L. (Lyman) Frank Baum (1856-1919) was born in Chittenango, New York. He became a prolific and popular author of over 50 books for children as well as dozens of short stories and poems. (Belatedly, he has been critically appreciated by the wogglebugs of academia.) He is best remembered for the Oz books, most notably, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900 (the
image, below left, shows the original book cover), widely read and enjoyed, and then recycled as the well-known MGM film, The Wizard of Oz, in 1939—a classic with an unforgettable cast and brilliant music. (All of the songs were composed by Harold Arlen, and all of the lyrics written by Yip Harburg.)
Baum wrote many other works for young readers. Many of these books he wrote under various pen-names, including “Edith van Dyne,” the name he used for his popular Aunt Jane’s Nieces (AJN) series. This series of ten books was published between 1906 and 1918 and was meant to appeal to the same audience as the popular Little Women and Little Men by Louisa May Alcott from the previous century.
The AJN series was extremely popular at the time, even outselling Baum’s Oz books. The series revolves around the travels and adventures of three teenage girls, Louise, Beth, and Patsy. In the second book of the series, Aunt Jane’s Nieces Abroad (1906), the girls travel to Naples where they witness an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius:
And so forth for quite a number of pages. It is an accurate description of the highly destructive eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in April, 1906. [Also see this account by Herbert M. Vaughan.] Baum did not have to resort at all to his fertile imagination since he was actually present during the event! He and his wife, Maud Gage-Baum, had embarked on a six-month trip mainly in Italy, Egypt, Switzerland and France, and they were in Naples during the eruption. Mrs. Baum wrote up the trip in a series of letters written from abroad for family and friends back home.Toward midnight the wind changed, driving the cloud of ashes to the southward and sufficiently clearing the atmosphere to allow the angry glow of the crater to be distinctly seen. Now it shot a pillar of fire thousands of feet straight into the heavens; then it would darken and roll skyward great clouds that were illumined by the showers of sparks accompanying them…
…It was four o'clock on Sunday morning when Vesuvius finally reached the climax of her travail. With a deep groan of anguish the mountain burst asunder, and from its side rolled a great stream of molten lava that slowly spread down the slope, consuming trees, vineyards and dwellings in its path and overwhelming the fated city of Bosco-Trecase.
Our friends marked the course of destruction by watching the thread of fire slowly wander down the mountain slope. They did not know of the desolation it was causing, but the sight was terrible enough to inspire awe in every breast...
The young married couple, L. Frank Baum & Maud Gage-Baum
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Her observation of details is to me remarkable, and her artistic instinct rings positive and true. No bit of natural beauty escaped her eager eyes, and much that I myself had forgotten or overlooked comes back to me as I read her letters.
Others have perhaps written of these things and places in a more scholarly way, but her vivid descriptions of what her own eyes beheld will, I am sure, be treasured by those near and dear friends who love her and rejoice that she had such opportunity to witness these old world scenes, which so evidently delighted her generous and appreciative heart. 2*
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notes (added 17 &18 Sept. 2020) based on
The Night is Large, collected essays of Martin Gardner, 1938-1995
1. When I wrote this in 2008, I was unaware of a similar title used by the great James Thurber for his article about Baum, "The Wizard of Chittenango" that appeared in the New Republic, December 12, 1934. My apologies.
2. Baum was intensely devoted to his wife, Maud (Gage). They were married in 1882. They moved to the then still small suburban town of Hollywood, California in 1909 and built a home. He died there in 1919. She outlived him by many years, staying in their original home on Cherokee Ave. near Sunset Blvd, where she passed away in 1953 at the age of 91. [See the paragraph below the image of "the young married couple," above.
Martin Gardner (1914-2010)I added both of these footnotes after reading "The Royal Historian of Oz" in The Night is Large, collected essays of Martin Gardner, 1938-1995. (Chapter 27, pp. 329-347). St. Martins Press, New York. © 1996. ISBN 0-312-1438-X. The chapter first appeared as a two-part article in the magazine Fantasy and Science (January and February 1955). Gardner's essay is authoritative, sympathetic, complete and a delight to read.
Readers may know of Gardner's reputation as a versatile scholar interested in everything and who loved to write about it all: science, religion, mathematics, art, etc. in a facile and engaging style and got a kick out of saying, "I don't know the answer to that question, and neither do you!" The title of this particular collection of essays, The Night is Large, reflects his modesty and sense of awe at living in a universe where it is just as much fun not to know something as it is to know it. The phrase, itself, is from The Laughter of the Gods by the Irish playwright Lord Edward Dunsany (1878-1957) and is cited in Gardner's introduction:
Man is a small thing,/ and the night is very large/ and full of wonders.