Frankenstein And The Matryoshka Chain

Storytellers are creators. The stories they create are filled with characters and situations forever unique, because the story exists in its own universe, outside of a real time and place. Inside of each story is some form of thought experiment, and inside of each of these thought experiments is a question.

These thought experiments cover many topics and disciplines. They can investigate and analyze specific times and places or offer unrestrained, expansive observations. They can present “what if” speculation. They can impart ethical guidance or record moral outrage.

These concerns and observations (often described in fiction as themes) may be compelling on their own terms, but they may also be complex or hard to grasp. Writers who choose to use narrative as a vehicle to investigate these concerns will often create a simpler question at the core of their work. This central question can function as an “engine,” propelling the story from beginning to end.

Odysseus and his men enter the home of Polyphemus, the cyclops, and eat his sheep without permission. Polyphemus retaliates by eating Odysseus’s men. Odysseus retaliates by putting out the eye of the cyclops. A case of xenia gone very wrong.

For example, one of the oldest and most durable stories in Western culture is Homer’s The Odyssey. For more than two thousand years, readers have thrilled to the struggles of Odysseus in his attempts to return to his homeland of Ithaca after the Trojan War. A concern—a theme—that dominates almost every page of The Odyssey is the use and abuse of xenia, a Greek word usually translated as the “guest-host relationship.” Every event in the story, from Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops to his return home to find his wife’s suitors defiling his house, is in some way a study of the reciprocal obligation between the guest and host (and all the negative consequences that happen when this obligation is not met). But the reader may not be aware of The Odyssey’s almost obsessive exploration of xenia, because throughout the book, there is a more immediate and compelling question: will Odysseus be reunited with Penelope?

A more recent story, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is a romance set in nineteenth-century Russia. The novel is a devastating assessment of the Russian aristocracy: a false, decadent society where French, not Russian, is the preferred language. By extension, Tolstoy then asks us to consider a more universal, deeply troubling uncertainty—can one live in a world of lies and falsehoods and still be true to oneself? But for readers of Anna Karenina, there is a central, more immediate question: will Anna find happiness with Vronsky? So a storyteller’s task of creation occurs on multiple levels. A universe is created and peopled with characters. The complex interactions between the characters and the world around them provide the thought experiment— the theme—of the work. But the driving force of the story is often the simplest of all questions: will Anna and Vronsky stay together? Will Odysseus return home?

Most stories have some form of characters recounting past events, simulating the hearsay of our natural world. Recounting conversations and events, no matter how inaccurately, is something we do all day long. This happens in the most natural way possible when we recount a story told to us by someone else. My father tells me the story of how he broke his arm while in the Army and how this broken arm kept him out of the Battle of the Bulge. I tell this story to my friends without a second thought. But sometimes we go to a second level: while telling me about his life, my father includes the story about his father, who when he was a young man, hit the high school principal—an event that expelled him from school and changed his life forever. I rely on my father’s, grandfather’s, and my own memory when I tell this story—with some effort since the story is now thirdhand. The art of oral narrative usually stops at this point because the details and point of the story get lost. It’s why oral historians consider the time period of three generations to be the upper limit for passing on reliable information.

Three generations of my family: Munroe Heiss on the left, my brother holding the fish, and the shadow of my father taking the picture. We have lots of stories about my grandfather, some of them may even be true.

But when the story becomes purely a work of fiction and when written on paper (which makes it easier to follow), this three-level limitation disappears. Writers who go beyond this three-level limitation are entering a strange and exotic form of storytelling called recursive fiction. Stories of this nature are like Matryoshkas—a popular souvenir doll sold in Russia. You open one doll and find a smaller doll inside. Then there is a smaller doll inside of that. And a doll inside of that one.

Stories are constructed in stratums; on close observation one can see layer folding over layer, a universe existing like a half-cut onion sitting on a table. But where does the creator fit into this scheme? Is the storyteller hovering above the onion, impulsively cutting through its parts, revealing coils and swirls of multiple inner worlds? Instead of looking inward at the onion, suppose we look from the center out. Is the creator merely one more layer, one more level, of endlessly rising whorls? In the end, is there an ultimate creator, the ultimate storyteller? Sometimes the thought experiment, the theme that the writer wishes to explore, is this very question.

Framing one story inside another has been a device for writers almost as old as the act of writing. “The Fisherman and Genie,” from The Arabian Nights, extends to five levels, as does the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” by Chaucer. On reading some of these stories inside stories inside stories, one wonders about the thought experiment behind them—was the writer making a statement or merely showing off his or her literary skills? Still, at some point, the philosophical implications of these “nested narratives” became obvious. Writers who were mathematically inclined saw the possibilities of using these stories to describe a concept called infinite regression. Jonathan Swift puts the idea succinctly into a single verse:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ‘em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.

Poetry, a Rhapsody

Despite how some writers might feel as they write a story, fictional characters have as much free will as marionettes. Fictional characters must speak, bend, jump, and are in every way controlled by the master above them, who is holding and pulling the strings. Most writers try to camouflage these strings. After all, the more we believe that characters have free will, the more emotional jeopardy they are in, and the more we worry about their welfare. If I think of AnnaKarenina as a thematic critique of 1870s decadent Imperial Russia, why should I care what happens to her? But if I think of Anna as a woman, flesh and blood, a woman forcibly kept from her child, a woman who is trapped, with no way out…as she walks slowly to the train tracks, I want to shout: “Watch out, Anna! Don’t do it!”

But writers of nested narratives, for the most part, choose not to follow the normal set of tricks that make a reader believe what he or she knows not to be true. Nested narratives almost always have a contrived feel about them. The process is not only inherently confusing (what story am I in now?) but is also a forcible tug at the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Instead of whispering to you, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” these stories open the curtain, emphasizing the construction and artificiality of the entire work.

What is gained from this approach is that nested narratives call attention to the question of who is charge. In a simple story, the writer of the piece is the person in charge. But when you have stories inside stories, a bizarre and confusing situation occurs as the characters then become their own authors. And nested narratives imply, by extension, that one can look upward instead of downward. Who is to say that the writer is the final arbiter? What if there is a puppetmaster over his head? And another over him? Can this succession of masters extend forever? Endless succession. Worlds within worlds. Worlds without end.

Religions are largely collections of stories and essays that debate different aspects of this question, understanding that the best or most appealing explanation of endless succession conveys legitimacy and, therefore, power. Some religions accept the concept of infinite layers. Other religions, like Christianity, refuse to consider endless succession. God is God, Alpha and Omega, the ultimate puppetmaster. Despite, or perhaps to defend this view, the Bible is largely preoccupied with variations on the question of who has final control. Indeed, an entire chapter in the Old Testament, Job, is devoted to the contemplation that we are being manipulated by forces we will never understand.

In the New Testament, Jesus seems to be of various minds about how to respond to questions involving fate and individual free will. In John 2:12-22, Jesus storms through the synagogue, fighting and chasing away the moneylenders. But later in John 18:36, Jesus is the ultimate pacifist, explaining that his kingdom is not of the Earth. Throughout most of the Gospels, Jesus appears to have complete knowledge of his future. But as he is dying (Mark 15:34), he cries to the heavens: “Father, why have you forsaken me?” If one gives up trying to consolidate these various views, one might suspect that the Jesus found in the Gospels is like a marionette, yanked and twisted all kinds of directions by a collection of writers with very different agendas. It’s the downside to being a marionette—you have no control over who is holding the strings.

Jesus is a vessel filled with metaphors: the savior, the child, and the son. It’s easy to forget that he is not the only child in this story. God himself, at least this version of God, is also a child, or at least a creation by writers who are long dead and are as real or fictional to us as their creations. They created God, who in their story then creates man. Genesis says that man was made in the image of God, but as one considers closely the series of Matryoshka dolls called the Bible, it becomes clear that the God of the Bible was also made in the image of man. Created and creator—similar but different. Distinctions are lost.

Mary Shelley was fascinated by the puzzles and questions provoked by infinite regression, in particular, the ambivalent positioning of the author somewhere between the levels of creation, hovering over one world and at the same time being under another. The story of Frankenstein is famous as an allegory for the danger of creating a force one cannot control. But Frankenstein’s monster was not animated by electricity and the fusion of spare parts from dead bodies but by the application, by certain rules, of ink to paper. And it is easy to forget, and this is a key point, that Victor is as much a creation as his more famous monster. The creator of both Victor Frankenstein and his monster was Mary Shelley.

Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle demonstrating (almost) infinite regression

One might think that when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she would be satisfied with describing two levels of formation—three if you include Shelley herself. Shelley creates Victor Frankenstein who creates the monster. But Mary Shelley was far more ambitious. A clue to her approach can be found in the introduction to her second edition, where she says: “Every thing must have a beginning, to speak the Sanchean phase; and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise.” Shelley is using a Hindu parable to describe her version of infinite regression.

The overall plot of Frankenstein is simple. Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant and overreaching student, fashions a living creature from the parts of dead bodies. His creature, never named, learns to read and write and becomes aware of who he is and who made him. After refusing to produce a mate, Victor and his creation become bitter enemies. Victor Frankenstein is eventually driven to manic obsession, and following the trail of the creature he created, dies from exposure and exhaustion in the desolate Arctic.

An illustration from the frontispiece for 1831editon of Frankenstein

But let’s look at this novel as a sequence of framing stories, or more picturesquely, a series of Matryoshka dolls. The outermost story is told by a captain of a ship, Robert Walton, who writes in his journal of his quixotic attempt to sail to the North Pole. While battling the Arctic weather, Walton finds a man, Victor Frankenstein, half-dead on the ice. On reviving, Victor gives Walton his account how he came to be stranded. Inside of this account, we have the monster’s story (told earlier to Victor) about how he learned to read and write by watching the DeLaceys, a family exiled from Paris and living in a cottage in Switzerland. Not satisfied with these three levels of begats, Shelley continues her narrative within narrative. As the monster’s story continues, he recounts the account of the DeLacey family and how they fled from Paris after defending a Turkish man unfairly accused of a crime. Inside of this story is the story of DeLacey’s son, Felix, who loves the Turks’ daughter, Safie. And finally, inside of the account of Felix and Safie, we learn about Safie’s mother, who was abducted and sold into slavery. This last “wisp” of a story measures only five sentences. In each of these stories, there is a common element of inequality between the characters who interact with each other. Parent to child, accuser to fugitive, native to foreigner, master to slave—there is a disparity of power found in every story.

In addition to Shelley’s interest in exploring different ways the strong can abuse the weak, she also allows for a playful variation in the narrative itself. Somewhere between the third and fourth level of these stories, the monster assumes the role of narrator. Frankenstein’s monster may rail against forces he cannot control, but for a good portion in the novel, he gets to be a storyteller getting the pleasure and satisfaction of opening and playing with his own set of Matryoshka dolls.

Frankenstein, living up to its own metaphor, became a creature that its author battled to control. Thirteen years after its original publication, Mary Shelley published a new edition, altering key elements of the text. In the original novel, Victor Frankenstein’s great sin was not creating life; it was in choosing to be a bad parent. Victor’s neglect and abandonment of his creature are the cause for the disasters that follow, not his hubris in playing God. Perhaps after the death of her husband, Percy, and the loss of two of her children, Mary decided that free will played too much a second fiddle to insensible fate. In the revised 1831 edition, Victor Frankenstein states: “Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.” The irony for Victor was that never at any time did he have free will, being a fictional character and completely subject to the caprice of the author, who as she grew older, began to suspect that the concept of free will was greatly overrated.

As Mary Shelley said herself, no creation comes from nothing; every creation must have its antecedent. “Invention…does not consist in creating out of void…the materials, in the first place, must be afforded.” Shelley found her “materials” in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. Obeying Shelley’s dictum that invention does not come from a void, Milton found much of his “materials” in Greek myths. Casting them in a Judeo-Christian framework, a hugely effective cover for his potentially heretical explorations, he masterfully stated the essential problem raised by the act of creation:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me…?

—Adam, Paradise Lost, Book X 743-45

Milton’s Paradise Lost reinvents and conflates two myths in particular, Prometheus and Pygmalion. Both myths concern themselves with the act of creation and the subsequent unstable boundaries between the creator and the created. In the first myth, Prometheus, a Titan, creates man out of clay. There is an associated legend of him giving fire to man; the two stories coalesce with the image of Prometheus breathing fire, the breath of life, into man. In the second myth, a sculptor, Pygmalion creates a statue named Galatea, a statue so beautiful he falls in love with it. A prayer to Venus is granted, and the statue comes alive. In Ovid’s version of the myth, Galatea’s obedience to Pygmalion is complete; she falls in love with Pygmalion with her first breath. In 1912, George Bernard Shaw reworked the story, this time giving Galatea, now named Eliza Doolittle, a mind of her own. In a famous passage, after enduring repeated insults from her Pygmalion, Henry Higgins, she explodes in anger:

Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller in the 1938 film version of Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion.’

ELIZA

…I’d like to kill you, you selfish brute. Why didn’t you leave me where you

picked me out of—in the gutter? You thank God it’s all over, and that now

you can throw me back again there, do you?

[She crisps her fingers, frantically]

HIGGINS

[looking at her in cool wonder]

The creature IS nervous, after all.

And we find ourselves back in the world of Frankenstein. Eliza is the monster, cruelly treated by her parent. And as much as Eliza would hate the idea, she will never be free of Higgins, just as Higgins will always be with Eliza because they are narratively joined. Eliza is the response to a question, a calling from Higgins, just like Galatea was an answer to Pygmalion’s silent prayer. It’s how a story works. Eliza and Higgins are eternally part of the apparatus of the story.

A writer who has spent his career reveling in the quirks and oddities of narrative mechanisms is John Barth. His story “Lost in the Funhouse,” is not precisely recursive fiction, since Barth feels no need to restrict himself to the rather formal pattern of producing a story inside a story. Instead, he dances from one level to another in a joyful stream of consciousness that mimics the creativity of writing itself. Barth’s choice of metaphor to describe the creative act of storytelling is to compare it to wandering inside the funhouse of an amusement park. While in the funhouse, his character, Ambrose, reaches the mirror room and looks into the mirrors:

“You think you are yourself, but there are other persons in you…In the funhouse mirror-room you can’t see yourself go on forever, because no matter how you stand, your head gets in the way. Even if you had a glass periscope, the image of your eye would cover up the thing you really wanted to see.”

In this paragraph, Barth sums up the predicament. The problem is not infinite regression, nor Hindu turtles, nor Matryoshka dolls. It’s more pragmatic than that. For Barth, we will never be able to see ourselves go on forever because our head, our egos, our own self-will will always block our view. Another way of looking at this is that because we are only a small part of what God is, we can see only part of the view, never the whole. If we could see everything, we would be God. But then there would be no stories to tell, no thought experiments, no mysteries, because everything would already be known. And telling a story to yourself is practice, not pleasure.

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Adam is in blissful union with God until he eats the fruit of knowledge, and his new self-knowledge causes a separation. But it is exactly this separation, this true awareness of his limitation, that enables, or  impels Adam, to question his place in the world. It is this same limitation that impels an author to ask a question, and craft an answer in the form of a story.

Writers who use narratives about origins and beginnings will always have a special ability to explore the mysteries of our universe. Each creator must have his creation: Frankenstein and his monster, Galatea and Pygmalion, Higgins and Eliza—eternal dualities of parent to child, artist to his art, teacher to pupil. And implied in these narratives is the unwritten but clear possibility that we, as readers, may be one more Matryoshka doll, positioned in a universe of endless succession. Is God truly the alpha and omega, found both at the beginning and the end of this eternal chain, or are these worlds within worlds simply a construct, divorced from any reality of the physical world?

Do we live a universe of Matryoshka dolls? Is it truly ‘turtles all the way down’? Who knows. The one thing I’m certain about is that a storyteller needs an audience, and an audience needs a storyteller. Each is essential to the other, and if we love a good story, perhaps that’s all we need to know.

A version of this essay was published in the South Carolina Review.

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Fairies are Afoot: Following the Footsteps of Michael Crichton and Arthur Conan Doyle

The table in front of me was bare, except for tape recorder and a box of Kleenex. I understood why the tape recorder was there, but why the Kleenex?

The answer starts with Michael Crichton’s autobiography, Travels. In it, he writes about an experience he had visiting an unusual organization in London:

“It was called the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain. I called it the psychic smorgasbord. They had all kind of psychics, and you could consult them for only ten dollars an hour…Coming in the door, you passed the chair of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Association’s most famous an influential member. The chair was always a sobering reminder to me. Anyone with a scientific background who becomes interested in metaphysical things must find the example Sir Arthur Conan Doyle disturbing…This was my concern: that an otherwise sensible physician-turned-author could go so far as to persuade him self, in degrees, of the existence of fairies. I had in the past strongly identified with Conan Doyle, and now I appeared to be following in his footsteps rather closely. I determined to proceed with caution.”

In 2003, finding myself in London, I decide to pay a visit and see for myself what Crichton had talked about. As a medical doctor and also a writer, I naturally found his cautionary words about Conan Doyle compelling. A man of science, and a skeptic, I had never gone to a psychic in my life, but if Crichton had followed Doyle’s footsteps, I could follow his. The challenge was before me. I would visit the Association for purely scholarly and academic interest—it would merely be as a neutral observer, gathering date about the intriguing phenomena of psychic abilities. At least that’s what I told myself.

I called the Association and learned that the fee for a consultation was now forty dollars. Still, a bargain, considering it had been almost twenty years since Crichton’s visit. Like a doctor’s office, the woman on the phone asked me some questions, and then made an appointment with a psychic for the next day.

At the time of my visit, the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain was located in Belgrave Square, posh to the nines and loaded with old money. Armed guards watched me suspiciously as I passed by the many embassies located in this part of London.

I found the address and went through the door—inside was a desk, and at one end, Arthur Conan Doyle’s chair. Above it, a painting of Conan Doyle was prominently displayed. If the old man couldn’t be there personally to greet me, this was the next best thing.

I was taken to a room and told to wait. It was a simple room, with almost no features: a cardboard table, a box of Kleenex, and a small audiocassette tape deck (so that the reading could be recorded, if the client was so interested). The walls were bare except for a painting on the wall across from the door. The painting was a daub, something a high school student might have done. And there was a clock behind me. The carpet was worn, and the paint on the walls was peeling. There was a genteel decay about the whole operation. I made me feel better. There was no pretense given to show. It was all about the telling.

After ten minutes, I started to get restless. No psychic. The noise of the clock grew louder. Five more minutes passed. I visualized my forty dollars slowly disappearing into a nameless spiritual and financial void. I got out my chair and went to the front desk.

They had forgotten to tell her I was there. Apologies were made, and they produced the medium. She was short and stout, in her sixties—a stand-in for Miss Marple, if Miss Marple had ever gone in for psychic readings instead of solving crimes. We went back to the consultation room. I resisted asking the obvious question that if she was psychic, why didn’t she know I was waiting for her? Instead I reminded myself that I was going to be on my best behavior. Crichton had gone several times for readings and in a stab at scientific methodology, had decided to give the same answer: ‘I don’t know,’ to every question, but conceded later that this was a dumb idea. I had decided that if I was to get anything out of this encounter it was important to keep an open mind. Being close-mouthed and cynical would be a waste of her time and my money.

She went right to work. As I settled into my chair, she said, “Your grandfather is behind you. It’s your father’s father.”

That caught me off guard. “That would be Munroe Heiss. I would think he’d be fishing somewhere.”

“He’s very interested in your career,” my psychic Miss Marple continued. “He wants you to keep up with, not get discouraged…And I sense a male presence. A male close to you has died of a heart attack, without time to say goodbye.”

“My father died suddenly of a heart attack about ten years ago.”

“And I feel sadness and loss. You had a close friend die, a long time ago.”

“That’s true. It was very sudden. He was hit by a car in Italy. Can you talk to him, ask him what happened?”

She gave this some thought, and said at last, “He wants to tell you that what happened was a huge surprise to him. A huge surprise. But to tell you that he’s very happy were he is now. Very happy.”

I started to tear up, realizing for the first time where I was. This was a doctor’s office, and I was a patient. If she was not a doctor in the strictness sense, she was a healer, and the Kleenex box was a tool of her trade.

I was on my second Kleenex before we finished the session and she shuttled me back to the lobby, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s painting did everything but wink at me. “You see,” his portrait whispered, as if talking to a colleague, “now do you understand why it’s so important I spread the word about what these people can do?” I gave a nod to the painting and stepped back into Belgrave Square, back to a patch of London almost unchanged from the days when Sherlock Holmes himself was prowling the streets.

Looking back at this event ten years later, it’s possible to get some perspective about my experience compared to Crichton’s as we both followed the footsteps of our mutual hero, Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle was criticized for his support of psychics and paranormal research — an interest that seems contradictory to the tenets of objectivity held by his famous fictional creation. But it’s important to remember Doyle was a man of his time, and the carnage and devastation of WWI provoked a world-wide interest in psychic phenomenon as grieving families struggled in their effort to say goodbye to their loved ones. With this in mind, his interest in paranormal research was completely understandable.

Crichton was right to ‘proceed with caution’ in regarding believing in movements, but what he didn’t take into account is that our world is ever new and different, and we make mistakes that echo but never duplicate the past. What Crichton never realized was that he was on his own, personal path to self-delusion, (or keen insight, depending on your point of view), and that path was not a belief in spiritualism, but as a campaigner against those warning against global warming.

Each of us has our own chance at pursuing a grand folly, a folly very much generated from circumstances of time and place, and each era will generate its own supply of follies or delusions. Crichton used the mantle of a skeptic to protect his conclusion that the earth was not getting warmer, even though the scientific evidence for global warming was compelling and getting more so every year. He became a believer in the art of unbelief, at least regarding climate change. An otherwise ‘sensible physician-turned-author’ persuaded himself, in degrees, that there was no global warming, or if there was, it was not caused by human intervention. By the time of his death—of throat cancer (he smoked most of his adult life)—Crichton became almost as well-known as a global warming denier than as a novelist. Michael Crichton found his fairies, they were just different ones than Arthur Conan Doyle’s.

In a few more decades, if we lose the rest of the ice rapidly melting in the both the Arctic and Antarctic, Crichton’s role as a climate change denier might register as far more cringeworthy than Conan Doyle’s assertion we can communicate with the dead. Did Crichton’s highly visible profile as a climate change denier have any significant impact to the human and animal populations threatened by the rise of sea levels and change of temperatures? Probably not—but in a position where he could have at least been a spokesman for preservation of habitat—climate change or not—instead he spent the last years of his life defending a claim that each year became progressively more tenuous.

In the end, Michael Crichton did follow the footsteps of Arthur Conan Doyle. The difference is that when you then follow Crichton’s footsteps, there is no house in Belgrave Square with a portrait of his face greeting you as you walk in the door, no sparse room with Kleenex boxes ready for use, and no one present to try to help you understand why bad things happen to good people. We will all discover fairies—if we live long enough—let’s try to find the ones that will be kind and helpful as we are kind to them.

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The Man Who Would Be Disney

If there is one name associated with children’s entertainment, that name is Walt Disney. The word ‘Disney’ is a many things to many people: a man’s name, a legend, a label, an icon, a construct, a complement, a criticism, a blue-chip stock, a radio station, a television network, a theme park, a career for thousands, a multinational corporation. The name of Disney is so much part of our culture that it is hard to imagine a world without the name and all the meanings it implies. In short, Disney is an empire, an empire built with one foremost goal: to please a child.

Yet Walt Disney was not the first man with this dream.

“To please a child” was the purpose of an earlier American dreamer, schemer and entrepreneur, L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and many other children’s books. In 1914, Frank Baum was also president of a well-funded ambitious Hollywood film studio. Its goal was to be the first studio in the world to produce quality films for children. If not for the vagaries of chance and mistake, another empire might have taken the role now secured by Disney. Instead of taking vacations to Disneyland, we might all be going to—Oz.

Apart from the famous MGM movie (how many have you seen it, and how many times?) and a score of occasionally read books, we don’t go to Oz on our summer vacations. What happened to Baum’s dream of making an industry from his creations? Why did Baum fail so completely at his attempt at empire, while Disney succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination?

One hundred years ago, L. Frank Baum was the preeminent children’s book writer in America. Baum first caught the public eye with a book titled Father Goose, but this success was quickly eclipsed by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a clever reworking of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. William Leach, in his article, ‘The Clown from Syracuse’ points out that a century ago America was experiencing a turning point in religious thinking.

This radical religious repositioning had many different names: theosophy, New Thought, the ‘mind-cure.’ The details differed but the important point was that all of these religious impulses reflected a decline of traditional American Protestantism, and its accompanying doctrines of sin and guilt. The ‘scarcity’ philosophy of thrift and hard work may have made sense in the hardscrabble lives of farmers, but America was now full tilt into the Guilded Age. A new abundance of products, and the money to buy them made traditional values, such as thrift, seem obsolete. In Oz, as in America in 1900, it was no longer as significant to build character, as it was to acquire the right personality. It may have been important for Dorothy to be a good girl, but it was more important for her to wear the right shoes.

Following the success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum was persuaded to have the book adapted for the stage. The job of adapting the book was given to veteran producer and director Julian Mitchell, who quickly saw the potential of the many colorful characters and spectacular scenes. He also saw the drawback to the property—that it was mainly for children. Mitchell overhauled The Wizard of Oz, bringing in romantic love interests such as Tryxie Tryfle and allowed plenty of opportunity for the chorus of women playing guards and soldiers to show off their shapely ankles.

Mitchell essentially turned the production into a musical review, an excuse for a series of sketches and songs, such as “Hurrah for Baffin’s Bay,” and “When You Love, Love, Love.” The idea that songs in a musical needed to do ‘double-duty,’ that is, be enjoyable songs but also advance the story, was years away. Whatever its shortcomings to modern eyes, the original musical stage version of the Wizard of Oz was a huge hit, running for a total of 11 years, and was probably the inspiration for MGM turning the story into a musical in 1939.

Never a man to stand still, in 1908 Frank Baum developed a production he called ‘Fairylogue and Radio-Plays.’ This time the conception and details of the show were all Baum’s. Frank Baum played ringmaster in a touring show that combined lecture, slides, film clips, and a live orchestra. Baum would start by speaking to the audience, and then he would run films and show slides of characters from the Land of Oz. One can see an effort on his part to ‘take back’ Oz from its stage musical alterations, and return Oz to the children for which it was originally intended.

The combination of all of these elements, in what today would be called a multimedia presentation, seems audacious even by today’s standards and illustrates how imaginative Baum was in his approach to the entertainment world. The reviews of this show were excellent but the production lost money. For the first time, Baum was faced with the down side to targeting children—the traveling show was constructed for matinees, and lower children’s prices made the expensive mechanics of the production impractical. By catering to children, the theaters could not charge the full ticket prices, and the show could not make a profit. Baum was forced to stop touring, and lost his investment. In only eight years, Oz had carried Baum from rags to riches and back to rags.

Taking his bankruptcy in stride, Baum kept writing books and plays, gradually getting out of debt. As part of the bankruptcy agreement, a Hollywood producer William Selig received rights to film Oz stories. Selig released the first filmed version of Wizard of Oz in 1910. Other than supplying the story itself, Baum had nothing to do with the production.

A one-reel film of only about twelve minutes, this first filmed Wizard of Oz met with an indifferent reception by the audience and was quickly forgotten. Today this film is housed at the Eastman House film archives in Rochester New York.

The same year, 1910, Baum relocated to Hollywood California. Initially moving for health reasons, Baum quickly became friends with men who were part of the fledgling movie industry growing up in Los Angeles. In 1914 members of the Los Angeles athletic club announced the formation of a new company, the Oz Film Manufacturing Company. The company was incorporated, and $100,000 of stock sold in just ten days. The company had high hopes. This is from a promotional flyer:

“Oz films are distinctive. Nor rehash of worn-out plays, inane magazine stories or discarded novels, but ORIGINAL creations of World’s Greatest Author of Fairy Tales, L. Frank Baum, who has infused Oz films with the rich, red blood of his imaginative genius.”

Thirty years later, writing for the magazine ‘Films in Review,’ Frank Baum, Junior described the building of the Oz Manufacturing Company studio. Seven acres of land was bought in an area of town adjacent to Santa Monica Boulevard, making this, at the time, one of the largest studios in town. An enclosed stage, 65’ x 100’ was designed by Baum and erected. Underneath the grounds, running a full length of the stage, was a concrete tunnel, a large concrete tank, and eight smaller tanks, all of which could be used to make lakes or rivers. A company of players could disappear through trap doors on the stage and into the tunnel, making large-scale transformations possible.

Oz studios did not lack for amenities: dressing rooms, hot and cold baths, call bells, settees in place for the actors. One large building was constructed so that background sets could be designed in one piece. Another building was constructed so that the film could be processed on the premises.

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In 1914, filming began on The Patchwork Girl of Oz, the story taken from one of the many sequel books to the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The title role of the Patchwork Girl fell to a French acrobat named Pierre Courderc and J. Farrel MacDonald directed the film. Five reels long, The Patchwork Girl of Oz premiered in the gymnasium at the Los Angeles Athletic club in July 1914.

The Oz Manufacturing Company then ran into its first real problem—distribution. In 1914, it was possibly easier to make a film than to get it to be seen. Theaters at the time were signed to long-term contracts, not allowing them to show features from independent companies. The only way Oz Manufacturing could distribute their film was through another an existing studio, which had little interest in giving up valuable theater time to show off someone else’s product. To make matters worse, Oz Manufacturing (along with other studios) was sued by the Motion Picture Patents Company over claims that the company was violating patent laws.

Oz Manufacturing paid off the Edison lawyers in a settlement, and finally reached an agreement with Paramount for distribution of their films. Brushing aside these major hurdles, the studio continued work on its second film, His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz. The Land of Oz was open for business and bustling with action.

It was this precise moment when activity in the Oz Manufacturing Company suddenly came to a halt, or to use an Ozian metaphor, a cloudburst of rain caught the studio like the Tin Woodman, freezing it in midchop.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz, to put it bluntly, bombed. Worse than just producing low attendance at the theaters, it provoked negative reaction from the customers, angry patrons demanding their money back for a ‘kid movie.’ And a film targeted for children meant lower ticket prices for its entire run, which made no sense to theater owners struggling for every penny. The Patchwork Girl of Oz was a huge loss of income for the theater owners, and Paramount, burned by a product that wasn’t even their own movie, refused to distribute His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz.

Oz Manufacturing now had two feature films and nowhere to show them. Scrambling, they cut deals around the country. In the second Oz film, His Majesty the Scarecrow of Oz, Baum had gone back to the basics of what made the original book and stage musical so successful, namely Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tinman. The results produced a far better film, but now it was too late. The Patchwork Girl had acquired such a negative reputation no one was interested in more stories from Oz, and His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz was never properly distributed or promoted. At December of 1914, Oz Manufacturing finished its last Oz film, The Magic Cloak of Oz, but had nowhere to show it. Oz Company was eventually forced cut these features down to two reel fillers. Whatever money they eventually got back in no way covered the enormous costs incurred in setting up the studio earlier in the year.

Frank Baum and his friends had made major mistakes but they were not stupid. Seeing their hope of making children’s movies dashed, Baum and his friends revamped the concept of the studio, changing its name to Dramatic Features Company. Bowing to the necessity of filming adult stories. Baum wrote screenplays for films including The Gray Nun of Belgium, a war story, and a romance, The Last Egyptian. It was no use. Anything from what formerly had been Oz studio smacked of child’s entertainment, and thus, box office poison. Having no way to show their films, Dramatic Features, AKA Oz Manufacturing Company went down like a witch after being dunked with a bucket of water. With mounting debts, and no virtually no income, the studio declared bankruptcy, losing its charter and lease in 1915.

Four years later, L. Frank Baum would die of a heart condition and a stroke. While his reputation as a writer of children’s books was secure, Frank Baum’s adventure into the world of movies became merely a footnote in Hollywood history.

Four years later, in 1923, a young commercial artist from Kansas City arrived in Los Angeles full of dreams and visions. With his brother Roy, this energetic young man, Walt Disney, produced a series of short films combing animation with live action. Then Walt made, with fellow artist Ub Iwerks, a series of cartoons, eventually starring a character named Mickey, which proved to be a hit. In 1933, Walt Disney released a short cartoon, The Three Little Pigs, which was an enormous success. Using his profits from The Three Little Pigs, in 1937 Walt released the first full-length animated feature, Snow White, and was on his way to empire.

Why did Walt Disney succeed while Frank Baum failed? Some answers are obvious. The Oz Manufacturing Company was set up backwards. The initial large sums of money should have first gone to settle distribution issues, and the hot and cold running baths could have waited until their after the first big hit. Many of Oz Company’s troubles were reflected by the grandiosity and arrogance of the way it was founded.

Baum was also fighting age and his own mortality. Frank Baum was 58 when he became president of the Oz Manufacturing Company, not perhaps too old an age for success, but with no time for failure. When Walt Disney started his career in Los Angeles he was 22, with abundant time to experiment and learn from his mistakes. By persistence, and an obsessive attention to detail, Disney studios grew from a ‘garage start-up’ company to an animation studio that became the industry standard.

Still, there are more subtle answers. Walt Disney succeeded because Disney was not just the name of a man, but the name of two men, Roy and Walt Disney, brothers. The brother act was a team effort: good cop/bad cop, comic/straight man. Walt had the ideas, and his brother Roy, handled the unglamorous but essential business end of things. Roy may have felt justly neglected by his brother as the company grew, but he was always loyal, and anyone who researches the success of Disney quickly sees that Roy played a vital role in Disney’s success. For his film efforts, Frank Baum never enjoyed the partnership of a person who could fill the role of a Roy Disney.

Another reason why Baum failed was his lack of critical distance to his own work. It was a mistake to put Frank Baum in charge of production. For example, with hindsight, it was an obvious blunder to go with The Patchwork Girl of Oz as their first film. American audiences did not know or care about a Patchwork Girl. They wanted to see Dorothy Gale from Kansas.

Dorothy was a simple Kansas farm girl, whose only thought after the Wicked Witch melted was to pour more water on the floor and clean up the mess. Like many authors who create a character that assumes too much power, perhaps Frank Baum was both tired and a little jealous of Dorothy. If he could, I think he would have pushed her over the Reichenbach falls to meet an end like another character grown too big for his britches, Sherlock Holmes. With critical distance on his own work impossible, having Baum both president and head writer of the studio was setting up the company for failure before it ever started.

Walt, on the other hand, spent most of career adapting other people’s work for the screen. Never claiming to be an author, Walt Disney had other qualifications such as imagination and salesmanship, and he had an even more important quality—he could be ruthless. This did not always make him friends in the business, but in terms of story development, this attribute was priceless—his vision of what in a story was needed and what should be left out gave Disney an amazing track record of success. This insight would hardly have been possible if Walt had been working with his own material.

Luck was vital for both men. Baum entered the film business too late to easily form distribution contracts with theaters, but too soon to market children’s films where there was not yet a clear demand. Five years later, that market began to grow. By 1937, Disney made Snow White, and never looked back.

In 1914, there was one final insurmountable problem—no color film. True, there were approximations, with tints and tones used to specify light conditions, and hand painting available for short films. These efforts have their own beauty but were a pale imitation to capturing any real essence of Oz. As I think any reader would agree, color is essential and indispensable to The Wizard of Oz. Every page is splashed with color, from the wonderful drawings by Art Deco illustrator William Denslow, to the vivid written descriptions of the Land of Oz given by Baum himself.

Without color, Oz is just not Oz, and this was a problem beyond Frank Baum’s ability to solve. Twenty-five years later, Dorothy, played by Judy Garland, stepped out of her drab black-and-white world into a world of dazzling Technicolor, and Oz had arrived.

 

A version of this article was first published in The Nassau Review

Bibliography

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, edited by William Leach, including “The Clown from Syracuse: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum” and “A Trickster’s Tale: L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” (both by William Leach) Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing, 1991.

“The Oz Film Company,” by Frank Joslyn Baum. Films in Review, vol. 8  August-Sept. 1956, pages 329-333.

Oz Before the Rainbow, by Mark Evans Swartz. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, pages 192-196.

“Doings in Los Angeles,” Moving Picture World, 18 April, 1914. 348.

The Oz Scrapbook, by David Greene and Dick Martin. New York: Random House, 1967, pages 142-154.

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