Utopian Tension in L. Frank Baum's Oz(*)

By Karp, Andrew | Utopian Studies, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Utopian Tension in L. Frank Baum's Oz(*)


Karp, Andrew, Utopian Studies


Numerous scholars have noted utopian aspects of the society depicted in the fourteen Oz books written by L. Frank Baum between 1900 and 1920.(1) These aspects include, among others, a communal sharing of food, the elimination of money and poverty, a dearth of punishment, an absence of greed reminiscent of Sir Thomas More, and the virtual elimination of death or disease. The Tin Woodman, for example, declares in The Road to Oz, "We have no rich, and no poor; for what one wishes the others all try to give him, in order to make him happy, and no one in all Oz cares to have more than he can use" (165).

Most scholars, however, have dismissed Baum's utopian society as a fairy tale paradise rife with inconsistencies and superficialities. As a result, they have neglected to explore the central political and philosophical concerns of his works: the conflict between the individual and the community and the thorny problem of how to create a unified and harmonious society out of a rag-tag assortment of wildly diverse individuals. In the Oz works, Baum continually grapples with two political issues debated in the United States since its inception: 1) the conflict over whether to give primacy to "individual rights and freedom" or highest priority to "community life and the good of collectivities" (Taylor 1985, 182); and 2) the problem of how to create a unified community that still recognizes the "fundamentally multiracial and multi-ethnic nature of the United States" (Gordon and Newfield 77).

In developing the community of Oz, Baum seems to be trying to do the impossible: to create a world that combines the pastoral and artistic features of William Morris's utopia with the technological and urban advantages of Edward Bellamy's; to fashion a utopia that is simultaneously egalitarian and authoritarian; and to establish a society that values and protects individual rights, interests, and freedoms, as well as cultural multiplicity, at the same time as it promotes the value of a unified state to which individuals owe allegiance, a state created "E Pluribus Unum." While grappling with these seemingly irreconcilable polarities and displaying a satiric awareness of some of the problems within his seemingly idyllic community, Baum manages to address some fundamental questions about personal and communal identity, about what constitutes an individual self, and about what is natural and civilized for the individual and the community.

Despite the layers of tension encumbering these issues, however, Baum hints at a possible method for creating social harmony in the face of diversity. According to Baum, the society of Oz--and, by implication, the society of the United States--might be able to function harmoniously if individuals could possess a spirit of tolerance and an open-minded, unprejudiced respect for individuals and minorities. Baum inculcates this tolerance by erasing the distinction between human beings and the world around them, forcing humans to reevaluate their own narrow-minded and prejudiced views of what, for example, constitutes a "proper" diet, courage, or a living being. Utilizing a child's perspective--a perspective that blurs the distinction between animate and inanimate, and reaches effortlessly for the commonality underlying diversity--Baum suggests a potential harmony based not just on fellow-feeling among disparate peoples but on a recognition of the consanguinity between human beings, nature, and the artificial and mechanical worlds. With this view, Baum, like a true rather than a humbug wizard, magically anticipates the multicultural and communitarian concerns of contemporary political theorists and utopians.

L. Frank Baum was familiar with utopian issues and with the utopian texts popular at the end of the late nineteenth century, particularly those of Bellamy and Morris. In 1891, he used Mrs. Bilkins, a fictional character in one of his Aberdeen newspaper columns, to parody Looking Backward.

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