recess radio program

5/14/04
L. Frank Baum, Entrepreneur of the Imagination
    by John Cech

It's the real Wizard of Oz's birthday tomorrow. Born on May 15, 1856, Lyman Frank Baum was the frail son of well-to-do and indulgent parents who lived on a picture book, gentlman's farm near Syracuse, New York. Growing up, Baum always seemed to be pursuing the latest fads. When teenage journalism was the rage, he produced a paper; when stamp collecting was what one did, he wrote a book about it; and when raising prize-winning poultry was the thing to do on a country estate, Baum went into the chicken business. And then, at twenty-five, he got the bug for the theater, went to New York to study acting, and returned to open his own opera house, which was built and burned down within a year.

Undaunted, Baum pushed ahead with his drama troup and later that year married Maud Gage, the daughter of the famous suffragette, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and toured the country with a play he had written, The Maid of Arran. But a year later, with a baby on the way, Baum was back in Syracuse working in the family's oil business, which he expanded to include axle grease and a tonic called "Baum's Ever-Ready Castorine" that blended castor oil and gasoline -- something to "make your horses laugh, [and] your carriage draw so easy." A few years later, he was in South Dakota, trying to make a go of Baum's Bazaar, a department store that he had invested the Castorine money in.

But things didn't draw so easy. He went back to newspapering, and eventually the Baums and their four children moved to Chicago, where he worked for the Chicago Post, then another department store, then as a traveling crockery salesman -- meanwhile writing stories and poems, and when he was home, spinning tales for his children to explain the mysteries of the nursery rhymes they were learning. His mother-in-law told him it would be foolish not to write them down. He took her advice, and this collection became his first real book in 1897, Mother Goose in Prose. Baum had finally found his calling, and within three years had cranked out eight more books, including the work that would make him famous, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was printed on his 44th birthday in 1900. In the book's introduction he said he hoped to write a fairy tale for American children. What he succeeded in doing was writing his own and, it so happens, one of our national myths -- that what we really, truly need isn't over the rainbow -- it's already there, if we know where to look, within us.

Copyright 2004 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."