Saturday, March 24, 2012

W. W. Denslow - A Biography by Douglas Greene and Michael Patrick Hearn

I knew my knowledge of W. W. Denslow—the original illustrator of Oz—was lacking. In fact, it's not at all an exaggeration to say that when it comes to the original writers and illustrators of the Oz series, Baum is the most documented.

Anyway, I knew that there had been a biography of Denslow by Douglas Greene and Michael Patrick Hearn, so I decided to pick it up.

Denslow's story, compared with the lives of many others connected to Oz, is not a happy one. Despite a promising start in a career as an artist and even a brief stint as a cowboy, Denslow made some poor decisions in his career, partly based on his ego.

Also, Denslow had little success in his romantic life. He divorced his first wife when she was pregnant with his only child. His second marriage lasted a bit longer, but it was strained by his desire to get away from Chicago and re-locate to New York. It also ended in divorce. He and his third wife had separated in 1913, two years before his death.

Some of Denslow's life was surprising to discover, such as his early work painting advertising signs (after reading Aunt Jane's Nieces at Work, I really had to wonder what Baum would have thought had he heard about that) and his giving up alcohol and championing sobriety.

It is surprising to discover how varied Denslow's output could be. His grim lithograph "What's the Use?" depicted a skull wearing a crown of laurel, while when he created picture books for children, he would remove mentions of death or severe punishments for the baddies, believing that children should not be given such grim subjects in their entertainment.

Another recent Denslow purchase of mine, Denslow's Picture Book Treasury, has examples of this: Old Mother Hubbard has been almost completely rewritten, removing "She went to the baker to buy him some bread, but when she came back, the poor dog was dead." Animal Fair is rewritten to remove mentions of the drunk monkey that sat on an elephant's trunk with disastrous results.

Taking these into mind, his work for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Father Goose: His Book—depicting Kalidahs falling to their doom, the severed head of the wildcat, a dead wolf and Jack holding a severed giant's head—falls somewhere in between Denslow's double-sided output. Indeed, the idea that the modern child "gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident" as noted in the introduction of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz feels like it is more Denslow's ideal than Baum's.

The biography itself is well-written, easy to read, and very well researched. However, compared to biographies of Baum, the descriptions of Denslow's life feel sparse. This is not a fault so much as the fact that this is the first book-length biography of Denslow. The earliest biographies often don't have rich detail, especially when the person they profile has been dead for about sixty years. It is often hoped that later biographies will build on the research laid down in the first, but in the case of Denslow, none have surfaced. Either there has been little interest in the study of Denslow's life or little has been found to build onto this biography.

The only problem I had with the book was the use of pictures. We are given only two photos of Denslow (if there were more on the dustjacket, my copy didn't come with one and I can't find a picture of it), one of him in 1899, and another of him as a child, and these are in the front matter. Examples of Denslow's work are bundled into two sections of pages, going from 46 to 61 and from 142 to 158, when it would have been nicer to see these interspersed with the text in relevant locations. The examples are broad and generous to be sure, but this interrupts the text. All the pictures are printed in black and white and on the same type of paper as the text, so this error goes to design rather than the publisher's paper requirements.

A thorough listing of Denslow's work follows the biography, as well as a bibliography and a section of notes.

W. W. Denslow should be read by Oz scholars to help us better appreciate the man who first gave us a look at our favorite fairyland.

1 comment:

David Maxine said...

Indeed, photos and illustrations are very much lacking in this volume. And the book has never had a dust jacket. The book was published by a University press and intended for "scholarly" utilitarian use and librarian back ten did not like dust jackets.