L. Frank Baum, Freethought Firebrand?

May 16, 2012

Tomorrow (May 17) is the 112th anniversary of the publication of that subversive freethought children's book, The Wizard of Oz. You didn't know it was a freethought book? Have I got a tale for you!

As everyone knows, The Oz books (and many other successful children's titles) were penned by L. (for Lyman) Frank Baum (1856-1919). It's less well known that Baum was a freethinker with deep ties to the nineteenth-century woman's rights movement. But the evidence is not hard to find. Force yourself to think of The Wizard of Oz afresh. The pivotal characters -- Dorothy and the Witches of the East and West -- are women. The principal male characters include a fraudulent bumbler (the Wizard) and three sidekicks (Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion). And the book's climax concerns a mere farm girl who uses common sense and Toto's animal intuition to unmask a false god. Heady stuff for a Victorian children's book, much less for a studio movie of 1939.

I'll share Baum's story in the words of his biographical entry on the Freethought Trail Web site.

First, it's worth knowing that Baum married a daughter of Fayetteville's anti-Christian feminist firebrand, Matilda Joslyn Gage. Baum was fascinated by his brilliant mother-in-law and spent many hours in her company, absorbing her conviction that Christianity was a false religion that oppressed women; her radically advanced ideas of gender equality; and her sophisticated theories about nonauthoritarian governance, inspired by her studies of the Iroquois Indians. All of these notions color the Oz books. Think of the preponderance of strong female characters (Dorothy, Glinda, the Wicked Witch of the West), quite extraordinary by the standards of Victorian literature. Think of the utter and pointed omission of religion and central government in the land of Oz: in the words of Baum scholar Katharine M. Rogers, "Oz is a utopia where people are naturally inclined to help and respect each other because they are happy." And consider the climax of the movie, where Toto goes behind the curtain and exposes "the great and powerful Oz" as a false god.

Baum would lampoon religion even more explicitly in two non-Oz children's books: Policeman Bluejay (1907) and The Sea Fairies (1911).

A Methodist by upbringing, Baum was apparently a freethinker by his mid-thirties, when as editor of an Aberdeen, South Dakota, newspaper he gleefully proclaimed the age of "unfaith" and predicted the collapse of organized religion. Still, Baum was more a heretic than an atheist; he believed in the spirit realm and proposed to replace Christianity with the then-popular quasi-spiritualist doctrine of Theosophy, also a fascination of his mother-in-law.

Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, which is rich in memorials to Baum. He passed much of his youth in Syracuse. There he probably witnessed a hot-air balloon launch in the city's Clinton Square. To see a historic photo of this event, go to https://www.freethought-trail.org/site.php?By=Location&Page=9&Site=58 and click through to the fourth photograph. Some Baum scholars think this experience may have inspired the climactic scene in The Wizard of Oz involving the Wizard's own fickle balloon. There also he dabbled in various business pursuits, wrote and produced a successful melodrama that played in the city's Wieting Opera House -- and even on Broadway -- and married into the remarkable Gage family.

By the time the Oz books attained great success, Baum had moved with his family to Chicago. But his roots lie firmly in west-central New York State -- and on the Freethought Trail. On May 17, let's raise a metaphorical glass to Baum and his most subversive -- and successful -- feminist and freethought tale.

The Freethought Trail (https://www.freethought-trail.org) is the Council for Secular Humanism's celebration of the rich radical reform history of the region bisected by the Erie Canal and centered on Robert G. Ingersoll's birthplace in Dresden, New York. It includes some eighty marked and unmarked sites relevant to the history of abolitionism, woman suffrage, feminism, abolitionism, and anarchism. Among them is the newly-restored home of (yes, really) the original Auntie Em, Matilda Joslyn Gage. The newly-restored Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, New York, now welcomes the public to visit the home where Gage carried out her work. Call 315-637-9511 or email: foundation@matildajoslyngage.org for tour times.

The Freethought Trail site is now fully accessible on smartphones. In addition, informative brochures are available at the principal New York Thruway rest areas near exits serving the Finger Lakes.


#1 Brian Engler on Thursday May 17, 2012 at 1:27pm

As both a freethinker and a long-time member of the International Wizard of Oz Club (http://ozclub.org/Home_Again.html) I’m happy to see this post.

#2 gray1 on Sunday May 20, 2012 at 10:09am

All quite true and worthy of further consideration, although skepicism and Theosophy would seem to make for strange bedfellows, don’t you think?  In the absence of any hypertext provided for that word, I offer the following: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theosophy

And yes, Oz is very Theosophical. Google “Oz theosophical” for some very interesting links.

#3 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Monday May 21, 2012 at 3:58am

To Gray1,

Today we think of skepticism and freethought as naturally opposed to mystical systems like Theosophy, as well as to spiritualism generally and alternative medicine. Such was not the case during the Golden Age of Freethought. Matilda Joslyn Gage, Baum’s mother-in-law, was a fierce atheist and women’s rights activist. Yet she shared Baum’s interest in Theosophy, and was an enthusiast of what we would now label alt-med. (A recent archaeological dig behind her home unearthed a rich trove of patent-medicine bottles whose contents were advertised as cure-alls and which were promoted mostly by means of testimonials.

Also there was enormous overlap between freethinkers and spiritualists in those days. Freethinkers and spiritualists were, pardon the expression, kindred spirits in that both were opposed to the traditional Christian theology of the churches. Moreover, early spiritualists portrayed themselves as scientists engaged in empirical study of the next world. Gilded Age Freethinkers tended to see the spiritualists as fellow devotees of science, the results of whose experiments clearly contradicted traditional views of heaven. Even respected scientists such as Crookes took spirituality seriously and (more or less) carefully studied mediumistic phenomena.

Another curiosity along these lines: agnostic orator Robert G. Ingersoll accepted without fail an invitation to lecture at the spiritualist Lily Dale Assembly each summer. (Though he invariably charged them his very highest speaking fee!)

The breach between freethought and spiritualism became complete only after the 1920s. In part this was driven by the mounting evidence that mediumistic phenomena were fraudulent, as demonstrated most conspicuously by Houdini. Our movement can probably take just credit for the fact it gradually overcame its own fascination with popular forms of mysticism and spiritualism.

#4 gray1 on Monday May 21, 2012 at 6:34am

Thanks for the enlightened article and response.
Another form of modern-day “spirits” came out along with my e-mail notification of your post… a barrage of ads for psychic readings and horoscopes!  On top of that the NSA now probably has me tagged as a cultist of some sort to be watched closely. 

Speaking of which (just for fun) try itanimulli.com (illuminati spelled backwards) and see where it goes.  Someone out there at least has a sense of humor.

#5 Hal S (Guest) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 at 2:43pm

Thanks for all this wonderful information about Baum, Gage and Oz.  Readers should also know that the lyrics to all the songs in the movie, including the #1 movie song of all time, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, were written by Yip Harburg, an ardent Jewish liberal atheist.  We recently presented a program about Harburg, the greatest American lyricist nobody ever heard of. He will make all you freethinkers proud!

#6 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 at 1:57pm

Hal S, please email me privately. Which group presented the program on Harburg?

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