Our Landlady, L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum is known best for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a children’s fantasy that has achieved classic status through its multiple reprintings and because of the movies based on it, including the MGM classic The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland and the 70s musical The Wiz. Part of the appeal of Baum’s fantasy is that it is quintessentially American, set in the heart of the midwest, and in some ways deals with the American spirit. Academic commentators have gone further in their study of Baum’s work, saying that it can be read as a treatise on the America of the late 1800s, citing various political undercurrents in the novel. These arguments are based on Baum’s work as a newspaper publisher, editor and columnist in South Dakota. Now the University of Nebraska press has made available a collection of the “Our Landlady” columns written by Baum from January 1890 to February 1891–forty-eight installments about a fictitious boarding house in the town of Aberdeen where Baum’s newspaper was published.

The columns are edited and annotated by Nancy Tystad Koupal, who does an outstanding job of placing the column in the appropriate time setting, explaining to the modern reader the differences that one hundred years have made on newspapers, political parties, mercantile exchange, and other aspects of frontier life. This is especially important in the context of the “Our Landlady” columns which were intended as editorials on the doings of city hall and the state legislature. The column also mentions, by name, actual townspeople in Aberdeen, and these people are described by both Koupal’s annotations and in a separate index of important people and places of South Dakota in 1890.

For adult readers of Baum’s children books, these columns are a rare insight into the mind of the author, dealing as they do with his strongest personal opinions. His advocacy of suffrage and the rights of women help explain the strong female characters in the Oz books (best seen in the strength of Glenda the Good’s magic compared to the ineffectual humbuggery of the Wizard). One can also see his interest in the future, including fantasies of unlimited electrical power and methods of irrigating the plains, interests that were then displayed in the Oz books as different magical lands. Finally, you can also see him honing his talent for satire and humor, from broad-based visual pratfalls to punning wordplay, all things that would late prove useful in his career as a children’s novelist.

Baum failed as a newspaper publisher and editor in 1891, just as he had failed years earlier as a shop keeper. But these failures proved useful when he finally found his calling as an author of whimsical children’s novels, as he turned his experiences on the frontier into settings and characters for his books. Today, Baum’s books are constantly in print and remain in the hearts of children of all ages. Koupal’s rescue of Baum’s earlier work is a blessing for those people interested in the real Wizard of Oz.

[Finished 30 May 1996]

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