic, the most magical power displayed is common decency. Dorothy wins over everyone who can be won by being fair-minded and considerate. This is, after all, a Midwestern book.
This novel is part of that great American tradition of the quest story. We’re a people who have forever been going somewhere, and our literature reflects that fact. Characters are always going down the river, down the road, over the mountains, to the war, from the war, up North, down South, back home. It is possible to overlook the quest element of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz because its details are so fanciful and because it is a book for children; nevertheless, it falls into that genre. For the most part, the story is the one you know: Dorothy, Toto, Uncle Henry, Aunt Em, cyclone, Yellow Brick Road, curious sidekicks, Witches Good and Wicked, Flying Monkeys, Munchkins, the Fraud Behind the Curtain, magic shoes, melting. There are significant differences. While Dorothy is just as nice in the book as the movie, she douses the Wicked Witch of the West with water out of pique, not concern for her companions; the witch has snatched one of her Silver Shoes, and Dorothy reacts as a petulant child might. And the inhabitants of Oz are more varied and, if anything, more colorful than on the silver screen. There are Winkies and Quadlings and Hammerheads, among other beings and events. Of course, a lot of detail is sacrificed to fit a novel, even a comparatively small one, into a film, even a rather lengthy one. The biggest difference is perhaps that Oz is a real place—none of that dream-sequence nonsense here. When the shoes conduct Dorothy back to Kansas, Uncle Henry has built a new house to replace the one swept away in the cyclone. This is important, since it means the perils to Dorothy and Toto are real. In the film, they are negated at the end.
But the central shape is the same: a young girl, swept far from home, must find a way to journey back there. To do that, she must help others, enlist support from unlikely sources, and come to know herself. She must discover those qualities—heart, brains, courage—that her traveling companions so ardently seek. In other words, she must become a complete human being. And, naturally, she must learn that, whatever its shortcoming, there really is no place like home. Isn’t that a fairly apt description of growing up? The novel works, ultimately, because her story is every child’s story. Most of us never have the chance to consort with scarecrows and tin men or to walk roads of yellow brick, but the process is familiar. Dorothy is a child moving toward adulthood. That movement is not all sweetness and light. There is a loss of innocence, which means becoming acquainted with death, of which there is rather a lot for a children’s book. On the other hand, there was a lot of death in 1900. A child was unlikely to reach Dorothy’s age without someone dying in her own house or the one next door. People died of diseases we no longer even think about. Farms, factories, railroads, and mines all seemed designed to separate body from soul. And since families often lived with older relatives, grandparents and maiden aunts and bachelor uncles, there were more aging members in households. What she finds almost at once, however, is that her mere presence creates danger for someone. She and Toto are saved in part because the first Wicked Witch cushions their landing. Good for them, less so for her. And from that point on, death or the threat of death are almost constantly in view. This living is dangerous business. It is, however, what we must go through, and so Dorothy goes through it. At least her path is vibrant and brilliant.
Baum is fond of puns—the worse the better—and jokes. When the Wizard provides the Scarecrow with “brains” made of bran, needles, and pins, he tells the grateful recipient that “I have given you a lot of bran-new brains.” Strictly speaking, it’s true. And such levity is sprinkled throughout. That’s good, because it makes his work entertaining for adults reading to small children. Most of the humor is of a gently ironic sort. The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion fail to realize that they already possess the things they want. They therefore bemoan their deficiency immediately before or, even funnier, after they demonstrate their ability. When the Tin Man steps on a beetle, for instance, he cries and makes his jaw rust, from which he learns a lesson:
Thereafter he walked very carefully, with his eyes on the road, and when he saw a tiny ant toiling by he would step over it, so as not to harm it. The Tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything.
“You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful. When Oz gives me a heart of course I needn’t mind so much.”
The Tin Man, of course, is incapable of seeing what is clear to every reader, namely that he has more heart than any of them. He displays a different sort of heart later on, and in a way that makes his tenderness toward the dead beetle even more humorous, when he slaughters forty wolves the Wicked Witch of the West sends against the little band of travelers.
Dorothy has earlier displayed a similar sort of blindness that proves quite funny. She has just described Kansas as a dry and gray place to the Scarecrow, the first of the companions she meets, who very sensibly asks why anyone would want to leave the Technicolor marvel that is Oz for such a place.
“That is because you have no brains” answered the girl. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”
The Scarecrow sighed.
“Of course I cannot understand it,” he said. “If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.”
Indeed it is. She’s right, of course: there is no place like home. At the same time, she’s also wrong: what is required to understand why someone would prefer “the dry, gray place you call Kansas” is not brains but another organ entirely, the one the Tin Man seeks. The Scarecrow’s riposte is perfect—lucky for Kansas that people have brains, else they would live in attractive places. Some statements just cannot be improved.
Yet there’s something quite profound in Dorothy’s unwitting defense of Kansas. Gray or not, it is home. That matters. We are a people displaced from home. We are always seeking that elusive place. A mentor of mine, the late Roger Meiners, always maintained that America was settled by unhappy people, and that whenever people were unhappy in the place they were, they moved west. When they reached California, his theory went, and found they had run out of space, they became very disgruntled indeed. Whether or not that bit of levity explains anything of the psychology of the Golden State, it is certainly the case that we have been a people pushing westward in a search for home. We can see that trait in an early avatar, Natty Bumppo, whose movement is consistently to the new territory, away from encroaching civilization, whose tendency plays out in his death, as he expires on his porch, facing west, the stuffed skin (a tribute by his Native friends) of his ancient dog Hector at his side. Yet for all our restlessness, we are devoted to both the idea and the fact of home. Dorothy’s love of Kansas is not a product of brains but of heart. It matters little whether it is the plains of Kansas, the pine forests of northern Michigan and Wisconsin, the swamps of Georgia, or the deserts of Arizona. If it’s home, it’s ours. More to the point, we belong to it. I know, and in fact am related to, people who came up from Appalachia to the factories of the North and never fully adjusted to walking on level ground. Poor as it was, they always aspired to move “home,” even once they had lived twice as long, or more, in the new home as in the old. Dorothy’s experience reminds us that home, wherever that may be, exerts a gravitational pull on our psyches, so that we can never be entirely happy no matter how full of wonders Oz may prove to be.
If you would seek to know what The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is really about, take it back in time. Maybe a century and a quarter or so. You remember: restless colonists, unfair taxation, a British monarch with his boot on our throats, that whole litany of crimes (okay, not every one, but most) in the Declaration. This book is about the overthrow of tyrants. At the threshold of the American Century, Baum announces how things will go. The old way is out; the American way is in. You doubt? Swap out the desert you can’t go through for an ocean, and what do you have? Europe. The place is made up of a bunch of squabbling potentates who contest for control of this hierarchical society. Sound familiar? True, two of the potentates are good witches, but that’s a choice they make, not a direct consequence of this system of government. And let us not forget the Great and Terrible Oz, who may be, as he confesses, a very bad wizard but who exercises something like absolute power over his subjects. Any ruler who can induce all of his citizens to wear green glasses so that they will believe they live in an Emerald City has mastered the dictator thing. But this system is clearly not what the governed wish for. Each time the little band liberates some group, it is rewarded with the most profound gratitude and loyalty. Even the Flying Monkeys, who have seemed to collude in the oppression of others, are themselves oppressed. They have been controlled by the Golden Cap, originally employed by the princess Gayelette but subsequently acquired by the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy works out a deal for Glinda the Good to use the Cap to make the Monkeys take all of Dorothy’s friends where they need to go, after which it will be given to the Monkeys so that they cannot be enslaved again. Dorothy does not rule; rather, she leads by consensus and negotiation. Sounds like democracy to me. Or at least what it can be. If Baum’s version may strike us as naïve, it is nevertheless a heartfelt paean to the wonders of freedom and self-rule.