Tuesday, June 04, 2013

By the Candelabra's Glare

L. Frank Baum wrote verse all of his life. In his earliest publishing endeavors, he wrote verse for the newspapers he printed himself as a child.

In 1898, Baum was living in Chicago and had made many connections with local businesses, particularly with his current publishing project: a magazine called The Show Window. He decided to ask for some favors and assemble his own book of verse that he would print himself.

In his basement, Baum set the type on his own printing press and turned out ninety-nine copies of By The Candelabra's Glare, his first book of original verse. The copies were given as gifts.
The book has proved particularly elusive due to its age and highly limited availability. In 1983, Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints issued a photo-facsimile. This is now out of print and rather high priced. In 2008, Marcus Mebes issued a new edition through his Pumpernickel Pickle imprint. While I typically consider resetting the text a good thing, in this case, some might want to seek out a Scholar's edition to see Baum's original typesetting. However, if you want to read the poems and see all the pictures, Marcus' edition works fine.

I've read the book twice before, and there are some very memorable poems indeed, but on my latest re-read, I noticed that Baum really wasn't a great poet. Sometimes his attempts at rhyming don't work or feels cloying. This isn't that it's bad, but Baum's verse works much better in small doses.

Baum is humorous and light here. The foreword tells us how a book of poetry should have an "excuse" for it. The verses are in four sections: "Semi-Sentimental Verse," "Cycling Verse," "Unassorted Verse," and "Children's Verse."

"Semi-Sentimental Verse" deals with love and Baum's admiration of women and most of these are fairly sweet. "Cycling Verse" all involves bicycling, often using very humorous situations.

As suggested by the title, "Unassorted Verse" offers a grab bag of Baum's poetry. The first poem "Johnson" tells a story that Baum may have later expanded into an unpublished (and now lost) novel: a stranger comes to town, going only by "Johnson." When a baby is left in a burning house, Johnson sacrifices his own life to save it, and after he is buried and remembered as a hero, a detective comes to town asking about a murderer on the run. When his photograph is shown, they realize it was Johnson. If this was the case, the loss of the novel version is very sad.
Other verses in this section deal with the advancement of women in society, a true story about farmers on hard times and a couple of Baum's favorite things, told in his humorous fashion.

Likely one of the most controversial pieces is "The Heretic." Using a good-natured country type, Baum observes how "
Each churchman 's pluggin' fer himself, An' cares fer nothin' more If he can only land at last Upon the golden shore." It concludes that "This selfish Christianity Ain't good enough fer me!" The so-called heretic doesn't see the point of Christianity from the people he sees who go to church. While some find a criticism of Christian beliefs offensive no matter the point, Baum's words are surprisingly yet accurate.

The final section "Children's Verse" is a prelude to Baum's first major book, Father Goose: His Book. Three of the verses reappear in altered form in Father Goose, and one of the non-Goose poems—"The Greedy Goldfish"—was a big prelude to Father Goose because of who illustrated it.
By the Candelabra's Glare featured the artwork of eight Chicago artists illustrating selected poems. "The Greedy Goldfish" (to the right) and the "semi-sentimental" "My Quandary" (above) were illustrated by one William Wallace Denslow, with whom Baum would soon enter a partnership, turning out Father Goose, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Dot and Tot of Merryland.

Perhaps the poetry of By the Candelabra's Glare will never be recognized as great American literature, but the raw personality of Baum comes through here. A fan of Oz who wants to know more about Baum should at least give a look and any fan of Baum's works should definitely read it. Even though the poetry isn't the best, you'd be hard pressed to not pick out a few favorites after a reading.

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