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L. Frank Baum | Biography


The circumstances of Lyman Frank Baum's childhood could not be more different from those of his impoverished heroine, Dorothy, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He was born on May 15, 1856, in Chittenango, New York, to wealthy parents. One of nine siblings, four of whom died in childhood, Baum himself suffered from a weak heart. His parents deprived him of nothing; he and his siblings were educated at home by British tutors, and he spent his days exploring the house and grounds of the family's expansive estate. When he turned 12, however, his parents shipped him off to a military boarding school, hoping to instill some discipline in the young daydreamer. Baum hated the school, however, and he was allowed to come home after two years.

What the young Baum lacked in toughness he made up for with inventiveness. At age 15 he received a significant gift. His father purchased a printing press for him with which Baum started his own newspaper and printed his first book—a stamp collectors' directory. In his early 20s Baum took up poultry breeding and became a national expert at raising a breed of black chickens called Hamburgs. His second book—this one published by a real publishing house—was called The Book of the Hamburgs.

By age 25 Baum had given up chickens for a new interest: theater. He managed a local theater company and wrote several plays; one, The Maid of Arras, was popular enough to turn a profit when Baum—financed by his father—took it on the road. In 1882 after marrying Maud Gage, the daughter of a celebrated feminist author, Baum became copartner of a company that made axle grease. In 1888 he moved his growing family to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he started a shop called Baum's Bazaar. But when a long drought wiped out the crops in South Dakota, the state economy floundered; the store closed in 1890.

Next Baum took over ownership of an Aberdeen newspaper. He published left-leaning editorials, embracing women's suffrage and challenging established religion. His open-minded attitude did not extend to the native Sioux population, however. Shortly after the Battle of Wounded Knee, Baum wrote an editorial calling for the "extermination" of the Sioux. Ultimately the Sioux stayed and Baum left. Since the local economy did not improve, Baum decided to move once again—this time to Chicago. There he became a traveling salesman, peddling chinaware.

Baum missed his four sons when he was on the road. Seeking a job that would let him work from home, he came up with the idea of a magazine for "window trimmers"—the people who designed storefront windows. This highly illustrated periodical was well received. During this period, around 1898, he met artist William Wallace Denslow.

The first book on which Baum and Denslow collaborated was a collection of children's verse titled Father Goose. It was an immediate success—the best-selling children's book in 1900—and brought in enough money for Baum and his family to live comfortably. Soon after Father Goose was published, Baum was telling his sons a story when "suddenly this [idea] moved right in and took possession. I shooed the children away and grabbed a piece of paper ... and began to write. It really seemed to write itself." Baum was sure he had created a hit. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in May 1900.

Indeed the book was successful from the start—popular with adults as well as children—and from then on Baum could devote himself to full-time writing. But his path was still a bumpy one. Though the art for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was as popular as the text, Baum and Denslow parted ways in 1901. The book's first publisher, the George M. Hill Company, went bankrupt in 1902. A 1902 musical adaptation of the book (which replaced Toto with a cow named Imogene) became hugely successful, ultimately running for eight years. But it was tremendously expensive to produce and ate away at the book's profits.

Baum wrote The Marvelous Land of Oz, the first sequel in the Oz series, hoping to turn it into another musical play. Again the book was successful from the start, though this time the play it inspired was a flop. For a few years Baum and his family lived lavishly, buying several homes and taking expensive trips. Baum continued to pour money into dramatic and unprofitable productions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In 1911 he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He never made another cent off The Wonderful Wizard of Oz until the day he died; all the money went to his creditors.

Now living in Hollywood, Baum resigned himself to writing an annual Oz book to keep afloat financially. Despite increasing heart problems, Baum worked steadily until 1919, when he died on May 6. By then the Oz books were selling so well that Baum's publishers hired a new writer, Ruth Plumley Thompson, to continue the series. Baum wrote 14 Oz books; Thompson wrote 19 more, and after her death, professional authors and fans alike continued to create new Oz stories.

"Nothing adverse lasts very long," Baum wrote to his son in 1918. The legacy of his perpetual optimism is the Oz series, which has been beloved for more than a century.

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