The Wizard of Oz opened in movie theaters across America on this day in 1939. Though it’s now ranked as America’s most popular film (People magazine) and the world’s most watched film (Library of Congress), the box office numbers show that The Wizard of Oz had a slow start compared to some earlier incarnations — the hit 1902 musical, the four silent films, the radio show, the board game, dolls, the Chicago World’s Fair exhibit…. The source of Oz-mania, L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, was also an immediate hit, though not initially as popular as his runaway bestseller of the previous year, Father Goose. This collection of nursery rhymes evolved from stories Baum made up for his kids and their friends, and capitalized on the publicity surrounding the suffrage movement:
Old Mother Goose became quite new,
And joined a Woman’s Club;
She left poor Father Goose at home
To care for Sis and Bub….
In her 2009 biography The Real Wizard of Oz, Rebecca Loncraine makes clear that, through his years as playwright, poet, journalist, ad man, and shopkeeper, Baum always had an eye on the market. And he knew, the moment he finished his Oz book, that he finally had something:
…Baum tore a fresh piece of paper from his notebook and scribbled, “With This Pencil, I wrote the MS of The Emerald City.” Then he dated it: October 9, 1899, and signed it, underlining “The Emerald City” with a strong, thick line. He knew that this moment, in the middle of life (he was forty-three), needed to be marked…. He captured the moment by sticking what remained of the worn-down stub to the paper. This pencil would write nothing more.
But with other pencils Baum would write much more, in all over fifty novels, plus a long list of stories, poems, and plays. The list includes Baum’s thirteen sequel novels to his first Oz book — these, says Loncraine, written only for market reasons:
After he released The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, Baum was forced to serve the Land of Oz for the rest of his life.… He had created something marvelous and universal, but also so unique and human, that it took over his life. Baum’s relationship with his imagination became increasingly peculiar, complex, and troubled after 1900. He didn’t feel responsible for the many subsequent Oz stories he wrote, but they couldn’t be “discovered” without him; he became trapped in the role of portal to Oz.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.