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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz | Context


Autobiographical Details

Many colorful details from the life of L. Frank Baum made their way into The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The name Oz, he once claimed, occurred to him as he gazed at a file drawer labeled "O–Z." There was an actual yellow brick road near Baum's childhood home. Baum once sold the kind of machine oil that would have loosened the Woodman's joints. His experience as a chinaware salesman doubtlessly informed the creation of the Dainty China Country. Baum came up with the name Dorothy in memory of his niece, Dorothy, who had died at age five.

The Machine Age

Perhaps the most important influence on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz came from the rapidly changing world, especially the rise of the machine. The "Machine Age" began around 1880. As methods of mass production improved, factory assembly lines became common. As steam power came into use, earthmoving equipment replaced horse-drawn (and human-powered) shovels, enabling rapid construction. The railroad, and then the automobile, transformed the American landscape.

The rise of the machine ignited Baum's imagination. Many of his children's books feature mechanical men, including the now-famous Tin Woodman. Despite the Woodman's propensity to rust, he's a most efficient creature: he never gets tired and he never needs to eat.

The Wizard of Oz, too, is a Machine Age man. The Throne Room is illuminated by "a great light, as bright as the sun"—possibly an electric light. Baum was fascinated by electricity. (So was one of his sons, who rigged up a shock machine on the doorknob to his room.) Though the Wizard's disguises turn out to be nothing more than costumes with strings attached, the Emerald City seems bustling and modern compared to the rest of the Land of Oz.

The Emerald City may have been inspired by Chicago's White City, the nickname for the site of the 1893 World's Fair. The World's Columbian Exhibition, as the fair was formally called, showcased scientific and technological progress, and it was massively popular. More than 25 million people visited the fair to marvel at such exhibits as moving pictures, a moving sidewalk, a kitchen powered by electricity, a dishwasher, and the world's first Ferris wheel, which could hold 2,160 riders at once. Baum visited the fair at least once and must have been inspired by its glittering view of progress. Seeing inventor Thomas Edison, "The Wizard of Menlo Park," at the fair certainly made a lasting impression on the author.

Yet The Wonderful Wizard of Oz may also be read as an anti–Machine Age manifesto, a rebellious push back against an increasingly noisy and dehumanizing urban environment. Most of the Land of Oz is a natural paradise, a preindustrial fairyland of colorful flowers, talking animals, and kind farmers' wives who cheerfully provide beds for the night. Wars and (except within Emerald City) money don't seem to exist. Neither, it seems, do weapons. The Wicked Witch of the West may be evil, but the forces she summons to her aid are low tech: wolves, crows, bees, and flying monkeys.

Dorothy and her friends are almost entirely self-reliant. Except for a ride or two from those flying monkeys and a couple of free meals, the travelers must walk everywhere, find their own food, and map out their own route.

Oz, the one character who seems to have harnessed progress, turns out to be a fraud—neither wizard nor scientist, just a con man who takes care to leave the Emerald City before any of his subjects learn the truth about him. Yet Baum does not portray him as an antagonist but as a second-rate traveling salesman who's gotten in over his head. Even the book's main antagonist, the Witch of the West, does nothing meaner to Dorothy than to make her clean the castle and trip on an invisible iron bar.


Baum's influential mother-in-law, the feminist Matilda Gage, introduced him to theosophical thought, which Baum embraced wholeheartedly, often writing about it in his Aberdeen newspaper editorials. Theosophy holds that the road to spiritual wholeness and a connection with God lies in meditation. Viewed through this lens The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can be read as a theosophical allegory, in which the yellow brick road represents the path to enlightenment. Following this path Dorothy's friends harness different aspects of the human spirit—heart, mind, and will. With the help of a wise man (the Wizard), Dorothy learns the power to return home lies within herself.

Fairy Tales

In the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum wrote, "The time has come for a series of newer 'wonder tales' in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated." As a child Baum developed a distaste for frightening, moralistic stories like those published by the Grimm brothers. With The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Baum hoped to create an entirely new kind of fairy tale, one meant specifically for American children. His heroes would be self-reliant and optimistic; mayhem and moralizing would be kept to a minimum.

Baum's Land of Oz is a land of basic decency, free of distracting technology and competitiveness. Baum is a man of his time; his book attempts to step out of time while maintaining a strong sense of American values.

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