From Wonderland to Wasteland: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Great Gatsby, and the New American Fairy Tale
Barrett, Laura, Papers on Language & Literature
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). …