Like the characters he created–Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and others–L. Frank Baum traveled a long road to reach his goals. Along the way, he encountered physical illness, bankruptcy, rejection and failure. However, like any hero, he triumphed in the end. Today, audiences still read and enjoy his fairy tales, proving L. Frank Baum to be a master of storytelling.
Lyman Frank Baum was born to Benjamin and Cynthia Ann Stanton Baum on May 15, 1856 in Chittenango, New York. He took his place as the seventh of nine children born to his parents. Only five of those children lived to be adults.
At the time of Frank’s birth, Benjamin Baum worked as a cooper, a manufacturer of barrels. However, when gold was discovered nearby, he quickly learned the oil business, in which he proceeded to make his fortune. Cynthia, a devout Episcopalian of Scotch-Irish descent, schooled her children in observance of the Sabbath and devotion to God. The family enjoyed a happy existence which revolved around friends, family and church.
Since birth, Frank suffered from heart trouble. Frail and sickly, he stayed close to home, receiving his education from a private tutor. Once he learned to read, he could be found in his father’s study, devouring volumes by Dickens and Thackeray. He also enjoyed fairy tales, although he found that he didn’t enjoy the presence of witches and other frightful creatures that often popped up in the stories. He vowed that someday he would write fairy tales that would not frighten young readers.
For his fourteenth birthday, Frank received a small printing press. Inspired, he and his younger brother began publishing a neighborhood newspaper. The journal boasted poetry, articles, editorials and word puzzles. He also earned money by printing signs, stationery and program. When he was 17, Frank started another paper, The Empire, and a magazine for stamp collectors. As he grew into an adult, he worked at a variety of positions, including salesman, reporter, owner of a print shop, director of a chain of opera houses, and actor.
Family and friends found him charming and delightful. He loved to tell and hear stories, and some even said he himself could not distinguish reality from events he had only imagined. Practical jokes and word games also enchanted him. In 1881, Frank’s charm won him the attention of Maud Gage. Maud, who roomed with Frank’s cousin at Cornell, was the daughter of a well-known feminist. Mrs. Gage did not approve of the marriage, and only relented when Maud informed her that the marriage would continue despite her protests. The wedding took place on November 9, 1882.
In the year before his marriage, Frank wrote a melodrama entitled “The Maid of Arran.” The production became a local hit. After the wedding, Frank and Maud toured with the company. When Maud became pregnant, Frank resigned, and the couple settled in Syracuse, where Frank labored as a salesman. Although Benjamin Baum had passed his businesses and money on to his son, Frank soon found that a clerk had gambled away all of the business’s capital. He continued to write, attempting to pull himself out of bankruptcy. Several years later, the Baums moved to the Dakota Territory, where yet another business dissolved in bankruptcy.
In May of 1891, Frank moved his family to Chicago, drawn by the excitement of the World’s Fair, which would soon take place in the Windy City. He rented a house on the West Side, and became a buyer and a salesman. Although he traveled a great deal, he continued to write.
Frank loved children, and delighted in telling them stories. He would read Mother Goose rhymes to his children, who simply could not understand why a mouse would run up a clock or why a cow would jump over the moon. Frank made up his own explanations, which Maud urged him to publish. Her insistence led to Mother Goose In Prose (1897). He continued to write and publish both fiction and non-fiction.
Although he published many books, Frank achieved popularity and fame because of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). The book wowed audiences with its story and its vivid illustrations. It became an instant hit, and earned the honor of best-selling book in 1900. Since the book had been so successful, Frank decided to adapt it for the stage. Oz, his musical extravaganza became immensely popular, and toured for 9 years. Frank wrote 13 more Oz books, two of which were published after his death. He also tried adapting the stories for stage and film, but had marginal success. Once again, he faced bankruptcy.
After many years of hard work, Frank grew weaker and weaker. Still plagued by heart problems, Frank also began to experience gall bladder attacks. Pain and weakness became constant companions, but he continued to write, even if it was only a little each day. He stashed two manuscripts in a safe deposit box to be published if he became too ill to write.
On May 5, 1919, L. Frank Baum suffered a stroke. He died quietly the the next day. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Frank’s oldest son, Frank Jr., and others continued the Oz legacy by writing and producing more Oz books, plays and radio shows. However, none of those mediums achieved as much success as the 1939 MGM movie, The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. In fact, most people probably know the movie better than the book.
Although L. Frank Baum’s work has been criticized as overly-sentimental, racist, and too fantastical, it still endures. When his books were banned in schools and libraries, children still found them. Oz lives on because children love to immerse themselves in a fantasy land, where animals talk and a little girl struggles to find her way home.