The Wizard's Wireless
Interviews with People Inspired by Oz
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Finding the Real Oz
A Conversation with Evan I. Schwartz

An unusual biography of L. Frank Baum's life before The Wonderful Wizard of Oz will be available in late April, 2009.  Inspired by reading the book as an adult, Evan I. Schwartz decided to investigate the "man behind the curtain".  I talked with Evan about Baum's amazingly varied career and the age in which he lived...

WW: Baum was a entrepreneur in every sense of he word, yet he failed at many of his attempts to start businesses.  What do you think kept him going through the hard times?

EIS: In many ways, Baum was just an ordinary man trying to support his family as best he could. So he was largely motivated by survival, because times were indeed tough and there was really no social safety net like today. But deep down, I think his faith kept him going. Faith in the future. Faith in America. And learning through experience where not to place his faith. He knew he had a special talent but he was often misapplying it, in order to make a living. His faith kept him on a path to his True Self, just like the characters in his story. If you can make it though the darkness and fear and re-discover your Self, you can achieve bliss in this life. That is what great mythology teaches us. And Frank Baum not only wrote it, he lived it. That is what Finding Oz is about.  

WW: Baum was ever the showman, do you think he was trying to make up for his shortcomings as a child?  (Not following in his families footsteps, dropping out of military academy, poor health).

EIS:  I do think the whole episode of dropping out of the military academy as a young teen has a lasting, traumatic impact on him. I think he did struggle to compensate for that, in a way, which I explore in the book.

Baum started writing in his teens; what do you consider his "golden years'?

EIS: He wrote many witty and whimsical and wonderful pieces over a long period of time. I especially enjoy his “Our Landlady” columns from his Dakota days. But if he had “golden years,” they were short. I’d say they began around 1896, with his first published children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose, and they may have lasted mid-way through the fourteen-book Oz series. The problem is that he was writing too many books too quickly, and the quality suffered. Most of his works don’t seem to come from the same place of inspiration as the first Oz novel. The original story came about in a singular, transcendental moment—the likes of which he may never have experienced again.

WW: How do Baum's other works tie into what he was writing in the Wonderful Wizard of Oz?  Did he expand on his beliefs and motivations through other works?  If so, which ones?

EIS: He did expand on his themes and beliefs and many, many other things. But he never went back to re-read his own prior books and he rarely edited what he wrote, so things in his later books go off in endless directions. That’s why I didn’t even try to make sense of it all. Mostly, he was just having fun and earning a living the way he wanted to, as a writer.

WW: When in Chicago, Baum was a reporter for several newspapers.  Your research seems to indicate that he wrote several pieces that were uncredited.  Do you think he could have made a career as a reporter, or are his pieces "hack writing"?

EIS: He was never really a reporter. He wasn’t good at collecting factual information, and didn’t seem to interview people very often. He wasn’t a hack, though. He was a commentator. He was a humorist. He used the news as fodder for columns and poems and editorials. He would fit in great today, as an occasional contributor on NPR.

WW: We literally find Oz references in all areas of popular culture every day. Why do you think Oz has permeated American culture so deeply?

EIS: Because The Wizard of Oz taps into the archetypes of the human mind. Baum was able to express basic impulses, such as yearning, fear, dread, hope, wonder, determination, comfort. He did it through vivid characters and by infusing meaning into concrete symbols, from the cyclone to the Yellow Brick Road to the magic shoes to the Emerald City to “home.” The MGM movie, of course, propelled these icons to a whole new level. But it was Baum who transformed common sights into these mythic images. This is why I quote Joseph Campbell throughout the book. Although Campbell never wrote about Oz, he unraveled the workings of the mythic imagination better than anyone.

WW: Theosophy plays heavily in your analysis of Baum.  When and where did Baum become interested in Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky?

EIS: Baum’s mother-in-law joined the Theosophical Society around 1885, so Blavatsky’s literature was around him from at least that point on. Baum seemed to turn to this faith most dramatically during the depths of his despair, in his darkest days in Dakota, in 1890 and 1891. Frank and his wife Maud both joined the Society in 1892. But Theosophy itself was largely inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism, and he was also drawn to the philosophies of those ancient religions in these years too. The spiritual influences in The Wizard of Oz are subtle but fundamental.

WW: Your research points to four giants of the late 19th century (Rockefeller, Edison, Barnum & Vivekananda) as inspiration for The Wizard of Oz.  Tell us a bit about Swami Vivekananda and how Baum knew of him. 

EIS: Yes, Baum crossed paths with all of these larger-than-life figures, and I show how each inspired aspects of the shape-shifting character of the great and powerful Wizard himself. Swami Vivekananda’s own story is amazing. He was selected by the nation of India to introduce Hinduism to the West, at the World Parliament of Religions, part of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. This, of course, is the fair that inspired Baum’s creation of the Emerald City.

The Swami was the surprise sensation of the entire expo. Vivekananda preached a set of meditations called the “Four Yogas,” describing the four paths to the True Self: the path of wisdom, the path of compassion, the path of courage and the path of inner harmony. (I think we may know four characters who travel those very paths.) The Swami was a major presence in Chicago in the six years after that too. His image and his words were everywhere. He even gave a series of lectures at the Fine Arts Building, where W.W. Denslow kept his illustration studio.

WW: What are some of the places you traveled for your research?  What was your most exciting find?

EIS: I live in Connecticut, and I drove about six or seven times to the Syracuse area for research. I also traveled to Aberdeen, South Dakota and to Los Angeles, with a few other smaller excursions. But one of my most fun finds was in Chicago. Baum worked briefly in 1891 as a reporter for The Chicago Evening Post, but the paper carried no bylines. Buried in the microfilm, dated during that short stint, I found some curious articles, with trademark phrases, such as one about the philosophy of moving that contains the phrase “there’s no place like home” and a story about a Thomas Edison press conference, in which the reporter covering it writes that the Wizard of Menlo Park has a “massive head.” That was exciting.  Here's another one: landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, in the months before the Chicago World’s Fair was to open, was frantically trying to change the dominant color of “The White City”….to green.

WW: There are several theories about how Baum came up with the name "Oz".  What do you believe?

EIS: The origin the Oz name remains a mystery. But the much-circulated story about the “O-Z” file cabinet drawer probably never happened, as his wife Maud made that clear in a written interview she gave. Baum seemed to have made up that tale a few years after the fact in order to give reporters an answer that they would understand. Other theories are more plausible, and I discuss them in the book. For instance, Oz is a Biblical word, meaning “inner strength” in Hebrew. But the filing cabinet tale has been distracting, because it seems to suggest that the Land of Oz is just a patch of nonsense, rather than the highly meaningful place it is.

WW: Where do you place L. Frank Baum in literary history?  Was he just a writer looking to make money, or do you think he had an agenda with his works? 

EIS: He was no Fitzgerald or Hemingway, yet he became one of the best children’s authors of the 20th century, influencing everyone from Maurice Sendak to JRR Tolkien to J.K. Rowling. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz really was the Harry Potter of its time, as inspired as anything anyone ever wrote. Baum was looking to make money, but so were a lot of writers. I believe there was indeed an agenda other than to entertain children, but he concealed the story he was really telling inside a fantastic fable. He often used his stories to advance the agenda of his late mother-in-law, the women’s rights leader Matilda Joslyn Gage.  I hope to show people where the great American story came from, because it largely comes from our country’s great and not-so-great history and Frank Baum’s particular path through it. I also hope to show people that there’s a deep reason why The Wizard of Oz has captured our collective imagination for more than a century. This is a story that still helps guide our own lives today..

WW: Based on your research, why do you think Baum wanted to end the Oz series? 

EIS: The Oz series became a job for him, an obligation to his many fans. And they sometimes read like they were scattershot and forced. Plus, he had spent his whole life moving on to new things. He thought he should do the same with his stories. But the years after Baum’s first Oz novel are barely covered in my book. My whole focus is “finding oz.”

WW: How did you first "find Oz"?  Was it through the MGM film or the book series?

My very earliest memory is being scared out of my wits by the Great and Powerful Oz, the flying monkeys and the Wicked Witch of the West, in those annual showings on TV. I got hooked on Baum’s first Oz book later on. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that the journey of “Finding Oz” began for me. I was re-reading Baum’s novel, this time aloud at bedtime to my 7-year-old daughter. I was inspired by her reaction, but I also wondered how one man was able to invent so many cultural icons. How does someone who failed at so many different careers suddenly, in his early 40s (my age too!), come up with The Wizard of Oz? What did it mean to him? And why is it still so powerful to us?

WW: What do you think Baum would think of what his story has become today?

EIS: The Wizard of Oz was a big hit in his lifetime, but he couldn’t have imagined how amazing and successful the Judy Garland movie would be. He would have cried for joy. What else could he do after learning that his story has given so much pleasure to billions of people? Also, I think he’d be terribly jealous that he didn’t think of creating Wicked.

Evan I. Schwartz has written books about invention and creativity, most notably The Last Lone Inventor, about television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth...and JUICE, about the creative process of inventors. He lives with his family in Connecticut. He will be promoting his book at the Roxie Theatre in SanFrancisco on Apirl 9 & 11, 2009 with a showing of the 1939 MGM film.  Evan can be reached through

Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story is scheduled for publication on April 23, 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Blair Frodelius lives in upstate New York and is the editor of The Daily Ozmapolitan and  He can be reached at

--Interviewed by Blair Frodelius; March 6 & March 25, 2009

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