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16 november 2023
It is futile at this distance, argues Tison Pugh in Queer Oz, to ask whether L. Frank Baum was gay, or whether he knew much of gay communities. Certainly the Oz books, and Baum's numerous other fictions, do not directly represent gay relationships. But there's something not quite hetero about them. Queer Oz is an exhaustive single-author study dedicated to documenting that queerness.
There are no hetero pairings in the Oz books (71). OK, there's Aunt Em and Uncle Henry – the most asexual of man-woman marriage imaginable. Meanwhile, homosocial pairings abound, notably the lifelong loyalty between the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman. Trans journeys are central to the Oz mythos, especially when the boy Tip becomes Princess Ozma. And character after character, from the Shaggy Man to the Sawhorse, defies standard categories for romantic attraction or even natural begetting.
Baum wrote many books outside the Oz canon (and I have only read one of them, The Master Key). Pugh seems to have read all of them, and much of his book is an in-depth, yet engaging survey of alternative sexualities across the whole œuvre. He notes that a few of Baum's more realistic and more adult novels depict straight marriages – how could they not – but even there, the conventional romantic plot was not Baum's forte.
Pugh catalogues queerness in Oz via the unusual accumulation of cannibal imagery and discourse (queer because transgressive) and via John R. Neill's flamboyant illustrations (queer because of their thinly-veiled sexuality). He looks too at series that Baum wrote under various pseudonyms, series that barely circulate anymore but demonstrate Baum's obsessions. These catalogues feature elaborate summaries of books no reader is likely to have read, but they are surely highly original.
Pugh's observations are sharp throughout. He closes with a coda on a dynamic I noted in The Master Key but have probably overlooked at times in my love of the Oz books: Baum's frequent racist imagery (which gets mixed in perplexingly with his frequent progressive ideas and his evident queer-friendliness). How this perverse writer got to be a classic is hard now to explain, but Baum's books provide a rich vein of American contradictions.
Pugh, Tison. Queer Oz: L. Frank Baum's trans tales. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2023. PS 3503 .A923Z84