L. Frank Baum, Freethought Firebrand?

May 16, 2012

Tomorrow (May 17) is the 112th anniversary of the publication of that subversive freethought children’s book, The Wizard of Oz. You didn’t know it was a freethought book? Have I got a tale for you!

As everyone knows, The Oz books (and many other successful children’s titles) were penned by L. (for Lyman) Frank Baum (1856-1919). It’s less well known that Baum was a freethinker with deep ties to the nineteenth-century woman’s rights movement. But the evidence is not hard to find. Force yourself to think of The Wizard of Oz afresh. The pivotal characters — Dorothy and the Witches of the East and West — are women. The principal male characters include a fraudulent bumbler (the Wizard) and three sidekicks (Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion). And the book’s climax concerns a mere farm girl who uses common sense and Toto’s animal intuition to unmask a false god. Heady stuff for a Victorian children’s book, much less for a studio movie of 1939.

I’ll share Baum’s story in the words of his biographical entry on the Freethought Trail Web site.

First, it’s worth knowing that Baum married a daughter of Fayetteville‘s anti-Christian feminist firebrand, Matilda Joslyn Gage. Baum was fascinated by his brilliant mother-in-law and spent many hours in her company, absorbing her conviction that Christianity was a false religion that oppressed women; her radically advanced ideas of gender equality; and her sophisticated theories about nonauthoritarian governance, inspired by her studies of the Iroquois Indians. All of these notions color the Oz books. Think of the preponderance of strong female characters (Dorothy, Glinda, the Wicked Witch of the West), quite extraordinary by the standards of Victorian literature. Think of the utter and pointed omission of religion and central government in the land of Oz: in the words of Baum scholar Katharine M. Rogers, “Oz is a utopia where people are naturally inclined to help and respect each other because they are happy.” And consider the climax of the movie, where Toto goes behind the curtain and exposes “the great and powerful Oz” as a false god.

Baum would lampoon religion even more explicitly in two non-Oz children’s books: Policeman Bluejay (1907) and The Sea Fairies (1911).

A Methodist by upbringing, Baum was apparently a freethinker by his mid-thirties, when as editor of an Aberdeen, South Dakota, newspaper he gleefully proclaimed the age of “unfaith” and predicted the collapse of organized religion. Still, Baum was more a heretic than an atheist; he believed in the spirit realm and proposed to replace Christianity with the then-popular quasi-spiritualist doctrine of Theosophy, also a fascination of his mother-in-law.

Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, which is rich in memorials to Baum. He passed much of his youth in Syracuse. There he probably witnessed a hot-air balloon launch in the city’s Clinton Square. To see a historic photo of this event, go to https://www.freethought-trail.org/site.php?By=Location&Page=9&Site=58 and click through to the fourth photograph. Some Baum scholars think this experience may have inspired the climactic scene in The Wizard of Oz involving the Wizard’s own fickle balloon. There also he dabbled in various business pursuits, wrote and produced a successful melodrama that played in the city’s Wieting Opera House — and even on Broadway — and married into the remarkable Gage family.

By the time the Oz books attained great success, Baum had moved with his family to Chicago. But his roots lie firmly in west-central New York State — and on the Freethought Trail. On May 17, let’s raise a metaphorical glass to Baum and his most subversive — and successful — feminist and freethought tale.

The Freethought Trail (https://www.freethought-trail.org) is the Council for Secular Humanism’s celebration of the rich radical reform history of the region bisected by the Erie Canal and centered on Robert G. Ingersoll’s birthplace in Dresden, New York. It includes some eighty marked and unmarked sites relevant to the history of abolitionism, woman suffrage, feminism, abolitionism, and anarchism. Among them is the newly-restored home of (yes, really) the original Auntie Em, Matilda Joslyn Gage. The newly-restored Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, New York, now welcomes the public to visit the home where Gage carried out her work. Call 315-637-9511 or email: foundation@matildajoslyngage.org for tour times.

The Freethought Trail site is now fully accessible on smartphones. In addition, informative brochures are available at the principal New York Thruway rest areas near exits serving the Finger Lakes.