Feb 28 2013 1:00pm
Oz and Ourselves
Read the absorbing introduction to the Oz Reimagined anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen, penned by the ever delightful Gregory Maguire. Read on as he talks to us about the Oz that each of us found as children...
When I try to settle upon some approach to the notion of Oz that might suit many different readers, and not just myself, I stumble upon a problem. The unit of measure that works for me might not work for you. Standards and definitions vary, person to person. Oz is nonsense; Oz is musical; Oz is satire; Oz is fantasy; Oz is brilliant; Oz is vaudeville; Oz is obvious. Oz is secret.
Look: imagine waiting at a bus stop with a friend. We’re both trying to convey something to each other about childhood. When you say, childhood, do you mean “childhood as the species lives it?” Do I mean “my childhood upstate in the mid-twentieth-century, my house on the north edge of town, my grouchy father, my lost duckie with the red wheels?”
Oz comes to us early in our lives, I think—maybe even in our dreams. It has no name way back then, just “the other place.” It’s the unspecified site of adventures of the fledgling hero, the battleground for the working out of early dilemmas, the garden of future delights yet unnamed.
Foreign and familiar at the same time.
Lewis Carroll called it Wonderland and Shakespeare called it the Forest of Arden and the Breton troubadours called it Broceliande, and the Freudians called it Traum. The Greeks called it Theater, except for Plato who called it Reality. Before we study history, though, before we learn ideas, we know childhood through our living of it. And for a century or so, we Americans have called that zone of mystery by the name of Oz.
Your little clutch of postcards from the beyond is a different set than mine, of course. Nobody collects the same souvenirs from any trip, from any life. Yours might be the set derived from those hardcovers in your grandmother’s attic, the ones with the John R. Neill line drawings someone colored over in oily Crayola markings. (Crayons were invented at just about the same time as Oz, early in the twentieth century.) Or your souvenir cards might be the popular MGM set starring Margaret Hamilton and Bert Lahr and some child star, I forget her name. Or your souvenirs might be more like mine: memories of being a kid and reenacting (and expanding upon) the adventures of Dorothy using the terrain at hand. Which in my case was a filthy alleyway between close-set houses in the early 1960s. Dorothy in her blue-checked gingham and her pigtails is my baby sister in her brother’s t-shirt, hair all unbrushed and eyes bright with play.
What, I wonder, did we Americans do to conjure up a universal land of childhood before L. Frank Baum introduced us to Oz? Did the Bavarian forests of Grimm or the English fairylands—sprites and elves beckoning from stands of silly foxgloves and hedgerows—ever quite work for American kids? Or maybe that’s a silly question. Perhaps before 1900, when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published, and the United States was still essentially rural and therefore by definition hardscrabble; there was no time to identify the signposts of childhood. Children’s rooms in public libraries hadn’t yet been established. Reading for pleasure wasn’t for everyone, just for those who could afford their own private books. Few nineteenth century Americans could relish childhood as a space of play and freedom; instead, childhood was merely the first decade in a life of hard toil on the farm or the factory.
Maybe Oz arose and took hold because urban life began to win out over rural life. Maybe as our horizons became more built up and our childhoods—for some middle-class American kids anyway—a little more free, the Oz that came to us first on the page and later on the screen had a better chance of standing in for childhood. That merry old land of Oz certainly did, and does, signify childhood for me; and I mean this not as the author of Wicked and a few other books in that series, but as a man nearing sixty who recognized in Oz, half a century ago and more, a picture of home.
I don’t mean to be sentimental. There’s a lot to mistrust about home. It’s one of the best reasons for growing up: to get away, to make your own bargain with life, and then to look back upon what terms you accepted because you knew no better, and to assess their value. Travel is broadening precisely because it is away from as well as toward.
As a young man, on my first trip abroad, I went to visit relatives in northern Greece, where my mother’s family originates. In the great Balkan upheavals of the last century, the boundaries of political borders had shifted a dozen times, and the family village that had once been part of Greece, in the early twentieth century, lay now in Yugoslavia. A Communist country still, in the late 1970s when I first saw it. Stony, poor, oppressed. My ancient, distant relatives, all peasant widows in black coats and neat headscarves, told me how their mother had spent her married life imprisoned in Thessaloniki, Greece, on the top edge of the Aegean; but, of a fine Sunday afternoon, she would direct her husband to drive her north, to a hillside just this side of the border of Yugoslavia. There she would sit by the side of the road and weep. The village of her childhood was on the other side of the border crossing. From this height she could see it, like Moses examining the Promised Land, but she could not go back. She could never go back. She never did, or not in this life, anyway. She never sent us postcards once she finally crossed over.
Oz lives contiguously with us. The Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City and the great Witch’s castle to the west; these haunts are more than tourist traps and hamburger stands. They are this century’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Via Dolorosa and Valhalla. Oz is myriad as the Mediterranean with its spotted Homeric islands; Oz is vast as Middle-Earth and moral as Camelot. This is to say, of course, that Oz is a mirror. Turn it about and, in the mirror, OZ nearly says ZOE, the Greek word for life.
Of course we recognize Oz when we see it. Of course we find ourselves there. If we can’t find ourselves there, well, we don’t have much chance of recognizing ourselves here. As some farmhand or other might have said to Dorothy, or she to the Wizard.
I will utter a word of caution, though. Perhaps my souvenirs of Oz are darker than yours. I can’t help that; life gives what it will. As a young reader I learned about Oz the way I would later learn about Life on the Mississippi or life sailing to the lighthouse of the Hebrides or life lived on the verges of The Wasteland. And I found the insularity and even parochialism of Oz’s separate populations puzzling and, maybe, worrying. Racist, even, though I hadn’t a word for it yet. Troublingly myopic, exceptionalist. Certainly lacking in intellectual curiosity. When Dorothy first landed in Munchkinland, the kindly Munchkin farmers told her what they’d been told about the Emerald City and about the Wizard. But none of them had had the gumption of Dorothy to pick themselves up and go see for themselves. No first-hand experience. Few of them could predict what kind of population lived over the horizon. None of them cared.
Or maybe I’m being unkind. Maybe those Munchkins all just had to stay on the farm to bring in the crops. But they didn’t signal lust for adventure in their remarks about the Emerald City; you’ll grant me that.
Well, they had not read any chronicles of Oz to whet their appetites for the adventure, I suppose. Kindly, good, solid working people, they were lacking in vision. They’d never gone far enough away from the villages of their own childhoods to be able to look back down the slope and see childhood for what it is: a paradise from which, if we are to survive, we must escape.
I write this in a small walled garden in what used to be called the Languedoc region of France, where for the past decade I have spent part of every summer. My French is close to execrable; even the birds chirp with a better accent than I do. The plane trees with their coats of mottling bark, the stiff, brush-like sound of their leaves in the dawn wind—it’s all ineffably foreign to me a decade on, and if I can be forgiven an Anglicism, it’s ineffably dear to me, too. I like spending time every year in a place I only barely comprehend. It reminds me of childhood, when I was most alive because the world was so new. Being abroad, struggling to understand, reminds me of Oz.
There is more to say, but here comes the bus. It says “OZ” above the front window. Welcome aboard. Welcome home.
Bastille Day, 2012
“Oz and Ourselves” copyright © Gregory Maguire 2013