THE FAIRY TALE IN AMERICA
In 1919, The New York Timesran an editorial lamenting the end of an era: "L. Frank Baum is dead, [...] and the children have suffered a loss they do not know" ("Fairy Tales" 140). While this article is ostensibly an obituary, it mourns the death of the fairy tale genre as much as it does one of its artists. But the announcement of the fairy tale's demise is a bit late, the article implies, because "a fairy story has to be written by one who believes in fairies," and Baum did not. Observing that "behind the scenes you could see the smile of the showman" (140, 141), the writer describes Baum as a wizard of sorts, projecting images on a screen to entertain his audience, an audience who feigns belief just as much as the author does. "Is the age of fairy-tale writing [dead] ?" the writer asks. "Not so long as men like Baum can counterfeit it. But the real note of sincerity can never come back in this age. We cannot write about fairies with honesty any more than we can write about Greek gods" (142). The editorialist describes another collection of tales as "a perfectly good book of fairy stories for children [...], but no sort of fairy story for people who know what the real thing is" (140). While "real" seems to be a questionable adjective for a genre defined by fantasy, by its subversion of reality, it does raise some important issues about the place of the fairy tale in American culture. The New York Times editorial reveals the nation's inherent objection to the fairy tale: It isn't real. Brian Attebery notes that "a general trend, since the landing of the Puritans, has been a paring away of the supernatural in those folk genres most amenable to them" (16), and Selma Lanes contends that the nation had little need for fairy stories when "bountiful fulfillment in the real word lay within the grasp of all" (91)--at least theoretically. The traditional characters of such tales--kings, queens, princes, and princesses--were out of step with democracy, and magic itself was dwarfed by the reality of the American experience, filled as it was with seemingly unremitting technological invention, geographical expansion, and economic development. "Fairy tales," Lanes writes, "were consolation for lives in need of magical solutions; but here man was master of his fate" (92)--at least for a time. When that time passed, along with a concomitant loss of faith in the American dream itself, a space opened for the American fairy tale. That dream, constructed on realities as visceral as available frontier, westward expansion, financial success, and technological know-how, could only be resurrected in fantasy.
Consequently, the American fairy tale comes into its own in the late nineteenth century--in the writings of Frank Stockton and L. Frank Baum, in the stories published in St. Nicholas Magazine that flourished under the editorship of Mary Mapes Dodge (1873-1905). One hundred years after the nation gained its independence, and just a few decades after Horatio Alger published his rags-to-riches fantasies, the fairy tale comes alive to chronicle the rise and fall of the American dream. In this light, the Times' editorial, which postulates the reality of unreality by subscribing to a belief in "true" fairy tales, perversely reveals the growing theme of post-World War I art and literature: the unreality of reality. In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes his own obituary of the American dream through the eyes and voice of Nick Carraway, the overtly Platonic narrator of The Great Gatsby, who laments "the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing" (105). (1) L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, then, becomes the canvas on which Fitzgerald paints the failure of the American dream twenty-five years later. While Baum may have feigned belief in wonderland, he illustrated a strong conviction in the American dream in his westward travels from his childhood home in New York to the Chicago of the Exposition and ultimately to the nation's own fairy tale space, California, where he hoped to depict Oz in film, a medium he deemed more suitable than books (Zipes, When Dreams Came True 167). While Fitzgerald, whose own travels east from Minnesota to New York to Europe inversely paralleled Baum's, seemed to believe in wonderland (which might explain how he, too, ended up in California), his novel declares that the seductive dream--"the green light, the orgastic future"--is continuously receding, as he paints the picture of the fall from "the old island [...] that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes" into the Valley of Ashes over Baum's depiction of the rise from a bleak Kansas farm to the Emerald City (Fitzgerald, Gatsby 189).
OZ: AN AMERICAN FANTASY
The importance of place--including the imagined space of a mythical American past--is as clear in Baum's tale as it is in The Great Gatsby. Baum's working titles, including "The City of Oz" and "The Emerald City" (Hearn xl), emphasize the wizard's home more than the man himself, and, as Matthew Bruccoli has noted, one of the earlier rifles for The Great Gatsby was "On The Road to West Egg." The geographies of both works clearly refer to the United States, and both books are routinely printed with maps. As Jerry Griswold argues, the map of Oz, with its regional and philosophical distinctions between East, West, North, and South, is a map of the United States, and the Emerald City is the Chicago of the Columbian Exposition. But, more importantly, Oz is a reflection of actual circumstances at the turn of the century when P. T. Barnum was a national hero and foreigners dreamed of streets paved with gold. What brings both Dorothy Gale and Nick Carraway to their enchanted places is the quest for the American dream. (2) Once she lands in Oz, Dorothy's only desire is to return to Kansas, and the entire narrative describes her quest for the power to return home. Nick begins his narrative from his Midwestern home. He has already returned, and his story is thus shot through with the knowledge that he only remains in the east for a summer. The puzzle in both works is, of course, why the protagonists choose to return home.
While Dorothy is ostensibly involuntarily displaced by a tornado, she is escaping one of the most dismal sites on earth:
When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else. (18)
In Kansas, nature is the enemy, one, moreover, that wreaks havoc on people as well as land: "when Aunt Em came there to live she was a young pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also" (18). Neither of Dorothy's caretakers smiles or laughs, and indeed her own laughter thoroughly unnerves her aunt. What saves Dorothy from a similarly joyless fate is Toto, who, as his name suggests, represents completion (Hudlin 447). After her journey to Oz, Dorothy describes Kansas to the Scarecrow, and he can only respond, "'I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas'" (75). Dorothy attributes his incomprehension to his alleged stupidity: "'No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home'" (75-76). Notwithstanding his lack of brains, the Scarecrow is wise enough to note that "'[i]f your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains'" (76). Baum's irony here is straightforward enough even for those who do not know that his brief venture westward--to Aberdeen in 1888 in what would later be called South Dakota--lasted only three years. Stories about the bountiful west were still in full circulation, but a depression and a drought resulted in a wasteland rather than a wonderland. After a number of jobs in Aberdeen--the opening of Baum's Bazaar in 1888, a retail venture lasting only thirteen months, and the purchasing of a newspaper, which he renamed the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer--he left South Dakota in 1891, eventually bringing his family to Chicago, which, in its preparation for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, was considerably more akin to Oz than to Kansas, a fact confirmed by Baum, who described it as a city "entirely of the present" (qtd. in Leach, "Clown" 17).
Baum's brief residence in South Dakota coincided with the 1890 census's conclusion that the frontier was closed, and his experiences no doubt confirmed that the rumors of infinite riches in the west were unfounded. In consequence, Baum invented an extension of the America frontier in Oz (McHale 50). With the exception of the fact that the west is still wild, Baum's new American frontier is very much like the old one. Attebery identifies Oz as "the agrarian promised land" (86), a more spectacular version of the United States. The eastern Munchkins, whom Dorothy first meets when her house lands, are farmers, as are the Winkies in the west. The land in Oz, however, is in stark contrast to the grayness of Kansas:
The cyclone had set the house down, very gently--for a …