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The Lion and the Unicorn 30.1 (2006) 25-53

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Unsettling Oz:

Technological Anxieties in the Novels of L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum wrote fourteen Oz books beginning with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and ending with Glinda of Oz (1920). According to legend, the letters O-Z on the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet inspired his naming of the land featured in this series. Despite its name's mythological origins in a system of ordering, Oz is anything but orderly. (Rushdie 13; Stillman 1). Full of adventures, dangers, and quests, Oz bears little resemblance to the static, clean escapes of many other utopian and fantasy novels of the time, including Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) and William Dean Howells' books about the utopian world of Altruria (1893–94). The Oz novels ultimately express anxieties about trying, but failing, to escape; they tell an unsettled and unsettling story of settlement. This settlement, or lack thereof, hinges on Baum's uneasy relationship with the new technologies of the twentieth century.

A few years before Baum started the Oz series, and before he decided to be a full-time writer of children's fiction, Baum wrote a column in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. The column, "Our Landlady," featured a busybody woman's voice commenting on events in Aberdeen and the nation. On January 31, 1891, Baum's column offered what biographers Frank Joslyn Baum and Russell P. MacFall argue "may have been half meant as a gentle satire" (69) of Bellamy's Looking Backward. In this column, the landlady gets lost on the prairie and arrives unexpectedly at a utopian community. She says,

I got the best directions I could an' traveled over the prairie 'til I most thought I'd lost my way. By and by I come ter a feller swiftly ridin' along in a wagon. I rubbed my eyes in amazement fer a minit, 'cause there was no hoss ner beast o' any kind hitched to it.
(Baum and MacFall 69)

After meeting the man with a horseless carriage, she arrives at a utopian community where machines perform an absurd number of functions. [End Page 25] Machines wash the faces of children, read, cook meals, put lighted cigars in people's mouths, and undress citizens before bed, all at the touch of a button. The people in this mysterious community accomplish all of this, the landlady discovers, with electricity:

"The power to run the motor is furnished by our artesian well," a resident tells the landlady, "an' by a little invention I have arranged so that all the little household and personal duties are performed by 'lectrical apparatus. It save us no end o' trouble."
(Baum and MacFall 71)

Electricity, and Baum's anxieties about it, infuse this "gentle satire" of Looking Backward; Bellamy's novel certainly features mechanical and technological labor-saving devices, but even Bellamy does not foreground so obviously the electricity that powers these devices, emphasizing instead the labor-saving effect of electricity and other technologies. The electricity that invisibly powers Bellamy's utopia proves to be at the visible center of Baum's satire; this suggests its centrality in Baum's uneasiness both with Bellamy's utopianism and with modern technology.

Baum also wrote a little-known science fiction novel for boys about electricity, which lends further credence to the argument that the power, potential, and dangers of electricity concerned him. The Master Key (1901) tells the story of an American boy named Rob, who, while experimenting with electricity, creates the Demon, the "Genius of Electricity." The Demon turns out to be a modern-day genie in a bottle. He presents the boy with electric curiosities, including a television set that shows events throughout the world that happened in the recent past and during the present. After a series of adventures and mishaps, Rob decides he does not want these electric playthings; they cause more harm than good. He resummons the Demon to return them, saying that humans should not have access to such devices...


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