Sunday, August 4, 2013

Last Words: L Frank Baum

“Now I can cross the Shifting Sands.”

- L Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Baum was referring to the Shifting Sands desert, an impassable desert that is located adjacent to the land of Oz. It is used as a literary device to explain why Oz is essentially cut off from the rest of the world. Anyone who sets foot in the desert will turn to sand. 

On May 5, 1919, L. Frank Baum suffered a stroke. He died quietly the next day, nine days short of his 63rd birthday. Baum whispered his final words, as above, to his wife hours before his death.


Some interesting items:

Lyman Frank Baum (1856 – 1919) was an American author of children’s books, best known for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He wrote thirteen novel sequels, nine other fantasy novels, and a host of other works (55 novels in total, plus four "lost" novels, 82 short stories, over 200 poems and an unknown number of scripts. 


The name of the mythical land of Oz is said to have originated from a question asked by Baum's niece when he told her bedtime stories.  The niece, Ramona Baxter Bowden, asked the the name of the magical land the subject of his story. Baum glanced at a nearby filing cabinet, which had three drawers, labelled A–G, H–N, and O–Z. Thus he named the land Oz. This story was first told in 1903, but his wife always insisted that the part about the filing cabinet was not true.


Oz is surrounded by a desert divided into four quadrants. The Eastern quadrant of the desert is called the Deadly Desert, while the other three quadrants of desert are called the Shifting Sands, the Impassable Desert, and the Great Sandy Waste.


Ten years before he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum published an obscure weekly newspaper, the Saturday Pioneer, in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Baum was with the paper from January 1890 to March 1891. The paper was a mix of news stories, local society news, humour, arts columns, and editorials about the issues of the day. 

One current issue at the time was that of relations between the expanding white population and Native Americans. On 15 December 1890 Sitting Bull was shot and killed. On the afternoon of December 28, 1890, units of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry captured a group of Minneconjou Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee Creek in southwestern South Dakota. The next day, as the Indians surrendered their weapons, a shot rang out and the cavalry opened fire. At least 153 of the Sioux were killed (some estimate nearly 300, out of a band of about 350) - most of them women, children and unarmed men. (These figures reflect the account of the massacre given in Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee).

Baum responded to the death of Sitting Bull and the deaths at Wounded Knee by calling for the extermination of the entire Native American race.

Mass grave at the Wounded Knee massacre


In the Sitting Bull editorial Baum praised the courage of Sitting Bull and the “proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies” of years before. According to Baum, that courage and spirit no longer existed in native Americans in 1890: 

“. . . what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroism.  
We cannot honestly regret their extermination. . . "

Sitting Bull


From the Wounded Knee editorial: 

“The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.”


It is hard to believe that the same man who wrote of Oz, the land where everyone is welcome, also advocated genocide and wholesale extermination. Baum was going through a stressful and depressive part of his life at the time, including financial worries, but this is no defence to an allegation of racism. He never again made any such claim after the above two editorials.

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