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L. Frank Baum

his best known book began as a story told to local children

L. Frank Baum

Lyman Frank Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, on May 15, 1856. A timid, shy, and sickly child, he kept mostly to himself and made up imaginary places and playmates. Although he was a voracious reader of fairy tales, he often criticized them for being too frightening and horrifying. Home-schooled most of his young life, Frank's parents initially tried to curb his dream-like imagination by sending him to a strict military school. The school's demanding regimen led to Frank having a heart attack, however, and he was allowed to withdraw; from that time on his parents nurtured Frank's creative mind.

When he was fifteen, Frank began writing and publishing his own small newspaper, The Rose Lawn Home Journal (named for his family's estate), which he produced on a small printing press bought for him by his father. The paper contained articles, editorials, fiction, poetry, and word games. It did well enough that many local stores bought advertising space. In 1873, Baum started another newspaper, The Empire, as well as a magazine for stamp collectors, The Stamp Collector. An avid breeder of Hamburg chickens, he also founded a magazine called The Poultry Record. His first book also concerned Hamburgs, and was published in 1886 under the title The Book of Hamburgs, A Brief Treatise upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Different Varieites of Hamburgs.

In addition to fairy tales and chickens, Baum also had an avid interest in the theater. His father owned a string of opera houses in New York and Pennsylvania, and in 1880 he made Frank the manager of them; he was eventually given complete control of them. His first major literary work was a play, The Maid of Arran, which was an instant success; Baum was the leading man and the manager of the company for the play.

On November 9, 1882, Baum married Maud Gage. The couple spent their newlywed months on tour with The Maid of Arran, but they settled down in Syracuse, New York, when Maud became pregnant with their first child. After finding a new leading man to take his place and training a new company manager, Baum worked in sales for the family business. The family fortune began to decline after his father's death, due in large part to a series of bad management practices (by hired managers, not by Frank) and outright theft by employees, and Frank was forced to sell the family business in the spring of 1888.

Moving to the Dakota Territory, Baum opened a general store in Aberdeen on October 1, 1888. The store was always crowded with youngsters who came to hear Frank tell stories of faraway lands, but unfortunately the parents of those youngsters seldom had money to buy anything and the store went into foreclosure in 1890. Undaunted, Baum took a position managing The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a weekly newspaper, selling advertisements, setting the type, running the press, and writing many of the articles. The lack of money in the Dakota Territory also affected this business, however, and the Pioneer went bankrupt in 1891.

In 1893, Baum and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, which was at that time hosting the World's Columbian Exposition. He first took a position as a reporter for the Evening Post, but the pay was so slight that he subsequently became a traveling salesman for a China company. All the while, however, he never gave up his dream of writing and publishing non-scary fairy tales. That dream finally came true in 1897, when Mother Goose in Prose, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish, was published by Way & Williams. The book was a success, and from this time on Baum concentrated on his writing career.

Sometime around 1898 or 1899, Baum met illustrator William W. Denslow, with whom he would team for his most well-known book. Their first collaboration was Father Goose, His Book, which was published in 1899 and became the best selling children's book of the year; it was subsequently followed by Songs of Father Goose, in which some of the verses were put to music.

Baum and Denslow's most well-known collaboration began as a story told by Baum to children in his neighborhood. The Emerald City, as it was originally titled, was a story about a young girl who visits a magical land inhabited by fanciful characters. (The "city" in the story was inspired by the magnificent architecture of the World's Columbian Exposition.) In 1900, the Hill Company published Baum's story under the title The Wonderful Wizard of Oz -- the company objected to Baum's original title because of a susperstition against having a jewel in a book title. In 1902, Baum and Denslow collaborated to produce an adult version of The Wizard of Oz as a musical stage play, which became a major success. For a variety of reasons, Baum and Denslow's collaboration ended soon after the play's tour ended. Baum went on to produce seventeen sequels.

Baum also wrote several books under various pen names. Aunt Jane's Nieces, written under the pen name of Edith Van Dyne, became a very popular teenage series for girls. None of his other books came anywhere near the success enjoyed by the Oz series, however.

Frank and Maud Baum moved to California in 1908, where they settled in a home he called "Ozcot." Although financial success came and went frequently, and his health was never good, he continued writing until paralysis made it impossible. He died in Hollywood, California, on May 6, 1919, and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, in Glendale, California. The last book in the Oz series, Glinda of Oz, was published posthumously in 1920.

poster showing the most well-known of Baum's books

World's Columbian Exposition
Hollywood, California

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The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 1900-1960

This page was last updated on 07/10/2018.