” I believe that dreams — day dreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain machinery whizzing — are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization. A prominent educator tells me that fairy tales are of untold value in developing imagination in the young. I believe it.”
— L. Frank Baum, from the introduction to The Princess of Oz, 1917
L. Frank Baum, best known as the man who brought us the world of Oz, was born this day in 1856. His early writing career was in journalism, but his fame began with the 1900 publication of the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He wrote 14 books in total about Oz, and was extremely prolific – over 40 novels, nearly 100 short stories, and 200 poems – up until the time of his death following a stroke in 1919. His last words to his wife before he passed away, reportedly were ““Now we can cross the Shifting Sands.” – which was a reference to the desert surrounding Oz.
He was highly influenced by the fairy tales of yore, particularly the Brothers Grimm, and of tales of fairies, ogres, and other magical creatures of folklore, but he was uncomfortable with the violence and harsh morality of the original fairly tales, and worked to minimize, and eventually eliminate, that harshness in his own stories. As a result, he is often credited/blamed for the sanitization of children’s literature. A precursor to the Disney-fication In recent decades, that change has come under criticism for removing a valuable way for children to deal with death, poverty, loss, and the other negatives of life – through the very same imagination that Baum regarded so highly.
And yes, although it was a children’s book series, Oz was also a political allegory for the 1890’s in the US. Baum supported the women’s suffrage movement, although he did not live to see the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution give women the vote in 1920. He opposed the populist movement of his time, but is now viewed controversially because a couple of the editorials he wrote in the 1890’s while still working as a journalist strongly implied that he favored the extermination of the native Americans – although there has also been some argument that he was being sarcastic in those editorials. They really could be read either way, and very little else about Baum’s history would seem to support the notion that he would have favored genocide. So I don’t know, and I suspect that scholars will argue that point as long as there remains interest in Baum’s body of work.
I do believe, though, having researched the topic of the effect of fairy tales on children (inspired by Bruno Bettelheim) while in school, that Baum’s sanitization, although well-intentioned, was wrong. I also believe that he is 100% correct that imaginative children become imaginative, creative, adults. And the world needs that creativity to progress. To borrow a thought from Albert Einstein:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”
Image borrowed from AZ Quotes.