Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Critic of the Week—Evan Schwartz

L. Frank Baum’s classic, The Wizard of Oz, marked a shift in American literature.  Never before had a writer looked to the United States instead of Europe, or the present instead of the past, to create mythology for children.  Baum’s distinctly New World narrative gave children permission to dream in American terms, which changed the game for an entire nation.

In Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, Evan I. Schwartz unpacks Baum’s tempestuous life to discover how a failed businessman made such a profound leap.  Beginning in upstate New York prosperity, Baum struggled to assume adult roles, failing out of military school, bouncing from one half-successful business venture to another, and even running a theatre that enjoyed great success before losing everything.  Somehow he never connected his life to the writing he never stopped.

In Schwartz’s telling, Baum saw the world in narrative terms.  When his father wanted him following manful pursuits, young Baum printed a household newspaper.  When he thought he’d made a success of his traveling theatre, he clearly most relished writing his company’s scripts.  When he failed at running a South Dakota general store, he flourished publishing the city paper.

By carefully examining Baum’s choices, Schwartz reveals how Oz represents a mythic retelling of the American frontier.  The 1893 Columbian Exposition, called the “White City,” may have been the original city of Oz, while Sitting Bull’s struggles to keep his people together represent the Munchkins’ resistance to the Wicked Witch—a witch that may represent Baum’s own guilt.

Instead of pulling abstruse meaning from a respected classic, Schwartz shows the book and its audience respect enough to treat it seriously.  He shows how literature participates in life, in constant conversation with its time and society.  And he reminds us that Oz is no mere sweet story, but a real part of America’s distinctive identity.

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