Posts Tagged ‘bimetallism’

Political Interpretation Of The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz

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Political interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz study the influences of the modern fairy tale written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W.W. Denslow, first published in 1900. Many scholars have interpreted the book as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic and social events of America of the 1890s.

Both Baum and Denslow had been actively involved in politics in the 1890s. Baum never said that the original story was an allegory for politics, although he did not have occasion to deny the notion. In fact, Baum himself states in his introduction to the book to have written The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “solely to please children of today”:

[T]he old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s 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 point 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 incident. Having this thought in mind, the story of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.1 (Emphasis added.)

The question is what Baum meant by “modernized fairy tale.” Apart from references to people from Kansas, there is nothing in the book that is “modern” except the political references peppered in every chapter.[1] It is important to note that the European fairy-tales of old often contained political allegory disguised as legend or myth in times of despotism when people were unable, sometimes even forbidden by law, to speak out about harsh, unfair treatment.

The 1901 musical version of “Oz”, written by Baum, was for an adult audience and had numerous explicit references to current politics

Numerous scholars in history,[3] political science[4] and economics[5] have asserted that the images and characters used by Baum and Denslow closely resembled political images that were well known in the 1890s. They believe that Baum and Denslow did not invent the Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow, Yellow Brick Road, Silver Slippers, cyclone, monkeys, Emerald City, little people, Uncle Henry, passenger balloons, witches and the wizard.

These were all common themes in the editorial cartoons of the previous decade. Baum and Denslow built a story around them, added Dorothy, and added a series of lessons to the effect that everyone possesses the resources they need if only they had self-confidence. Positive thinking was a prevalent trend in this period, and was the conduit by which Dorothy ultimately gets herself home. Baum may also have been influenced by the elaborate Christmas displays in Chicago and St. Louis.

[edit] Political sources

Many of the events and characters of the book resemble the actual political personalities, events and ideas of the 1890s.[6] The 1902 stage adaptation mentioned, by name, President Theodore Roosevelt, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, and other political celebrities.[6] (No real people are mentioned by name in the book.) Even the title has been interpreted as alluding to a political reality: oz. is an abbreviation for ounce, a unit familiar to those who fought for a 16 to 1 ounce ratio of silver to gold in the name of bimetallism, though Baum stated he got the name from a file cabinet labeled A-N and O-Z. It should also be noted, however, that in later books Baum mentions contemporary figures by name and takes blatantly political stances without the benefit of allegory including a condemnation in no uncertain terms of Standard Oil.

The book opens not in an imaginary place but in real life Kansas, which, in the 1890s as well as today, was well known for the hardships of rural life, and for destructive tornadoes. The Panic of 1893 caused widespread distress in the rural United States. Dorothy is swept away to a colorful land of unlimited resources that nevertheless has serious political problems.[6] This utopia is ruled in part by people designated as wicked. Dorothy and her house are swept up by the tornado and upon landing in Oz, the house falls on the Wicked Witch of the East, possibly symbolic of the falling house market. The Witch had previously controlled the all-powerful silver slippers (which were changed to ruby in the 1939 film). The slippers will in the end liberate Dorothy but first she must walk in them down the golden yellow brick road, i.e. she must take silver down the path of gold, the path of free coinage. Following the road of gold leads eventually only to the Emerald City, which may symbolize the fraudulent world of greenback paper money that only pretends to have value, or may symbolize the greenback value that is placed on gold (and for silver, possibly).[6] Other allegorical devices of the book include:

  • Dorothy, naïve, young and simple, represents the American people. She is Everyman, led astray and who seeks the way back home.[6] She resembles the young hero of Coin’s financial school, a very popular political pamphlet of 1893. Another interpretation holds that she is a representation of Theodore Roosevelt: note that the syllables “Dor-o-thy” are the reverse of the syllables “The-o-dore.”
  • The cyclone was used in the 1890s as a metaphor for a political revolution that would transform the drab country into a land of color and unlimited prosperity. The cyclone was used by editorial cartoonists of the 1890s to represent political upheaval.[6]
  • Historians and economists who read the original 1900 book as a political allegory interpret the Tin Woodman as the dehumanized industrial worker, badly mistreated by the Wicked Witch of the East who rules Munchkin Country before the cyclone creates a political revolution and kills her. The Woodman is rusted and helpless—ineffective until he starts to work together with the Scarecrow (the farmer), in a Farmer-Labor coalition that was much discussed in the 1890s, which culminated in the successful Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota and its eventual merger with the Minnesota Democratic Party to form the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in 1944.
  • The Munchkins are the little people—ordinary citizens. This 1897 Judge cartoon shows famous politicians as little people after they were on the losing side in the election. However, in Oz the Munchkins are all dressed similarly in blue, unlike these caricatures.