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Volume 1123
Presents
Baum, Burroughs, and the Theosophy Connection
by
David A. Adams

The Emerald City

 

L. Frank Baum in 1881
 
This brief article is in response to Dale R. Broadhurstís recent series of exhibits John Carter and the Sword of Theosophy - Revisited published on the internet by Bill Hillman at ERBzine. I believe that many of the questions raised in his interesting pages may be answered at least in part by a reference to Edgar Rice Burroughsí connection with L. Frank Baum of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fame.

Baum was a practicing theosophist and a close friend of Edgar Rice Burroughs -- at least close enough to recommend him in 1917 to membership in the Uplifters, a club of California businessman founded by Baum in 1914. It had been the practice of the Burroughs family to winter in California, usually starting in September, from at least the year 1913. Ed most likely met Baum during one of these extended periods* because by 1917 he felt that he knew him well enough to recommend his membership in the Uplifters, even though the Burroughs did not move to Tarzana until January 1919. That Ed was already a long-time a fan of the Oz series is proven from his early Minidoka, which includes a nod to Baum in the introduction as well as in the whimsical contents of this childrenís story.

Perhaps the most thorough documentation of Baumís connection with theosophy was given in David B. Parkerís "Oz: L. Frank Baumís Theosophical Utopia," a paper delivered at the Kennesaw Academic forum, April 1996. In his study, Parker presents a brief history of the various critical treatments of Oz over the years and cites Baumís friendly theosophical musings as the editor of the Aberdeen (South Dakota) Saturday Pioneer newspaper in 1890-91. An article by John Algeo, titled "A Notable Theosophist: L. Frank Baum" was published in the journal of the Theosophical Society in America announcing Baum and his wifeís admission into the membership of the Chicago branch of the Theosophical Society on September 4, 1892. 

Robert R. Barrett notes that the manuscript of Minidoka was written during the 1901-1904 period when Burroughs and his wife were involved with his brotherís gold mining enterprise in Idaho. Barrett writes, "Burroughs may well have been inspired by L. Frank Baumís introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900); why else would he have subtitled this story "An Historical Fairy Tale?" (Burroughs, 8).

Actually, Baumís introduction to the Wizard of Oz means to contrast his own "modernized fairy tale" with the older "historical" fairy tale. He gives examples of the later as Grimm and Anderson and goes on to write:

"Yet the old-time fairy tale, having serves for generations, may now be classed as "historical" in the childrenís library; for the time has come for a series of newer "wonder tales" in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to paint a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents.

Having this thought in mind, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out." (Baum, 5).

Thus, itís not exactly certain what Burroughs meant by "historical" unless he intended that he was writing in that older form which Baum clearly rejects in his introduction. Even more confusing is the fact that Baum does indeed include a host of dwarf-like characters and blood-curdling incidents in his Oz series, in fact, his pantheon of strange peoples and monsters is very similar to those later created by Burroughs. About the only "modern" elements one may find in Baum is the fact that his fantasies refer to American sites as does Burroughs in his Minidoka as well as in many later adventures on strange worlds.

One need not go so far afield as the confusing tomes of Madame Blavatsky to find a theosophical connection in the writing of Burroughs -- even though a perusal of the chapter titles of her works alone read like the themes of ERB stories. The wide-read Burroughs no doubt was familiar with her work since it was so popular in his early years, but, true to his nature, if he was influenced by her writing at all, it would have been to reverse her fanciful findings rather than be directly inspired by them. No one would ever suggest that his general disinterest in any kind of organized religion would be followed by his being taken by the mumbo jumbo of such a strange cult as the theosophists.

However, friend Baum was an ardent theosophist, and no doubt bent Edís ear with many of these flights of fancy and outlandish theories about the origins of mankind and the ancient history of the world. He also must have explained to him how theosophy was embedded in his own Oz series, which I imagine Ed would have found highly amusing but hardly a model to follow in his own work. Most of ERBís mystical flights tend to be tongue-in-cheek -- increasingly so in his later work, especially in the Venus series. A careful reading of his entire oeuvre demonstrates only a thin scaffolding of mystery and mystification before he cuts to the chase of love and adventure. His infrequent long digressions into explanations of mythic origins of a certain race or world are never meant to be taken seriously as the tenets of a theosophical system but are merely structures to weave a entertaining yarn. 

Itís fun to speculate on ERBís influences because there are so many. Yet, the man himself was a great inventor with one of the most fertile minds in imaginative literature. Burroughs is more than a synthesis of his wide reading. He himself is the magician of his realm, pulling peoples, creatures, and entire worlds out of his hat before our amazed eyes. He did this for over forty years, traveling through the normal three periods of artistic creation: Early Works (influenced by others, yet marked by the originality of his personal style); a Middle Period of maturity in which he refined his particular characteristics and wrote his masterpieces; and Late Works in which he moved away from his easy success to try his hand at new ideas and invented new worlds to conquer.

Having written all this -- the usual disavowal of any overwhelming influence on The Master -- let me say that Baum was a charming man who was genuinely interested in writing childrenís literature. Burroughs was without question charmed by both the man and by his writing and would have felt honored to be his friend. I would guess that Ed was fascinated with Baumís success in publishing and probably picked his mind more about practical matters of selling and expanding his writing empire rather than getting into serious theosophical discussions. Yet everything seemed to rub off on Burroughs; he was able to take in a great amount of information and turn it over in his imagination to come up with new twists that have delighted readers for nearly a hundred years.

Edís personal relationship with Baum was probably friendly but not profound. As early as 1917, the very year that Burroughs came into the Uplifters, Baum was already seriously ill with a series of operations to follow, and he became bedridden for the rest of his life. Baum died on May 6, 1919, and the funeral was held at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in nearby Glendale. Ed was writing Under the Red Star at the time, an anticommunist satire set in the distant future of America. The views presented in this piece are overtly patriotic, which was typical of his Republican politics, but also graphically Christian, which is definitely atypical of his writing. There is even a sympathetic mention of a figure of Jesus Christ on the cross carved on ivory from an elephant tusk! Itís not theosophy, but it does show that Burroughs was still experimenting with personal philosophy in his writing, which quickly returned to a more typical satirical view of religion in general. 

There is, to be sure, a definite Baum-Burroughs connection but with only the most tenuous link to theosophy. The difficulty with Burroughs, which does provide us with an intriguing series of questions, is related to his fecundity of creation. He wrote so very much and did have syncretic inclinations -- even linking his own multiple series at times -- yet the problem of coming up with a logical system to explain all the details of his many inventive worlds must always be met with, to quote Winston Churchill, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." His only partly systematic worlds have rambling mixtures of fact and fantasy like theosophical meanderings, yet these tangles are related to the flashes of his inventive imagination rather than some template of an secret, philosophical complex. He was willing to throw out something new and speculative rather than confining himself to a hard logic that tied up every loose string of conception. Thus we wonder about the intriguing, undisclosed details, such as the use or non-use of telepathy on Barsoom, the hatching of a combination of Martian and human eggs, the exact taxonomy of plant men -- among a host of other conundrums.

At times, Burroughs sounds like a theosophist, and thus gives rise to speculation. I believe that the link with Baum is a valid one, but not the only one which may have led him into the thickets of theosophy. It is certain that Burroughs was not stuck in there, no matter what sticky goo may have rubbed off from either Baum or Blavatsky. Ed was too protean for that. He created systems of his own, and theosophy had to wait in line for his subconscious to process and decant a portion of its brew according to his need in his next novel. Again, I must say, that it seems that nothing ever came out of Edís imagination from his reading or conversations with others that was not set on its head, topsy-turvy, to be given a Burroughsian twist into not Oz but Otz. Heaven is hell for travelers down the river Iss. Dante is conjured as often as Blavatsky, but the mixture is always pure Burroughs.

Burroughsí inventive output over his 40 years as an author is remarkable enough with his 80 plus novels and stories, yet the vast (there is no other word for it) number of his characters, creatures, and worlds have given rise to entire dictionaries just to keep track of the enormous wealth of names and places, most of which are extremely inventive, employing the use of a host of languages from both East and West. These titles, names, locations, etc. are as extensive as the Hindu pantheon of gods, and are so suggestive of a familiarity with nearly every world religion, that speculation easily arises about some sort of theosophical link, yet every indication from his biographers tells us that Ed was not a deep thinker, just an amazing storyteller and word crafter who found the name or title that sounded right for each man, woman, or denizen of his worlds. It was not so much the matter of a philosophical system as having an exceptionally good ear for the precise sound and effect of words.

Of course, that does not mean that one could not easily construct a theosophical system out of ERBís writings. They are certainly complex enough in the multitude of details, and most of his characters can bear the weight of archetypal assimilation. In fact, his most famous character, Tarzan, has become a symbol for the wild man of nature known around the entire world. The main problem with constructing such a pantheon is not diversity but depth, for, like Baum, Burroughs is considered to be a writer of literature for children or adolescents, so his work today is considered as examples of dated and blushingly romantic sword and sorcery or proto-science fiction.

Like Baum, Burroughs still has his adepts -- his fans -- or I would not be writing this article. His writing is still engaging to me, and part of the fun is playing with the great wealth of possibilities contained in his fantastic characters and images from many worlds beyond this familiar one. 

* Taliaferro indicates the winter of 1916 for this meeting

Bibliography

Baum, L. Frank, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Harper/Collins, 1987

Burroughs, Edgar Rice, Minidoka, 937th Earl of One Mile Series M, Dark Horse Comics, Inc., 1998 

Taliaferro, John, Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, Scribner, 1999.

Internet Resources
 
 

  Dale R. Broadhurst's Sword of Theosophy Series

  Part I: John Carter: Sword of Theosophy Revisited
  Part II: Lupoff of Mars: The Quest for Gullivar Jones Carter
  Part III: ERB: Search for Ultimate Answers

From the Broadhurst Library: A Source for ERB?

  William Scott-Elliot's The Story of Atlantis The Lost Lemuria ~ Part 1
  William Scott-Elliot's The Story of Atlantis The Lost Lemuria ~ Part 2

Edgar Rice Burroughs

  The Nkima Chattering from the Shoulder Articles by David Adams
  Religious Themes in the Novels of  Edgar Rice Burroughs by Robert B. Zeuschner
  ERB & LFB: THE WIZARDS OF CALIFORNIA by David Adams
  Minidoka: ERB C.H.A.S.E.R. Encyclopedia
  Edgar Rice Burroughs Bio Timeline by Bill Hillman
 
 

L. Frank Baum and Oz

  E-Text Editions of Books by L. Frank Baum
  Jim's Wizard of Oz Criticims Page
  Oz: L. Frank Baum's Theosophical Utopia by David B. Parker
            A Faculty Colloquium Speech given at Kennesaw State University, 1996.
  Eric's Wonderful Wizard of Oz Website 
  Jim's Ozzy Links Page 
  Nate Barlow's Wonderful Wizard of Oz FAQ List 
  Piglet Press Tour Guide to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz 
  Wendy's Wonderful Wizard of Oz Complete Directory 
   "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism," by Henry M. Littlefield 
  The Spirituality of Oz 
  The Rise and Fall of  Oz as a "Parable on Populism" by David B. Parker
  Oz Reference Library
  Wizard of Allegory


Volume 1123

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