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The Universe of Oz: Essays on Baum's Series and Its Progeny
Edited by Kevin K. Durand and Mary K. Leigh
Cover Artist: Photo: Shutterstock
Review by Cathy Green
McFarland Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780786446285
Date: 16 February 2010 List Price $35.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Fans of Baum's Oz books as well as students of children's literature and popular entertainment will definitely be interested in The Universe Of Oz: Essays On Baum's Series And Its Progeny, a collection of academic essays edited by Kevin K. Durand and Mary K. Leigh. Durand and Leigh have assembled seventeen articles by eighteen academics who specialize in a variety of fields ranging from English and literature to philosophy, ethics, religion, and gender and sexuality studies. While these are serious academic articles complete with footnotes, the language in which they are written will not be opaque to readers who are not fluent in academic-speak. The longest articles are around twenty to twenty-five pages and the shortest are around eight to ten pages and cover a variety of Oz-related topics, although the majority of the articles focus on The Wizard of Oz, both the book and the movie, and Wicked, both the book and the musical, although the Tin Man miniseries broadcast on the SciFi Channel (the miniseries was broadcast before the channel name change) gets a fair amount of attention as well.

In his introduction, Durand divides popular culture studies into five categories of critical engagement: (1) Critical Engagement; (2) Theory Exemplar/Corrective; (3) Point of Departure; (4) Cultural Solipsism; and (5) “Isn't that neat?”. That last category refers primary to a surface, water cooler conversation level of appreciation for the work being analyzed and the fourth category attempts to put the book/movie/television show in the context of other similar works, but is not a particularly meaningful or original level of scholarship.

The third category (Point of Departure) offers a more sophisticated level of analysis and is often used as a pedagogical tool in which the text/movie/show becomes an example for advancing one's views. Durand offers an example using the journey to the Emerald City as an illustration of Aristotle's notion of friendship as developed in the Nicomachean Ethics (p. 5). Durand argues that the problem with the Point of Departure approach is that the focus is on the other text. e.g. the Nicomachean Ethics, rather than on the popular culture book/movie/show and can therefore serve as a negation of the thing you are purporting to analyze. As a result, the articles Durand and Leigh chose avoid those approaches and focus on Critical Engagement and Theory Exemplar/Corrective.

The Theory Exemplar approach shares certain similarities with the Point of Departure Method but goes in another direction by focusing the analysis on the popular culture artifact itself, in the case the Wizard of Oz, actively engaging the popular culture text itself rather than using it as a jumping off point for something else. While some of the articles in The Universe Of Oz fall into that category, Durand feels that Theory Exemplar does not go far enough in its depth of analysis and engagement of the text and hopes that the articles in this volume fall primarily in the Critical Engagement category, which he considers the most sophisticated and difficult and the most important. In Critical Engagement, in addition to being engaged with the popular culture artifact itself, the scholar must search for the intrinsic value of the text itself – e.g., instead of asking how Oz can be utilized to discuss good and evil, ask what is it that The Wizard of Oz as a text argues about good and evil (p.7). It is this last approach to which Durand and Leigh aspire with The Universe Of Oz.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One, “Oz and Literary Criticism” consists of seven articles: (1) “The Emerald Canon: Where the Yellow Brick Road Forks” by Kevin K. Durand; (2) “Dorothy and Cinderella: The Case of the Missing Prince and the Despair of the Fairy Tale” by Agnes B. Curry and Josef Velazquez; (3) “Psychospiritual Wisdom: Dorothy's Monomyth in The Wizard of Oz” by Jene Gutierrez; (4) “Come out, come out, wherever you are: How Tina Landau's 1969 Stages a Queer Reading of The Wizard of Oz” by Ronald Zank; (5) “Something between higgledy-piggledy and the eternal sphere: Queering Age/Sex in Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl” by Emily A. Mattingly; (6) No Place Like the O.Z.: Heroes and Hybridity in Sci-Fi's Tin Man” by Kristin Noone; and (7) "The Wizard of Oz as a Modernist Work" by Charity Gibson. While most of the articles in Part One focus on the novel and the more well known adaptations such as the movie and the SciFi Channel miniseries, the Zank and Mattingly articles focus on more obscure adaptations. Zank focuses on a play directed by Tina Landau that was first performed at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 1994, and which was a collaborative performance created from scratch by Landau and her actors, and Mattingly focuses on Shelley Jackson's hyperlink novel and both academics focus on a queer interpretation of the works they analyze. I was not aware of either work prior to reading the articles, but it is possible to understand the articles without having seen the play or read the hyperlink text. The longest article in this section and the one with the widest scope is Curry and Velazquez's. Focusing on the iconic movie adaptation, “Dorothy and Cinderella: The Case of the Missing Prince and the Despair of the Fairy Tale” compares The Wizard of Oz with Cinderella and makes an interesting case for Toto being the prince substitute in the narrative, which results in a completely desexualized fairytale, and one without a happy ending, since when Dorothy wakes from her dream, she's back in Kansas where Toto is still under order of execution, since no one has dropped a house on Miss Gulch. This last point had never occurred to me in my numerous watchings of the movie, perhaps because the filmmakers clearly intended the ending to be seen as happy and possibly because as a child measuring my age in single digits it just didn't occur to me, particularly since Miss Gulch does not appear in the Kansas scenes at the end of the movie.

Part Two, “Oz and Philosophy” contains six articles: (1) “Ask the Clock of the Time Dragon: Oz in the Past and The Future” by Randall Auxier; (2) “Down the Yellow Brick Road: Good and Evil, Freewill, and Generosity in The Wizard of Oz” by Gail Linsenbard; (3) “The 'Wonderful' Wizard of Oz and Other Lies: A Study of Inauthenticity in Wicked: A New Musical” by Mary K. Leigh; (4) “Memories Cloaked in Magic: Memory and Identity in Tin Man” by Anne Collins Smith; (5) “The Wicked Wizard of Oz” by Kevin K. Durand; and (6) “A Feminist Stroll Down the Yellow Brick Road: Dorothy's Heroine's Adventure” by Paula Kent. Randall Auxier examines why our culture continues to reinvent and reinterpret for the past one hundred years and Linsenbard's article examines Oz in the context of the writing of St. Augustine, addressing, inter alia, Manichean and existential views of The Wizard of Oz. Both Durand and Leigh undertake in depth analysis of specific aspects of certain characters in Gregory Maguire's Wicked novel and musical. This section of The Universe Of Oz is the one that most requires having a grounding in the sort of academic disciplines that would require grounding in philosophy and ethics, because while the writers all carefully explain and back up the positions they take and the assertions they make, having familiarity with the writings Sartre and St. Augustine, among others, will make the articles easier to follow.

The third and final part, “Oz and Social Critique” consists of four articles: (1) “The Wiz: American Culture at Its Best” by Rhonda Williams; (2) “The Wiz as the Seventies' Version of The Wizard of Oz: An Analysis” by Claudia A. Beach; (3) “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Religious Populism and Spiritual Capitalism” by Kevin Tanner; and (4) “The Ethics and Epistemology of Emancipation in Oz” by Jason M. Bell and Jessica Bell. Both Rhonda Williams and Claudia Beach's articles are kinder to The Wiz than most of the critics were at the time the theatrical musical and the movie adaptation premiered, and both deal primarily with the movie adaptation. Williams's article in particular provides an interesting analysis of what the movie says about the roles of African-American men and women in the contemporary United States, or at least as conceived in the 1970s. Jason and Jessica Bell's article is the only one to look at all of the Baum authored Oz books. I was a bit surprised by the lack of attention to the other Oz books in The Universe Of Oz, but in a way it just emphasizes one of the central themes of the book, which is how iconic the movie is, and to a lesser degree the first novel, and in fact one of the articles noted that there are a huge number of people who know Oz only through the movie and have never read the book.

The Universe Of Oz is not a book for the casual reader looking for something light to read. While the book is a slender 249 pages, every article is densely packed and heavily footnoted. However, serious scholars of popular culture and/or Oz devotees and completionists definitely will want to acquire a copy of this book, with its wide range of fascinating articles about Oz and its place in our culture.

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