Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On the (Yellow Brick) Road Again

The greatest difficulty of being a fan, is that in admitting as much, one forfeits any pretense of objectivity forever. It is one thing to admire, or even adulate a star, a movie, an author, a book, but to go further, to acknowledge the irrational, compulsive curiosity with which the fan must pursue any avenue that might seemingly bring the object of fascination closer, is to admit a preoccupation hardly becoming in a grown person. There is a humane indulgence extended to the teenager whose ecstatic screams make a singer inaudible, in whose room a shrine rises, or who, annoyingly but endearingly, insists on expressing an enthusiasm so entirely disproportionate to the relative cultural value of what is assumed will be a passing obsession, as to make both more than a little ridiculous. The collecting of information, however trivial, of memorabilia however trite, would seem an appropriate occupation for someone still so young as to be not entirely answerable to adult responsibilities like budgeting one's income and time responsibly, someone young enough to still be in search of self definition and identity. To be an otherwise respectable gentleman of middle years who goes all giddy at just the sight of, say, Johnny Depp, is to confess a serious failure in having put away childish things. Harmless it may be, one would hope, but hardly admirable, save, I suppose, in the very harmlessness of the pursuit; presumably keeping the adult fan, so long as the subject is kept from overwhelming unrelated conversation and confined to bumper-stickers and a dream otherwise indulged only in solitary or like-minded company, largely off the streets. Hardly a recommendation of one's seriousness, potential for serious discourse, or general gravitas then, at my stage of life, to admit that I am a fan of OZ.

Now I don't subscribe to any societies, attend conventions, or decorate my house with posters. I do not dress up as Dorothy or the Tin Man, have a dog named Toto, or celebrate, or even exactly remember the birthday of L. Frank Baum. I am not so far gone as to imagine The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, as a work of fiction, to be the equal of, let alone superior to the greatest masterpieces of either the American or European novel. I am not even prepared to defend my favorite children's book as anything other than that. I love it, that's all. Have done, since the first time a copy was lent to me, well after the first time I'd seen the great MGM musical film, on a sorry black and white television, and loved that. (The movie musical is something of a gay gateway drug, isn't it? From thence, Judy queens, Musical queens, OZ fanatics, etc.) Having gone on then to read all of Baum's OZ books, and a number of the inferior, if still charming, inventions of his many successors, and nearly every book published subsequently about Baum, OZ, the film, Judy Garland and even the memoirs of a peripheral Munchkin, I can only say, again, by way of justification, I'm a fan.

If you are not, then what follows will be meaningless. This being exactly the kind of thing from which fans, deservedly, get a bad name, there is really no reason for anyone not already interested to read any further. I wish I could say I intended to make of my avidity something so interesting or inspiring as to communicate some new insight applicable beyond this small context, or endow a new appreciation of Baum's little book among the skeptical or the bored, but I can't make any such claim without disappointing even the kindest indulgence. Instead, I here simply address such among you who might be curious to know my thoughts, as an already confessed OZ nut, on the new book I felt compelled to read straight through today.

In the jacket copy of the latest biography of The Royal Historian of OZ, The Real Wizard of OZ: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, by Rebecca Loncraine, the claim is made that this is "the first major literary biography." I realize the author need not be, and in all likelihood may not have been, responsible for this claim, but it does an obvious disservice to the critics, biographers, fans, and literary historians who preceded her, if, as in fact proves to be the case here, there's blessed little to suggest that Loncraine's book is either better written or more scholarly than those that came before it, some quite recently at that. Actually, there have been at least two generations of serious writing about Baum and OZ, and much, if not all of the original research the author has used in this latest book, was done by the scholars --and fans -- who came before. While Loncraine makes a cursory acknowledgement of this, in her all too brief "Notes on Sources," she does not use any footnotes or endnotes. With no way then to distinguish what may or may not be hers, the whole enterprise becomes frankly suspect, at least as an original or scholarly interpretation of Baum's much storied life. In fact, her surprisingly casual, and frequent, use of all but unattributed quotation throughout, makes the pretensions of either the publisher or the author or both to having produced "the first" of anything, risible. Without direct reference to her sources, it is impossible to judge what if anything beyond emphasis is original to this author, and while she has not told the story badly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to accept Loncraine's interpretation as either definitive, or particularly new, when she provides no means of fair comparison.

Is the reader to assume Loncraine's researches were somehow better or more extensive than any of her predecessors? How would we know this? In her thin notes, Loncraine states, "The vast majority of my research material on Baum's life, his family, publishing history, and early writing came from The Baum Bugle, a journal of OZ and Baum matters published since 1957 by the International Wizard of OZ Club." Fair enough. Names? Dates? Issues? Loncraine, having consulted the collection of the New York Public Library, evidently made no notes. Who found the newspapers Baum edited? Who conducted the interviews with, or edited the letters of his survivors? Did most of the biographical and critical material in the book then come from The Baum Bugle? Surely not, but how to know? It is not enough to be provided a suggested list of further reading, after the fact. That isn't scholarly, that's just chatty. I could do as much.

As for Loncraine's critical command of Baum's creation, she seems to be no better informed than his previous biographers, and considerably less original than many of his previous critics. Again, her emphasis is all, and it is not enough. She makes much, for instance, of having talked to a surviving direct descendant of Baum, a Jungian. Weirdly though, this interesting opportunity results in little beyond anecdote, unrelated to OZ. Can anyone so described really have had so little of interest to say about OZ, of all places? For Loncraine, Baum is American, even down to his sins, and so his descendant, in a surreal scene, is brought on to apologize to some very polite Native Americans for the inexcusable racism of editorials Baum wrote,after the massacre at Wounded Knee, calling for the extermination of the Indians, more than one hundred years ago, in his already all but unread and soon to fail newspaper. Jung might well have approved of this apology, or not, I've no idea, and so might have Baum's evidently more enlightened wife, and his famously feminist mother-in-law, -- seems a touchingly weird, if slightly inadequate gesture to me -- but what has any of this to do with L. Frank Baum? And how are we know what the Indians themselves might have made of it, since our only source is the good Jungian lady herself? That Baum could have been so shockingly, if perhaps predictably, of his time, is something worth exploring, say within his books, and his biographer does just that, a bit. But there would seem to me to be little justification, at least on the evidence Loncraine actually provides, for having made so much of this ugly business, unless some conclusion is intended other than the obvious one, that Baum suffered, if briefly and only in passing, from that most American affliction, unthinking racial stupidity of the bloodiest, if only abstract variety. Shameful, but hardly characteristic, as even Loncraine seems to admit.

In the end, L. Frank Baum seems a largely agreeable man otherwise; kind-hearted, if incompetent with money, a loving husband and parent, if perhaps a little too lost in his own fancies, something of a humbug himself, etc. Nothing terribly new in any of this. Baum failed at everything he ever did, except his marriage, and in creating OZ. How and why he did just that one truly magical thing, is better understood, I think, from better books than Loncraine's, for instance, Evan I. Schwartz's charmingly enthusiastic Finding OZ: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, or the definitive, Centennial Edition of The Annotated Wizard of OZ, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Patrick Hearn, which is perhaps the greatest book on OZ since Baum "discovered" it. (Schwartz, probably the greatest living scholar of OZ, is still expected to produce what may be hoped will be the definitive biography of Baum. Can't wait.) Both are better, more scholarly jobs, let me add, than Loncraine's book. And, it is also worth noting, neither fellow, unlike Loncraine, went to Oxford, curiously enough.

Oh, and for any novice OZ fans -- the rest surely know this already, -- among the books used by Loncraine, let me offer just one more example of how this kind of thing ought better to be done. It's out of print, but I must recommend Aljean Harmetz's The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM,as rather a must for fans of the movie. (See? Chatty isn't a bad thing, but then I don't make much claim to any literary importance for what I'm doing here.)

I would hope my frustration with this latest biography of Baum doesn't suggest that I'm entirely sorry to have read it. I'm a fan, remember? I kinda had to. And if Rebecca Loncraine hadn't insisted so on claiming more than she delivered, I might have thanked her as such. As it is, even so lax, if loyal a subject of Ozma as me must shake my head a little at her hubris. And so the first, and greatest Royal Historian of OZ, must remain, for now, still something of a mystery. But then, that's usual in Wizards, isn't it?

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