Friends of Dorothy
Friends of Dorothy
My friend Alison Lurie died Dec 3 at the age of 94. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist divided her time between Key West and Ithaca, NY, where she had taught at Cornell. I first came across Alison’s name when I saw her 1974 review of The Annotated Wizard of Oz in the New York Review of Books, and I first met her in Bloomington, IN in 2000.
While her novels were her most well-known works, Alison also wrote about children’s literature. Her 1990 book Don’t Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children’s Literature has a fine chapter comparing T.H. White’s work with that of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Some of her writing on fairy tales informed my work on the appeal of The Wizard of Oz for gay men. In her introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (1993), she says
The fairy tale survives because it presents experience in vivid symbolic form. Sometimes we need to have the truth exaggerated and made more dramatic, even fantastic, in order to comprehend it. … The message will probably be different for each reader; that is one of the great achievements of the fairy tale—traditional or modern. [xi/xii]
And in Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (Penguin, 2003), she says that fairy tales touch us in youth, and we carry them with us into adulthood.
Even today they are a central part of our imaginative world. We remember and refer to them all our lives; their themes and characters reappear in dreams, in songs, in films, in advertisements, and in casual speech. 
In 2000 the International Wizard of Oz Club pulled out all the stops to celebrate the centenary of the publication of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Their big bash went from Thurs July 20 to Sun July 23 at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. On the Friday of the convention Alison talked about “Oz and the New Woman,” discussing Baum’s strong female characters and his relationship with his mother-in-law, feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage. This talk became “The Oddness of Oz,” an article for the New York Review of Books in Dec 2000.
The next morning, Saturday, I gave my presentation, “If We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, then Where Are We?: The Appeal of Oz for Gay Males.” At lunch Alison came up to me and gave me a souvenir Oz Centennial Cowardly Lion t-shirt, calling it a ’thank-you’ for a marvelous presentation. We sat down together and during the meal, and Alison told me I reminded her of Michael Berman, a friend of hers in Key West. “Michael Berman?” I exclaimed. “We went to high school together, got to be friends on the swim team, and both went to Brown for college! I have visited him in Key West and we are still very much in touch.” I don’t know exactly what it was that I shared with Michael in Alison’s mind, some kind of gay intellectual New York sensibility perhaps.
On the Sunday of the convention, an article about the celebration appeared on the front page of the New York Times! It turned out a cultural reporter from the paper had called Alison for an interview unrelated to Oz, and Alison suggested the reporter join her in Bloomington. The article included this:
''It's like a religion,'' said the author Alison Lurie, who was here to give a talk. ''It has its holy relics, its laity, its clergy,'' the Baum descendants and the heads of the Oz fan clubs.
After the convention Alison contacted me to ask how she should cite my work in her NY Review article. I appeared in a footnote! I chatted with Alison in person again when she gave another speech at on Oz Club convention in upstate New York in 2008. She had always been very supportive of my effort to turn my talk into a book, and when it finally came out, I sent her a copy. Her response:
I was delighted to receive a copy of your excellent book, which I've just finished reading with pleasure. I am really impressed by how good it is, and how very well researched. (And with a wonderful choice of illustrations, too.) … I hope FRIENDS OF DOROTHY will receive the attention and praise it deserves.
I asked if I could make this praise public. She said sure, so I put it on this website.
Over the years Alison and I corresponded about Oz, kids literature, fantasy, Oz, and her appearance in a NY Times acrostic. In 2001, she published Familiar Spirits, a memoir about the poet James Merrill and his partner David Jackson. I was fascinated to learn they had met in my area, when Alison’s husband at the time and Merrill both taught at Amherst College in the 50s. This year, when I doing research on my mother, Eve Merriam, I discovered my mother’s life and output overlapped with Merrill’s. This past August, when I told her Mom and Merrill both had poems in the Feb 1947 issue of Poetry Magazine. She responded the next day, saying that she had written poetry early in her career:
Amazing that you should find this. I knew about it because I knew Jimmy, and also I published my first (and in my case almost only*) poems in Poetry in 1947. I probably saw your mother's contribution there too--do you still have it?
I hope you are well and safe and happy. We are, mostly, though sometimes also bored, or even frightened as we contemplate the uncertain Future. Tompkins County has very few cases of virus and no deaths, but the students are starting to come back, so who knows?
*Soon after this I saw what Jimmy--and two other friends, Robert Creeley and Louis Simpson--could do with verse, and decided to concentrate on prose.
Alison always responded to my emails promptly and wittily, with warm words. On Nov 9, I wrote telling her I found out that in 1977 my mother and Merrill were both on the board of directors of Mystic Paper Beasts, a masked theater company in Connecticut. I see now this message wasn’t answered. :-(