A Debunkation: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of America’s favorite pieces of juvenile literature. Children like it because it is a good story, full of fun characters and exciting adventures. Adults–especially those of us in history and related fields–like it because we can read between L. Frank Baum’s lines and see various images of the United States at the turn of the century. That has been true since 1964, when American Quarterly published Henry M. Littlefield’s “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” Littlefield described all sorts of hidden meanings and allusions to Gilded Age society in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: the wicked Witch of the East represented eastern industrialists and bankers who controlled the people (the Munchkins); the Scarecrow was the wise but naive western farmer; the Tin Woodman stood for the dehumanized industrial worker; the Cowardly Lion was William Jennings Bryan, Populist presidential candidate in 1896; the Yellow Brick Road, with all its dangers, was the gold standard; Dorothy’s silver slippers (Judy Garland’s were ruby red, but Baum originally made them silver) represented the Populists’ solution to the nation’s economic woes (“the free and unlimited coinage of silver”); Emerald City was Washington, D.C.; the Wizard, “a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of paper mache and noise, . . . able to be everything to everybody,” was any of the Gilded Age presidents.

The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a “Parable on Populism”

by David B. Parker

As published in the JOURNAL OF THE GEORGIA ASSOCIATION OF HISTORIANS, vol. 15 (1994), pp. 49-63.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of America’s favorite pieces of juvenile literature. Children like it because it is a good story, full of fun characters and exciting adventures. Adults–especially those of us in history and related fields–like it because we can read between L. Frank Baum’s lines and see various images of the United States at the turn of the century. That has been true since 1964, when American Quarterly published Henry M. Littlefield’s “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” Littlefield described all sorts of hidden meanings and allusions to Gilded Age society in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: the wicked Witch of the East represented eastern industrialists and bankers who controlled the people (the Munchkins); the Scarecrow was the wise but naive western farmer; the Tin Woodman stood for the dehumanized industrial worker; the Cowardly Lion was William Jennings Bryan, Populist presidential candidate in 1896; the Yellow Brick Road, with all its dangers, was the gold standard; Dorothy’s silver slippers (Judy Garland’s were ruby red, but Baum originally made them silver) represented the Populists’ solution to the nation’s economic woes (“the free and unlimited coinage of silver”); Emerald City was Washington, D.C.; the Wizard, “a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of paper mache and noise, . . . able to be everything to everybody,” was any of the Gilded Age presidents.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was no longer an innocent fairy tale. According to Littlefield, Baum, a reform-minded Democrat who supported William Jennings Bryan’s pro-silver candidacy, wrote the book as a parable of the Populists, an allegory of their failed efforts to reform the nation in 1896. “Baum never allowed the consistency of the allegory to take precedence over the theme of youthful entertainment,” Littlefield hedged at one point; “the allegory always remains in a minor key.” Still, he concluded that “the relationships and analogies outlined above . . . are far too consistent to be coincidental.”

It was an interesting notion, one scholars could not leave alone, and they soon began to find additional correspondences between Populism and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Richard Jensen, in a 1971 study of Midwestern politics and culture, devoted two pages to Baum’s story. He implicitly qualified Littlefield by pointing out that not all pro-Bryan silverites were Populists. But Jensen then proceeded to add two new points to the standard Littlefield interpretation, finding analogies for Toto and Oz itself: Dorothy’s faithful dog represented the teetotaling Prohibitionists, an important part of the silverite coalition, and anyone familiar with the silverites’ slogan “16 to 1”–that is, the ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to one ounce of gold–would have instantly recognized “Oz” as the abbreviation for “ounce.”

A few years later, literary scholar Brian Attebery wrote that “it is too much to say . . . that The Wizard is a ‘Parable on Populism,’ but it does share many of the Populist concerns and biases.” Like Jensen, Attebery cautioned against an uncritical acceptance of Littlefield; and again like Jensen, he went on to suggest an analogy of his own: “Dorothy, bold, resourceful, leading the men around her toward success, is a juvenile Mary Lease, the Kansas firebrand who told her neighbors to raise less corn and more hell.”

The most extensive treatment of the Littlefield thesis is an article by Hugh Rockoff in the Journal of Political Economy. Rockoff, who saw in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “a sophisticated commentary on the political and economic debates of the Populist Era,” discovered a surprising number of new analogies. The Deadly Poppy Field, where the Cowardly Lion fell asleep and could not move forward, was the anti-imperialism that threatened to make Bryan forget the main issue of silver (note the Oriental connotation of poppies and opium). Once in the Emerald Palace, Dorothy had to pass through seven halls and climb three flights of stairs; seven and three make seventy-three, which stands for the Crime of ’73, the congressional act that eliminated the coinage of silver and that proved to all Populists the collusion between congress and bankers. The Wicked Witch of the East was Grover Cleveland; of the West, William McKinley. The enslavement of the yellow Winkies was “a not very well disguised reference to McKinley’s decision to deny immediate independence to the Philippines” after the Spanish-American War. The Wizard himself was Mark Hanna, McKinley’s campaign manager, although Rockoff noted that “this is one of the few points at which the allegory does not work straightforwardly.” About half of Rockoff’s article consisted of an economic analysis that justified Bryan and Baum’s silver stance.

In a recent history of the Populist movement, Gene Clanton wrote that while The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was “a classic parable on the silver crusade,” Littlefield had gotten some of it confused. Clanton explained (as had Jensen) that not all pro-Bryan silverites were Populists. A number of reform Democrats shared the Populists’ distrust of railroads and bankers,their support for inflation, and so forth, but the Democrats disagreed with the Populists’ call for a strong and active government to solve those problems, and in fact they tended to see Populists as dangerous socialist radicals. Clanton suggested that if the Wicked Witch of the East was the forces of industrial capitalism, then Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West was Populism itself. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “mirrored perfectly the middle-ground ideology that was fundamental among those who favored reform yet opposed Populism,” wrote Clanton. “Baum’s story was an apt metaphor or parable of Progressivism, not Populism.” This was hardly the death knell for Littlefield; he had simply confused pro-Bryan, silverite Democrats for pro-Bryan, silverite Populists.

As scholars continued to extend and modify Littlefield’s interpretation, laymen discovered it as well. Perhaps the best example was a widely-reprinted essay, first published in the Los Angeles Times in 1988, in which Michael A. Genovese described The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as “the story of the sad collapse of Populism and the issues upon which the movement was based.” Genovese’s brief analysis was pure Littlefield. But there was one notable (and somewhat disturbing) aspect of Genovese’s piece: Littlefield’s name was never mentioned. The phrase “according to one scholar” never appeared. Less than a quarter century after his article appeared, Littlefield had entered the public domain.

Several factors help explain Littlefield’s popularity. First, he produced an overwhelming number of correspondences, and others have added to the list. One would be hard pressed to find any character, setting, or event in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that does not have a “Populist parable” analogy.

Second, educators discovered Littlefield’s usefulness in teaching Populism and related topics. (This was the reason Littlefield, at the time a high school teacher, developed his analysis in the first place; the correspondences between Populism and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he wrote, “furnish a teaching mechanism which is guaranteed to reach any level of student.”) The journal Social Education suggested using The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to help secondary school students understand the issues behind Populism, and I myself proposed the Littlefield thesis as a possible lecture topic in an instructor’s manual for a popular college-level textbook. Another textbook contained a two-page “special feature” essay explaining The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a Populist allegory (although once again Littlefield’s name was not mentioned).

Third, many people in post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America were fascinated to learn that their favorite children’s story was something of a subversive document, an anti-establishment fairy tale. Hence in 1988 the Utne Reader praised a newspaper article for “expos[ing] Oz as a parable on Populism,” a movement that had been critical of “Eastern banks and railroads, which [Populists] charged with oppressing farmers and industrial workers.”

By the 1980s, Littlefield’s interpretation had become the standard line on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Recently, however, one of his basic assertions–that the book was, like the Populist movement itself, a critique of American industrial capitalism–has been challenged by scholars who argue that the book actually celebrated the urban consumer culture of the turn of the century.

The best statement of this revisionist view is William R. Leach’s two essays in a new edition of the book. Baum’s masterpiece was popular, Leach explained, “because it met–almost perfectly–the particular ethical and emotional needs of people living in a new urban, industrial society.” Leach pointed out that the book exalted the opulence and magic of the metropolis. The Emerald City, with its prosperous homes and luxurious stores, resembled nothing as much as it did the “White City” of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which Baum had visited several times. Furthermore, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz reflected Baum’s belief in theosophy, a spiritualist/occultist quasi-religious movement that was popular in the late nineteenth century. Specifically, the book emphasized an aspect of theosophy that Norman Vincent Peale would later call “the power of positive thinking”: theosophy led to “a new upbeat and positive psychology” that “opposed all kinds of negative thinking–especially fear, worry, and anxiety.” It was through this positive thinking, and not through any magic of the Wizard, that Dorothy and her companions (as well as everyone else in Oz) got what they wanted. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an optimistic secular theraputic text,” wrote Leach. “It helped make people feel at home in America’s new industrial economy, and it helped them appreciate and enjoy, without guilt, the new consumer abundance and way of living produced by that economy.” Leach concluded that “the book both reflected and helped create a new cultural consciousness–a new way of seeing and being in harmony with the new industrial order.”

Leach’s new look at Baum directly challenged much of what Littlefield wrote. Furthermore, it was consistent with Baum’s background. Before he became a professional writer, Baum worked as a traveling salesman and owned a dry goods store. In 1897, he founded The Show Window, the first journal ever devoted to decorating store windows, and in 1900 (the same year as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), he published The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors, the first book on the subject. Furthermore, Baum’s involvement in the theater, as everything from actor to producer and writer, taught him to appreciate the artistic lifestyle that only the big cities could offer.

Leach’s essays did not necessarily overturn Littlefield, however. Baum might have been “a shopkeeper, a traveling salesman, an actor, a playwright, a windowdresser,”  but he was also a reform-minded Democrat who supported Bryan’s pro-silver campaign in 1896. Given this, Littlefield’s thesis still seems plausible.

For years after Baum’s death in 1919, the best biography of him was a twenty-five-page sketch written by Martin Gardner for a new edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1957. Gardner wrote just two sentences on Baum’s politics: “Aside from marching in a few torchlight parades for William Jennings Bryan, Baum was as inactive in politics as in church affairs [which is to say, pretty inactive]. He consistently voted as a democrat [sic], however, and his sympathies always seem to have been on the side of the laboring classes.” Four years later, the first book-length study of Baum appeared. Written by Frank Joslyn Baum (Baum’s son, who died during the project) and Russell P. MacFall, the biography did not go beyond Gardner in discussing Baum’s politics.

Baum’s political affiliation was a big part of Littlefield’s argument for seeing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a Populist allegory. Citing Gardner, Littlefield mentioned Baum’s support for Democratic candidates and, of course, the torchlight parades for Bryan. “No one who marched in even a few such parades could have been unaffected by Bryan’s campaign,” Littlefield asserted. If one begins with the assumption that Baum was a Bryan Democrat, it is easy to read a Populist (or at least a pro-silver) message into the book.

But was Baum a Bryan Democrat? In the summer of 1888, Baum moved his family to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he opened a dry goods store. In January 1890, after the business failed, he bought a local newspaper, renaming it the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. The Pioneer was obviously a Republican paper. During the municipal elections that spring, Baum editorialized in support of the Republican candidates; after they won, he wrote that “Aberdeen has redeemed herself . . . [a]fter suffering for nearly a year from the incompetence of a democratic administration.” Later that year, Baum urged unity against the growing Independent movement: “We are all members of one great family, the family which saved the Union, the family which stands together as the emblem of prosperity among the nations–Republicanism!” Not only did Baum speak for the Republican party; he spoke against the movement that would soon evolve into the Populists.

It must be admitted that the Pioneer had been a Republican paper before Baum bought it, and perhaps he had to maintain its partisan identification in order to maintain its circulation. Furthermore, Baum’s Pioneer, while clearly Republican, was quite progressive: he wrote in support of women’s suffrage, alternative religions, occultism, toleration, and so on. So perhaps Baum was a closet Democrat in Aberdeen, forced to hide his true political feelings.

But that appears not to be the case. In the summer of 1896, the year of the election that would mark what has been called “The Climax of Populism,” Baum published a poem in a Chicago newspaper:

When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
There’ll be a jollification
Throughout our happy nation
And contentment everywhere!
Great will be our satisfaction
When the “honest money” faction
Seats McKinley in the chair!
No more the ample crops of grain
That in our granaries have lain
Will seek a purchaser in vain
Or be at mercy of the “bull” or “bear”;
Our merchants won’t be trembling
At the silverites’ dissembling
When McKinley gets the chair!
When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
The magic word “protection”
Will banish all dejection
And free the workingman from every care;
We will gain the world’s respect
When it knows our coin’s “correct”
And McKinley’s in the chair!

Hardly the writings of a silverite! Michael Patrick Hearn, the leading scholar on L. Frank Baum, quoted this poem in a recent letter to the New York Times. Hearn wrote that he had found “no evidence that Baum’s story is in any way a Populist allegory”; Littlefield’s argument, Hearn concluded, “has no basis in fact.” A month later, Henry M. Littlefield responded to Hearn’s letter, agreeing that “there is no basis in fact to consider Baum a supporter of turn-of-the-century Populist ideology.”

Thomas A. Bailey once suggested that we set up a computer network to keep track of misinformation that has been corrected–sort of a national clearinghouse for discredited myths. Is it time to move Littlefield to the computer trashpile of misinformation? Given the mounting evidence against it–given that Littlefield himself has admitted that it has “no basis in fact”–should we forget the whole notion of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a parable on Populism? That would be a big mistake. Perhaps we can no longer say that Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz “as an allegory of the silver movement,” but we can still read it as an allegory of the silver movement–or, as Henry Littlefield noted just two years ago, “we can bring our own symbolism to it.” Recent scholarship might have taken away Baum’s intent, but the images are still there, vivid as ever.

And because the images are still there, the Littlefield interpretation (especially as modified by Clanton, Rockoff, and others) remains a useful pedagogical device. Baum gave us a delightful and unforgettable way of illustrating a number of Gilded Age issues, from Populism and the silver movement to the Gilded Age presidency, from the problems of labor to the insurrection in the Philippines.

Thirty years ago, Henry M. Littlefield looked at The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and saw things no one had seen there before. More recently, William R. Leach has shown us another new way of looking at the book, a way that emphasizes a different side of the Gilded Age–the fascination with the city and urban abundance, the rise of a new industrial ethic, and so on. Leach’s argument is just as compelling as Littlefield’s. “Factual” or not, both are impressive achievements.

But even more impressive is the achievement of L. Frank Baum himself. In the preface to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum stated that he wanted to write a new sort of children’s story: a modernized, American story, shorn of all the Old World images and motifs. He was tremendously successful in this, producing not only the first real American fairy tale, but one that showed American society and culture in all its wonderful diversity and contradictions, a story so rich it can be, like the book’s title character, anything we want it to be–including, if we wish, a parable on Populism.


The Wonderful Wizard Lives On

‘Oz’ Maintains Its Appeal in Our Political Consciousness

March 19, 1988|MICHAEL A. GENOVESE, Michael A. Genovese teaches political science and is director of the Peace Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University.

Dorothy and Toto, the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Wicked Witch of the West, are all magical figures out of one of America’s most loved movies. But “The Wizard of Oz” was, and is, much more than a children’s fantasy. As conceived and written by Lyman Frank Baum in 1900, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was a political allegory of turn-of-the-century America. Written in the waning days of the Populist movement of the late 1800s, it was the story of the sad collapse of Populism and the issues upon which the movement was based.

The Populist movement grew as a reaction to the changes brought about by industrialization. Centered primarily in Midwestern farming communities, the Populist Party challenged banks, railroads and the Eastern elites, which were seen as keeping the farmer down through low prices for agriculture, high freight charges and high farm debt, and through upholding the gold standard for currency, which kept interest rates up and money tight. When urban workers joined the alliance with farmers, the Populists became a viable force in American politics, aligning themselves with the Democratic Party.

The Populist Party was headed by one of America’s greatest orators, William Jennings Bryan; it proposed government ownership of railroads and other industries and advocated moving off the gold standard to silver-backed currency. The Populist cause grew during the severe economic depression of 1893 when farm prices plummeted and unemployment soared.

In the congressional elections of 1894, the Populists drew almost 40% of the vote. The presidential election of 1896 proved to be the high-water mark for the party. Their standard-bearer Bryan (famed for the speech in which he accused the banks of crucifying the farmer on a “cross of gold”) lost to Republican candidate William McKinley by only 95 electoral votes. But the Populists rapidly faded from the political scene as prosperity returned under McKinley and as politicians like Teddy Roosevelt adopted some of their positions.

Baum, who edited a weekly paper in South Dakota before moving to Chicago in 1896, lamented the decline of the alliance between the farmer and urban worker and the subsequent decline of the party. Although “Oz,” was written and published (with great success) as a children’s fantasy, Baum clearly had Populism’s misfortune in mind.

The allegory begins with the title. Oz is the abbreviation for ounce, the standard measure used for gold. Dorothy represents Everyman; the Tin Woodman is the industrial worker, the Scarecrow is the farmer, the Cowardly Lion is William Jennigs Bryan, the Wizard is the President, the munchkins are the “little people” and the Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard. Toto probably represents a dog.

In the story, Dorothy is swept away from Kansas in a tornado and arrives in a mysterious land inhabited by “little people.” Her landing kills the wicked witch of the East (bankers and capitalists), who “kept the munchkin people in bondage.”

In the movie, Dorothy begins her journey through the Land of Oz wearing ruby slippers, but in the original story Dorothy’s magical slippers are silver. Along the way on the yellow brick (gold) road, she meets a Tin Woodman who is “rusted solid” (a reference to the industrial factories shut down during the depression of 1893). The Tin Woodman’s real problem, however, is that he doesn’t have a heart (the result of the dehumanizing work in the factory that turned men into machines).

Farther down the road Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, who is without a brain (the farmer, Baum suggests, doesn’t have enough brains to recognize what his political interests are). Next Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, an animal in need of courage (Bryan, with a loud roar but little else). Together they go off to Emerald City (Washington) in search of what the wonderful Wizard of Oz (the President) might give them.

When they finally get to Emerald City and meet the Wizard, he, like all good politicians, appears to be whatever people wish to see in him. He also plays on their fears. To Dorothy, he is a disembodied head; to the Cowardly Lion he is a predatory beast; to the Woodman, a glowing ball of fire. But soon the Wizard is revealed to be a fraud–only a little old man “with a wrinkled face” who admits that he’s been “making believe.” “I am just a common man,” he says. But he is a common man who can rule only by deceiving the people into thinking that he is more than he really is.

“You’re a humbug,” shouts the Scarecrow, and this is the core of Baum’s message. Those forces that keep the farmer and worker down are manipulated by frauds who rule by deception and trickery; the President is powerful only as long as he is able to manipulate images and fool the people.

Finally, to save her friends, Dorothy “melts” the Wicked Witch of the West (just as evil as the East), and the Wizard flies off in a hot-air balloon to a new life. The Scarecrow (farmer) is left in charge of Oz, and the Tin Woodman is left to rule the East. This Populist dream of the farmer and worker gaining political power was never to come true, and Baum seems to recognize this by sending the Cowardly Lion back into the forest, a recognition of Bryan’s retreat from national politics.

Dorothy is able to return to her home with the aid of her magical silver shoes, but upon waking in Kansas, she realizes that they’ve fallen off, representing the demise of the silver coinage issue in American politics.

As the last hurrah of the Populist movement in America, “The Wizard of Oz” is a political parable rich in historical significance. The beauty of the film, and one of the main reasons for its longevity, is that its reach exceeds its grasp. It speaks to us beyond the now-dated meaning of its political message and taps universal elements within the human character that are endearing and long-lasting.

This “children’s story,” as is the case with so many other stories based on a vision of reality animated by the events of their times, also speaks to larger philosophical issues. In this sense, just as Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” rings true today, so, too, does “The Wizard of Oz” have contemporary meaning. And so, next time you sit down and join Dorothy and Toto and friends on their adventure, remember: You are taking a populist journey in search of a new political order that replaces the power of industrial capitalists with a farmers-workers alliance. Have a pleasant trip.


The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism – 1964

by Henry M. Littlefield

On the deserts of North Africa in 1941 two tough Australian brigades went into battle singing:

Have you heard of the wonderful wizard,       The wonderful Wizard of Oz,  And he is a wonderful wizard,       If ever a wizard there was.

It was a song they had brought with them from Australia and would soon spread to England. Forever afterward it reminded Winston Churchill of those “buoyant days.”[1] Churchill’s nostalgia is only one symptom of the world-wide delight found in an American fairy tale about a little girl and her odyssey in the strange land of Oz. The song he reflects upon came from a classic 1939 Hollywood production of the story, which introduced millions of people not only to the land of Oz, but to a talented young lady named Judy Garland as well.

Ever since its publication in 1900 Lyman Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been immensely popular, providing the basis for a profitable musical comedy, three movies, and a number of plays. It is an indigenous creation, curiously warm and touching, although no one really knows why. For despite wholehearted acceptance by generations of readers, Baum’s tale has been accorded neither critical acclaim, nor extended critical examination. Interested scholars, such as Russel B. Nye and Martin Gardiner, look upon The Wizard of Oz as the first in a long and delightful series of Oz stories, and understandably base their appreciation of Baum’s talent on the totality of his works[2].

The Wizard of Oz is an entity unto itself, however, and was not originally written with a sequel in mind. Baum informed his readers in 1904 that he has produced The Marvelous Land of Oz reluctantly and only in answer to well over a thousand letters demanding that he creation another Oz tale[3]. His original effort remains unique and to some degree separate from the books which follow. But its uniqueness does not rest alone on its peculiar and transcendent popularity.

Professor Nye finds a “strain of moralism” in the Oz books, as well as “a well-developed sense of satire,” and Baum stories often include searching parodies on the contradiction in human nature. The second book in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz, is a blatant satire on feminism and the suffragette movement[4]. In it Baum attempted to duplicate the format used so successfully in The Wizard, yet no one has noted a similar play on contemporary movements in the latter work. Nevertheless, one does exist, and it reflects to an astonishing degree the world of political reality which surrounded Baum in 1900. In order to understand the relationship of The Wizard to turn-of-the-century America, it is necessary first to know something of Baum’s background.

Born near Syracuse in 1856, Baum was brought up in a wealthy home and early became interested in the theater. He wrote some plays which enjoyed brief success and then, with his wife and two sons, journeyed to Aberdeen, South Dakota, in 1887. Aberdeen was a little prairie town and there Baum edited the local weekly until it failed in 1891[5].

For many years Western farmers had been in a state of loud, though unsuccessful, revolt. While Baum was living in South Dakota not only was the frontier a thing of the past, but the Romantic view of benign nature had disappeared we well. The stark reality of the dry, open plains and the acceptance of man’s Darwinian subservience to his environment served to crush Romantic idealism[6].

Hamlin Garland’s visit to Iowa and South Dakota coincided with Baum’s arrival. Henry Nash Smith observes,

“Garland’s success as a portrayer of hardship and suffering on Northwestern farms was due in part to the fact that his personal experience happened to parallel the shock which the entire West received in the later 1880’s from the combined effects of low prices, … grasshoppers, drought, the terrible blizzards of the winter of 1886-1887, and the juggling of freight rates…”[7]

As we shall see, Baum’s prairie experience was no less deeply etched, although he did not employ naturalism to express it.

Baum’s stay in South Dakota also covered the period of the formation of the Populist party, which Professor Nye likens to a fanatic “crusade”. Western farmers had for a long time sought governmental aid in the form of economic panaceas, but to no avail. The Populist movement symbolized a desperate attempt to use the power of the ballot[8]. In 1891 Baum moved to Chicago where he was surrounded by those dynamic elements of reform which made the city so notable during the 1890’s[9].

In Chicago Baum certainly saw the results of the frightful depression which had closed down up on the nation in 1893. Moreover, he took part in the pivotal election of 1896, marching in “torch-light parades for William Jennings Bryan”. Martin Gardiner notes besides, that he “consistently voted as a democrat…and his sympathies seem always to have been on the side of the laboring classes.” No one who marched in even a few such parades could have been unaffected by Bryan’s campaign. Putting all the farmers’ hopes in a basket labeled “free coinage of silver,” Bryan’s platform rested mainly on the issue of adding silver to the nation’s gold standard. Though he lost, he did at least bring the plight of the little man into national focus[11].

Between 1896 and 1900, while Baum worked and wrote in Chicago, the great depression faded away and the war with Spain thrust the United States into world prominence. Bryan maintained Midwestern control over the Democratic party, and often spoke out against American policies toward Cuba and the Philippines. By 1900 it was evident that Bryan would run again, although now imperialism and not silver seemed the issue of primary concern. In order to promote greater enthusiasm, however, Bryan felt compelled once more to sound the silver lietmotif in his campaign[12]. Bryan’s second futile attempt at the presidency culminated in November 1900. The previous winter Baum had attempted unsuccessfully to sell a rather original volume of children’s fantasy, but that April, George M. Hill, a small Chicago publisher, finally agreed to print The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Baum’s allegiance to the cause of Democratic Populism must be balanced against the fact that he was not a political activist. Martin Gardiner finds all through all of his writings “a theme of tolerance, with many episodes that poke fun at narrow nationalism and ethnocentrism.” Nevertheless, Professor Nye quotes Baum as having a desire to write stories that would “bear the stamp of our times and depict the progressive fairies of today.”[13]

The Wizard of Oz has neither the mature religious appeal of a Pilgrim’s Progress, nor the philosophic depth of a Candide. Baum’s most thoughtful devotees see in it only a warm, cleverly written fairy tale. Yet the original Oz book conceals an unsuspected depth, and it is the purpose of this study to demonstrate that Baum’s immortal American fantasy encompasses more than heretofore believed. For Baum created a children’s story with a symbolic allegory implicit within its story line and characterizations. The allegory always remains in a minor key, subordinated to the major theme and readily abandoned whenever it threatens to distort the appeal of the fantasy. But through it, in the form of a subtle parable, Baum delineated a Midwesterner’s vibrant and ironic portrait of this country as it entered the twentieth century.

We are introduced to both Dorothy and Kansas at the same time:

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There was four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty-looking cooking stove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds.

When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.

When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.

Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.

It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings. Toto was not gray; he was a little black dog, with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose. Toto played all day long, and Dorothy played with him, and loved him dearly.[14]

Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur would not have recognized Uncle Henry’s farm; it us straight out of Hamlin Garland.[15] On it a deadly environment dominated everyone and everything except Dorothy and her pet. The setting is Old Testament and nature seems grayly impersonal and even angry. Yet it is a fearsome cyclone that lifts Dorothy and Toto in their house and deposits them “very gently — for a cyclone — in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty.” We immediately sense the contrast between Oz and Kansas. Here there are “stately trees bearing rich and luscious fruits… gorgeous flowers… and birds with … brilliant plumage” sing in the trees. In Oz “a small brook rushing and sparkling along” murmurs “in a voice very grateful to a little girl who had lived so long on the dry, gray prairie.”(p. 20)

Trouble intrudes. Dorothy’s house has come down on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her. Nature, by sheer accident, can provide benefits, for indirectly the cyclone has disposed of one of the two truly bad influences in the land of Oz. Notice that evil ruled in both the East and the West; after Dorothy’s coming it rules only in the West.

The Wicked Witch of the East had kept the little Munchkin people “in bondage for many years, making them slave for her night and day.” (pp. 22-23). Just what this slavery entailed is not immediately clear, but Baum later gives us a specific example. The Tin Woodman, whom Dorothy meets on her way to the Emerald City, had been put under a spell by the Witch of the East. Once an independent and hard working human being, the Woodman found that each time he swung his axe it chopped off a different part of his body. Knowing no other trade he “worked harder than ever,” for luckily in Oz tinsmiths can repair such things. Soon the Woodman was all tin (p. 59). In this way Eastern witchcraft dehumanized a simple laborer so that the faster and better he worked the more quickly he became a kind of machine. Here is a Populist view of evil Eastern influences on honest labor which could hardly be more pointed.[16]

There is one thing seriously wrong with being made of tin; when it rains rust sets in. Tin Woodman had been standing in the same position for a year without moving before Dorothy came along and oiled his joints. The Tin Woodman’s situation has an obvious parallel in the condition of many Eastern workers after the depression of 1893.[17] While Tin Woodman is standing still, rusted solid, he deludes himself into thinking he is no longer capable of that most human of sentiments, love. Hate does not fill the void, a constant lesson in the Oz books, and Tin Woodman feels that only a heart will make him sensitive again. So he accompanies Dorothy to see if the Wizard will give him one.

Oz itself is a magic oasis surrounded by impassable deserts, and the country is divided in a very orderly fashion. In the North and South the people are ruled by good witches, who are not quite as powerful as the wicked ones of the East and West. In the center of the land is the magnificent Emerald City ruled by the Wizard of Oz, a successful humbug whom even the witches mistakenly feel “is more powerful than all the rest of us together” (p.24). Despite these forces, the mark of goodness, placed on Dorothy’s forehead by the Witch of the North, serves as protection for Dorothy throughout her travels. Goodness and innocence prevail even over the powers of evil and delusion in Oz. Perhaps it is this basic and beautiful optimism that makes Baum’s tale so characteristically American — and Midwestern.

Dorothy is Baum’s Miss Everyman. She is one of us, levelheaded and human, and she has a real problem. Young readers can understand her quandary as readily as can adults. She is good, not precious, and she thinks quite naturally about others. For all the attractions of Oz, Dorothy desires only to return to the gray plains and Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. She is directed toward the Emerald City by the good Witch of the North, since the Wizard will surely be able to solve the problem of the impassable deserts. Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road wearing the Witch of the East’s magic Silver Shoes. Silver shoes walking on a golden road; henceforth Dorothy becomes the innocent agent of Baum’s ironic view of the Silver issue. Remember, neither Dorothy, nor the good Witch of the North, nor the Munchkins understand the power of these shoes. The allegory is abundantly clear. On the next to last page of the book Baum has Glinda, Witch of the South, tell Dorothy, “Your Silver Shoes will carry you over the desert…..If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country.”. Glinda explains, “All you have to do is knock the heels together three times and command the shoes to carry you wherever you wish to go.” (p.257). William Jennings Bryan never outlined the advantages of the silver standard any more effectively.

Not understanding the magic of the Silver Shoes, Dorothy walks the mundane — and dangerous — Yellow Brick Road. The first person she meets is a Scarecrow. After escaping from his wooden perch, the Scarecrow displays a terrible sense of inferiority and self doubt, for he has determined that he needs real brains to replace the common straw in his head. William Allen White wrote an article in 1896 entitled “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”. In it he accused Kansas farmers of ignorance, irrationality and general muddle-headedness. What’s wrong with Kansas are the people, said Mr. White.[18] Baum’s character seems to have read White’s angry characterization. But Baum never takes White seriously and so the Scarecrow soon emerges as innately a very shrewd and very capable individual.

The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman accompany Dorothy along the Yellow Brick Road, one seeking brains, the other a heart. They meet next the Cowardly Lion. As King of Beasts he explains, “I learned that if I roared very loudly every living thing was frightened and got out of my way.” Born a coward, he sobs, “Whenever there is danger my heart begins to beat fast.” “Perhaps you have heart disease,” suggests Tin Woodman, who always worries about hearts. But the Lion desires only courage and so he joins the party to ask help from the Wizard (pp.65-72)

The Lion represents Bryan himself. In the election of 1896 Bryan lost the vote of Eastern Labor, though he tried hard to gain their support. In Baum’s story the Lion meeting the little group, “struck at the Tin Woodman with his sharp claws.” But, to his surprise, “he could make no impression on the tin, although the Woodman fell over in the road and lay still.” Baum here refers to the fact that in 1896 workers were often pressured into voting for McKinley and gold by their employers.[19] Amazed, the Lion says, “he nearly blunted my claws,” and he adds even more appropriately, “When they scratched against the tine it made a cold shiver run down my back” (pp. 67-68). The King of Beasts is not after all very cowardly, and Bryan, although a pacifist and an anti-imperialist in a time of national expansion, is not either.[20] The magic Silver Shoes belong to Dorothy, however. Silver’s potent charm, which had come to mean so much to so many in the Midwest, could not be entrusted to a political symbol. Baum delivers Dorothy from the world of adventure and fantasy to the real world of heartbreak and desolution through the power of Silver. It represents a real force in a land of illusion, and neither the Cowardly Lion nor Bryan truly needs or understands its use.

All together now the small party moves toward the Emerald City. Coxey’s Army of tramps and indigents, marching to ask President Cleveland for work in 1894, appears no more naively innocent than this group of four characters going to see a humbug Wizard, to request favors that only the little girl among them deserves.

Those who enter the Emerald City must wear green glasses. Dorothy later discovers that the greeness of dresses and ribbons disappears on leaving, and everything becomes a bland white. Perhaps the magic of any city is thus self imposed. But the Wizard dwells here and so the Emerald City represents the national Capitol. The Wizard, a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of paper mache and noise, might be any president from Grant to McKinley. He comes straight from the fairgrounds on Omaha, Nebraska, and he symbolizes the American criterion for leadership — he is able to be everything to everybody.

As each of our heroes enters the throne room to ask a favor the Wizard assumes different shapes, representing different views toward national leadership. To Dorothy he appears as an enormous head, “bigger than the head of the biggest giant.” An apt image for a naive and innocent little citizen. To the Scarecrow he appears to be a lovely, gossamer fairy, a most appropriate form for an idealistic Kansas farmer. The Woodman sees a horrible beast, as would any exploited Eastern laborer after the trouble of the 1890’s. But the Cowardly Lion, like W. J. Bryan, sees a “Ball of Fire, so fierce and glowing he could scarcely bear to gaze upon it.” Baum then provides an additional analogy, for when the Lion “tried to go nearer he singed his whiskers and he crept back tremblingly to a spot nearer the door.” (p. 134)

The Wizard has asked them all to kill the Witch of the West. The golden road does not go in that direction and so they must follow the sun, as have many pioneers in the past. The land they now pass through is “rougher and hillier, for there were no farms nor houses in the country of the West and the ground was untilled” (p.140). The Witch of the West uses natural forces to achieve her ends; she is Baum’s version of sentient and malign nature.

Finding Dorothy and her friends in the West, the Witch sends forty wolves against them, then forty vicious crows and finally a great swarm of black bees. But it is through the power of a magic golden cap that she summons the flying monkeys. They capture the little girl and dispose of her companions. Baum makes these Winged Monkeys into an Oz substitute for the plains Indians. Their leader says, “Once we were a free people, living happily in the great forest, flying from tree to tree, eating nuts and fruit, and doing just as we pleased without calling anybody master.” “This,” he explains, “was many years ago, long before Oz came out of the clouds to rule over this land” (p. 172). But like many Indian tribes Baum’s monkeys are not inherently bad; their actions depend wholly upon the bidding of others. Under the control of an evil influence, they do evil. Under the control of goodness and innocence, as personified by Dorothy, the monkeys are helpful and kind, although unable to take her to Kansas. Says the Monkey King, “We belong to this country alone, and cannot leave it” (p. 213). The same could be said with equal truth of the first Americans.

Dorothy presents a special problem to the Witch. Seeing the mark on Dorothy’s forehead and the Silver Shoes on her feet, the Witch begins “to tremble with fear, for she knew what a powerful charm belonged to them.” Then “she happened to look into the child’s eyes and saw how simple the soul behind them was, and that the little girl did now know of the wonderful power the Silver shoes gave her” (p. 150). Here Baum again uses the Silver allegory to state the blunt homily that while goodness affords a people ultimate protection against evil, ignorance of their capabilities allows evil to impose itself upon them. The Witch assumes that proportions of a kind of western Mark Hanna or Banker Boss, who, through natural malevolence, manipulates the people and holds them prisoner by cynically taking advantage of their innate innocence.

Enslaved in the West “Dorothy went to work meekly, with her mind made up to work as hard as she could; for she was glad the Wicked Witch had decided not to kill her” (p. 150). Many Western farmers have held these same grim thoughts in less mystical terms. If the Witch of the West is a diabolical force of Darwinian or Spencerian nature, then another contravening force may be counted upon the dispose of her. Dorothy destroys the evil Witch by angrily dousing her with a bucket of water. Water, that precious commodity which the drought-ridden farmers on the great plains needed so badly, and which if correctly used could create an agricultural paradise, or at least dissolve a wicked witch. Plain water brings an end to malign nature in the West.

When Dorothy and her companions return to the Emerald City they soon discover that the Wizard is really nothing more than “a little man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face.” Can this be the ruler of the land? Our friends looked at him in surprise and dismay.

“I thought Oz was a great Head,” said Dorothy….”And I thought Oz was a terrible Beast,” said the Tin Woodman. “And I thought Oz was a Ball of Fire,” exclaimed the Lion. “No; you are all wrong,” said the little man meekly. “I have been making believe.”

Dorothy asks if he is truly a great Wizard. He confides, “Not a bit of it, my Dear; I’m just a common man.” Scarecrow adds, “You’re more than that…you’re a humbug” (p. 184).

The Wizard’s deception is of long standing in Oz and even the Witches were taken in. How was it accomplished? “It was a great mistake my ever letting you into the Throne Room,” the Wizard complains. “Usually I will not see even my subjects, and so they believe I am something terrible” (p. 185). What a wonderful lesson for youngsters of the decade when Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley were hiding in the White House. Formerly the Wizard was a mimic, a ventriloquist and a circus balloonist. The latter trade involved going “up in a balloon on circus day, so as to draw a crowd of people together and get them to pay to see the circus” (p. 186-187). Such skills are as admirable adapted to success in late-nineteenth-century politics as they are to the humbug wizardry of Baum’s story. A pointed comment on Midwestern political ideals is the fact that our little Wizard comes from Omaha, Nebraska, a center of Populist agitation. “Why, that isn’t very far from Kansas,” cries Dorothy. Nor, indeed, are any of the characters in the wonderful land of Oz.

The Wizard, of course, can provide the objects of self-delusion desired by Tin Woodman, Scarecrow and Lion. But Dorothy’s hope of going home fades when the Wizard’s balloon leaves too soon. Understand this: Dorothy wishes to leave a green and fabulous land, from which all evil has disappeared, to go back to the gray desolation of the Kansas prairies. Dorothy is an orphan, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are her only family. Reality is never far from Dorothy’s consciousness and in the most heartrending terms she explains her reasoning to the good Witch Glinda,

Aunt Em will surely think something dreadful has happened to me, and that will make her put on mourning; and unless the crops are better this year than there were last I am sure Uncle Henry cannot afford it. (p. 254)

The Silver Shoes furnish Dorothy with a magic means of travel. But when she arrives back in Kansas she finds, “The Silver Shoes had fallen off in her flight through the air, and were lost forever in the desert” (p.259). Were the “her” to refer to America in 1900, Baum’s statement could hardly be contradicted.

Current historiography tends to criticize the Populist movement for its “delusions, myths and foibles,” Professor C. Vann Woodward observed recently.[22] Yet The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has provided unknowing generations with a gentle and friendly Midwestern critique of the Populist rationale on these very same grounds. Led by naive innocence and protected by good will, the farmer, the laborer and the politician approach the mystic holder of national power to ask for personal fulfillment. Their desires, as well as the Wizard’s cleverness in answering them, are all self-delusion. Each of these characters carries within him the solution to his own problem, were he only to view himself objectively. The fearsome Wizard turns out to be nothing more than a common man, capable of shrewd but mundane answers to these self-induced needs. Like any good politician he gives the people what they want. Throughout the story Baum poses a central thought; the American desire for symbols of fulfillment is illusory. Real needs lie elsewhere.

Thus the Wizard cannot help Dorothy, for of all the characters only she has a wish that is selfless, and only she has a direct connection to honest, hopeless human beings. Dorothy supplies real fulfillment when she returns to her aunt and uncle, using the Silver Shoes, and cures some of their misery and heartache. In this way Baum tells us that the Silver crusade at least brought back Dorothy’s lovely spirit to the disconsolate plains farmer. Her laughter, love and good will are no small addition to that gray land, although the magic of Silver has been lost forever as a result.

Noteworthy too is Baum’s prophetic placement of leadership of Oz after Dorothy’s departure. The Scarecrow reigns over the Emerald City, the Tin Woodman rules in the West and the Lion protects smaller beast in “a grand old forest.” Thereby farm interests achieve national importance, industrialism moves West and Bryan commands only a forest full of lesser politicians.

Baum’s Fantasy succeeds in bridging the gap between what children want and what they should have. It is an admirable example of the way in which an imaginative writer can teach goodness and morality without producing the almost inevitable side effect of nausea. Today’s children’s books are either saccharine and empty, or boring and pedantic. Baum’s first Oz tale — and those which succeed it — are immortal not so much because the “heart-aches and nightmares are left out” as that “the wonderment and joy” are retained (p. 1).

Baum declares “The story of ‘the Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was written solely to pleasure children of today” (p. 1). In 1963 there are very few children who have never heard of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman or the Cowardly Lion, and whether they know W. W. Denslow’s original illustrations of Dorothy, or Judy Garland’s whimsical characterization, is immaterial. The Wizard has become a genuine piece of America folklore because, knowing his audience, Baum never allowed the consistency of the allegory to take precedence over the theme of youthful entertainment. Yet once discovered, the author’s allergorical intent seems clear, and it gives depth and lasting interest even to children who only sense something else beneath the surface of the story. Consider the fun in picturing turn-of-the-century America, a difficult era at best, using these ready-made symbols provided by Baum. The relationship and analogies outlined above are admittedly theoretical, but they are far too consistent to be coincidental, and they furnish a teaching mechanism which is guaranteed to reach any level of student.

The Wizard of Oz says so much about so many things that it is hard not to imagine a satisfied and mischievous gleam in Lyman Frank Baum’s eye as he had Dorothy say, “And oh, Aunt Em! I’m so glad to be at home again!”


One thought on “A Debunkation: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of America’s favorite pieces of juvenile literature. Children like it because it is a good story, full of fun characters and exciting adventures. Adults–especially those of us in history and related fields–like it because we can read between L. Frank Baum’s lines and see various images of the United States at the turn of the century. That has been true since 1964, when American Quarterly published Henry M. Littlefield’s “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” Littlefield described all sorts of hidden meanings and allusions to Gilded Age society in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: the wicked Witch of the East represented eastern industrialists and bankers who controlled the people (the Munchkins); the Scarecrow was the wise but naive western farmer; the Tin Woodman stood for the dehumanized industrial worker; the Cowardly Lion was William Jennings Bryan, Populist presidential candidate in 1896; the Yellow Brick Road, with all its dangers, was the gold standard; Dorothy’s silver slippers (Judy Garland’s were ruby red, but Baum originally made them silver) represented the Populists’ solution to the nation’s economic woes (“the free and unlimited coinage of silver”); Emerald City was Washington, D.C.; the Wizard, “a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of paper mache and noise, . . . able to be everything to everybody,” was any of the Gilded Age presidents.

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