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Imitation Oz: The Sequel as Commodity

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 20, Number 1, June 1996
pp. 121-131 | 10.1353/uni.1996.0006

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The Lion and the Unicorn 20.1 (1996) 121-131

. . . that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.

(Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations 221)

Oz was first visited upon a kindly man who wanted to set children free from fear. Oz grew out of Alice in Wonderland, and out of Kansas and the people who settled there, and Baum's own life.
It also kept on growing. It grew out of improved Technicolor cameras and out of the MGM studio system, which meant the first footage directed by Richard Thorpe could be thrown out. . . . It kept growing, because of television; it kept on gaining meaning with each repeat. Oz came swimming to us out of history, because we needed it, because it needed to be. A book, a film, a television ritual, a thousand icons scattered through advertising, journalism, political cartoons, music, poetry. Had Oz been blocked, it would have taken another form in the world. It could have come as a cyclone.
That doesn't make it true.

(Geoff Ryman, Was 368)


In Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, Jack Zipes follows a tradition of wishful thinking when he credits L. Frank Baum with "portraying a fairy-tale utopia with strong socialist and matriarchal notions to express his disenchantment with America" (121). Recent new-historicist readings of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Stuart Culver and William R. Leach find at best "a genteel critique of commodity fetishism" (Culver 97) in the children's classic, going so far as to characterize Oz itself as "Baum's Consumer Paradise" (Leach 180-82). It may be true that following Fredric Jameson, we can read the Wizard, like other forms of mass culture, as "faintly . . . critical of the social order from which, as a product and a commodity, it springs," but an uncritical celebration of the "Utopian or transcendent function[]" of children's texts "abstracts them from their concrete social and historical situation" (29-30). Culver's account of the simultaneous composition of the Wizard with Baum's treatise on window-dressing suggests that the children's text is more celebratory than critical of the turn-of-the-century emergence of "the culture of consumption." And Zipes' depiction of Baum as "a naive writer who was disturbed by the Gilded Age" does not square with the reality of Baum the editor of "The Show Window" who advised his readers, "You must arouse in your audience cupidity and a longing to possess the goods you sell" (qtd. in Culver 106). Like his Wizard, Baum promoted illusion, theatricality, and humbug as essential tools both for children's fiction and for his The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows.

If Baum did "'Americanize' . . . and open[] up new frontiers for fairy tale discourse" as Zipes insists, and "pave[] the way for later writers to experiment even more with the potential of sequel fairy tales" (Zipes' emphasis), in terms of the long-running Oz series, this potential was hardly designed "to present radical alternatives to social reality" (121). As Jerry Griswold points out,

What can't be ignored is how much of the land of Oz is a reflection of actual circumstances at the turn of the century. . . . Like some lucky spell, fortunes could be and were made overnight. Merchant princes of the Gilded Age built or bought castles for their private homes. P. T. Barnum, as much a master of hokum as Baum's wizard, was a national hero. (463)

Indeed, according to Michael Patrick Hearn, Baum was the "first to admit" that his work in the bestselling Father Goose, His Book (1899) "was not good, but he used his phenomenal reputation to firmly establish himself in the children's book market" ("L. Frank Baum" 21).

I would argue that Baum not only "firmly establish[ed] himself in the children's book market" but did a great deal to transform it. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz itself is remarkable both as a commodity and a work of literature. Always the consummate salesman, actor, and window-dresser, Baum must have recognized that his and William Wallace Denslow's...

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