Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Is the Children's Classic Really a Political Allegory?


Between the sweet innocence of babyhood and the workaday travail of the adult lies the vast magical world of childhood—a place beyond reality, where the restraints of time, mortality or even gravity do not operate. Its inhabitants, and the rules they live by, are different from ours.

No initiation is needed for children to know the secret life of the earth that exists all around us. They can set foot at will in fir wood or hazel copse, or locate the mysterious sources of the dark Nile that feeds the pond behind a neighbor’s house. Young people are uniquely able to unleash their imaginations, transforming a clump of rhododendrons by a stream into a tropical forest or a hay wagon into the deck of Sir Francis Drake's Revenge.

In the world of childhood no one doubts the existence of swaggering pirates with swords and pistols, or robbers' caves to be explored, or buried treasure waiting to be unearthed. Few writers have been skillful enough to capture the enchanted qualities of this wonderland of childhood. Even fewer have been successful at providing readers with a golden key to evoke this rather misty, imaginary world where anything can happen--and usually does.

A century ago, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz took America by storm. A new kind of children's fantasy told in conversational style, it captivated adults and children alike. Its decorative illustrations in color were unlike any that had appeared before. Featuring two dozen full-page color plates and spot illustrations on nearly every page, it was the most elaborately illustrated American children's book up to that time.

Baum described his book as "a modernized fairy tale in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares left out." It was an instant success and became the best-selling children's book of the 1900 Christmas season.

Those who have never read this classic may be surprised to discover that the 1939 Hollywood film was not the first to record one little girl's adventures in the elaborately constructed land of Oz. Instead, it had its beginnings at the turn of the last century. Cleverly incorporated in Baum's book were references to the politics and economics of a troubled time.

The Gilded Age
So named by Mark Twain, it was an age of excess between the end of the Civil War and 1900, characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, and consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a few. Repeated periods of economic depression led to declining farm prices, unemployment and labor unrest.

Overarching these problems was the question of national monetary policy. How money was created and the basis on which it circulated were crucial, defining the role of farmers and urban workers in an emerging industrial nation.

After throwing off the oppressive British yoke in the Revolution, the new nation adopted bimetallism, a monetary standard in which both gold and silver are legal tender. This was ended by what has been called "the Crime of '73," in which the silver dollar was quietly dropped from the nation's coinage in 1873, and gold became the single standard.

Opinions were sharply divided between the haves and the have-nots, rural and urban dwellers, farmers and industrial workers, Republicans and Democrats. Bankers and industrialists in the East, largely Republican, favored retaining the gold standard. New York City became the headquarters of the gold forces who opposed "free silver." The Democrats, farmers, workers and the poor all wanted a bimetallic system that included both gold and silver. Farmers were in especially big trouble; agricultural products glutted the marketplace, and prices plummeted.

Because gold was scarce, the government couldn't issue enough gold-backed currency to make loans to farmers, who wanted more money in circulation and cheaper credit. The only way to do this was with silver, the more-plentiful metal. Wall Street and the federal government, with their eyes on foreign investors, fought to retain the gold standard.

Exasperated farmers established the Farmers Alliance in 1886, a cooperative intended to bypass the powerful banking corporations in New York. The Alliance also called for government ownership of railroads, grain elevators, telegraph companies and banks, and demanded that the government regulate business to prevent collusion, price-fixing and monopolies. Entering politics in 1892, the Alliance organized the People's Party, soon to become known as the "Populists." Their argument was that if silver were made an official U.S. currency with gold and coined in unlimited quantities, the resulting inflation would raise depressed farm prices.

The Panic of 1893
There had been financial panics before--in 1837, 1857 and 1873, but nothing like the depression that started in February of 1893 with the failure of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, a victim of reckless overbuilding. By June, the nation's entire credit system had collapsed. Stock prices plunged during the summer. In a now-familiar scenario, crowds gathered outside Wall Street brokerage houses to watch their depleted fortunes melt away. By year's end, nearly 15,000 businesses had gone under, the largest toll in U.S. history. Among these were companies that controlled more than a third of the nation's railroads. Marking the start of a five-year-long depression, the panic of 1893 revealed a troubled economy and general uneasiness about the currency.

With more than 18 percent of the industrial work force unemployed in 1894, it was not long before clashes between workers and police became commonplace. More railroads had been built than could operate profitably, and they were the hardest hit. Like the recent bizarre frenzy of speculation, the railroad boom had been fueled by gullible investors who knew almost nothing about the companies whose stocks they bought. Many prospectuses were absurd or even fictitious. Investors quickly soured on railroad stocks. The financial crisis caused holders of bonds and the paper money called "greenbacks" (after the color of the reverse side of the bills) to cash them in for gold, draining the government's gold reserves.

Coxey's Army
In 1894, Jacob S. Coxey, an eccentric quarry owner and Populist from Massillon, Ohio, formed an "industrial army" of the unemployed to march on Washington and protest the government's inaction. Coxey demanded that Congress put people to work building roads and public works projects with federally subsidized bonds. Such innovative programs that would not come into being until the New Deal, including federally-funded pubic works projects. He called the march “a petition in boots’ The press dubbed the marchers “Coxey’s Army” and stirred fears of an organized rebellion by frequent references to them as tramps and cranks.

In Washington, Senator Joseph G. Hawley, senator from Connecticut and former Civil War general, warned of the problems that Coxey's Army posed as it approached Washington, where a federal law prohibited speeches and the carrying of banners on Capitol grounds. His words were prescient. "It is quite possible to manage this business gently and firmly, and have it pass away," Hawley said, "and it is quite possible to so manage it that it may become a habit to make pilgrimages annually to Congress, and endeavor to dominate Congress by the physical presence of the people."

The peaceable "army" that reached Washington on May 1, 1894, numbered somewhere between 500 and 1,000--nowhere near the predicted 100,000 marchers that had raised fears of an insurrection in the making. Thousands lined the streets to watch. Coxey managed to make it up the first five steps of the Capitol but before Coxey could address the marchers, police arrested him for “walking on the grass” as he vainly tried to read his prepared remarks. He spent 20 days in jail Congress never acted on his proposals. On May 1, 1944, the 50th anniversary of his march, Coxey returned to the Capitol at the age of 90 and was allowed to read his original speech.

The 1896 Election
The Democratic Party seized on one aspect of the Populists' currency proposals and made "free silver" a plank in its platform. A global shortage of the yellow metal plus increasing demand for its use had driven up gold prices and the value of any currency pegged to gold, forcing debtors to repay loans in currency that was growing more expensive.

The free-silver question came to a head in one of the most famous political meetings in American history--the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1896. This gathering nominated William Jennings Bryan, whose keynote speech brought listeners to their feet with its challenge: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!"

Bryan's stirring words--probably the most effective speech in the history of American party politics--led to his nomination at age 36 as the candidate of the Democratic Party. The Populist and National Silver parties added him to their tickets. Bryan ran on a platform of unlimited coinage of silver, touring the country indefatigably. In New York, a large crowd filled Madison Square Garden hoping to hear the great orator give another barnburner speech. Instead, he read a prepared statesmanlike address, droning on for two hours in the stifling heat of the packed and sweltering auditorium. Many in the disappointed crowd drifted away before he finished.

Had the election been held in August, Bryan would have won easily. At the start of the campaign, Democrats and Populists were attacking privilege, monopoly, high prices, usurious money lenders, corruption in government, and a social and economic order that had neglected ordinary people. By November, however, they were fighting on the single issue of silver.

The Democratic campaign operated on a shoestring. The gold forces were well-financed and wrapped themselves in the flag. American flags--millions of them--were the symbol of Republican candidate William McKinley, billed as the nation's "patriotic leader" and "the advance agent of prosperity." The Democrats were tarred with the sinister label of being "too friendly to anarchists." Mark Hanna, who masterminded McKinley's campaign, commented about Bryan, "He's talking Silver all the time, and that's where we've got him."

McKinley won by a margin of half a million votes out of more than 13 million cast, but his election did not restore prosperity. Bryan would run again unsuccessfully in 1900 and 1908.

Meet L. Frank BaumTravel back in time now to Chicago in 1899. Aspiring writer L. Frank Baum, 49, has tried his hand at many occupations. He has been a raiser of chickens, a playwright and actor performing his own plays until a fire wiped out the sets and costumes, a lubricating oil salesman, an owner of a variety store in the Dakota Territory, a prairie newspaper editor and publisher, a buyer of chinaware for a Chicago department store, and a traveling salesman of glassware and china.

A flop at these occupations, he starts a Chicago trade magazine, The Show Window: A Journal of Practical Window Trimming, and forms an association of window trimmers. In the past three years, he has written six children's books with modest success. A month before his 44th birthday in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has just gone to press. Crowded with imaginative stories he has told his four sons for years, its illustrations are drawn by artist William W. Denslow, with whom Baum will split the royalties.

After years of failure, the Oz book launches Baum on a profitable writing career. Success was a long time in coming. When it finally arrived, Baum made up for lost time, turning himself into a veritable book, play and song factory.

With the success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum turned his trade journal over to a new editor and began work on other books, none about Oz. These included Dot and Tot of Merryland, a full length fantasy for young readers. The Master Key, for older boys, was about the wonders of electricity. His next volume, Baum's American Fairy Tales, deserves mention because it is the first American collection of fairy tales with the United States as a setting.

Long-running theatrical productions followed the first Oz Book. The first opened in Chicago in 1902, starring vaudevillians Fred Stone and Dave Montgomery and a bevy of chorus girls. It was an immediate hit. After a year and a half on Broadway, the show toured until 1911.

Unhappy over sharing royalties with Denslow, Baum broke with the artist. His publisher hired John R. Neill, a Philadelphia artist, to illustrate most of Baum's books. Impatient book readers had clamored for more stories about the Land of Oz. He obliged them with The Marvelous Land of Oz in 1904 and Ozma of Oz in 1907, following these with a dozen other Oz titles at yearly intervals.

Baum's latter years were marked by an impressive output even though he struggled to overcome serious health problems. His defective heart ultimately led to congestive heart failure. In 1914, he began to suffer from trigeminal neuralgia, also called "tic douloureux," manifested as bouts of intense facial pain in searing, lightninglike jabs. It is one of the most painful conditions imaginable. I can attest to the almost unbearable level of pain; I myself have suffered from this incapacitating condition for two dozen years.

His output of books, including a novel for adults, was prodigious, so great he had to use an assortment of pen names: Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald, Edith Van Dyne, Floyd Akers, Laura Bancroft, John Estes Cole, Suzanne Metcalf and Schuyler Staunton. His other works included songs, plays and film scripts, and dozens of magazine stories, poems, and letters. In 1914, he formed his own movie studio in Hollywood to produce films based on his books, but problems with distribution soon forced it to close.

Death came for him at his home in Hollywood May 6, 1919, nine days before his 63rd birthday. With his wife at his bedside, he murmured his final words, "Now we can cross the Shifting Sands." Films by other movie companies followed Baum's death, the most successful of which was the 1939 MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. Hollywood changed significant details of the story, blurring the monetary connection by making the Silver Shoes red and the Witch's Golden Cap a crystal ball. Its worst sin was typical of Hollywood. It destroyed a fantasy easily believable by children, turning Dorothy's journey into nothing more than a dream, a projection of her hopes and fears.

Nor did the Baum books die with Baum's death. His publishers decided to continue the series and hired a young writer, Ruth Plumly Thompson. Between 1921 and 1939, she produced 19 additional Oz titles. When she retired, the publishers chose Oz-book illustrator John R. Neal to carry on. He wrote three Oz books between 1940 and 1942. Other Oz writers included Jack Snow and Ruth Cosgrove. The last title in the series appeared in 1963, a pale imitation of Baum's delightful style.

Baum's books have received little recognition from those who owe him the most--librarians. In 1957, Ralph Ulveling, director of the Detroit public library system, admitted that for 30 years The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had not been permitted in the children's room of the Detroit Public Library or any of its branches. He characterized the Oz books as having "a cowardly approach to life" and "negativism." "There is nothing uplifting or elevating about the Baum series," he added. "They do not compare in quality to fairy tales by Grimm and Andersen."

Defending his actions, Mr. Ulveling said, "This is not banning; it is selection." The Detroit Times did not agree. By then The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was in the public domain; the newspaper's answer to Mr. Ulveling was to serialize the book in its pages. Prominent writers also came to the defense of the Oz books, and Mr. Ulveling rapidly backpedaled, lamely claiming he was misquoted.

Oz scholar Martin Gardner summed up the feelings of Oz lovers everywhere: "Personally, I find it easier to believe in the Scarecrow than in Mr. Ulveling." Today the Oz books are found in libraries that once shunned them.

Peekskill's "Yellow Brick Road"
Although in later life L. Frank Baum made his home in the Middle West and California, he had a brief association with the lower Hudson Valley. In 1868, 12-year-old Lyman Frank Baum, from a wealthy family in the Mohawk River Valley, arrived at Peekskill's military boarding school. Following the Civil War, military schools sprang up in many communities. Their pedagogic theory was that military discipline makes a boy "more manly." Ossining had three such schools. Croton-on-Hudson and Peekskill each had one.

At the Peekskill Military Academy, cadet Baum was miserable from the start. After having been tutored at home, to be plunged abruptly into a rigidly structured environment was a shock. A sickly child and a day-dreamer, he could not adjust to harsh discipline. He especially despised the physical abuse meted out by faculty and fellow students.

He complained in letters home to his father about his brutal treatment. His teachers were "heartless, callous and continually indulging in petty nagging--about as human as a school of fish," is how he described them. Instructors were "quick to slap a boy in the face or forcibly use a cane or ruler to punish a student who violated in the slightest way any of the strict and often unreasonable rules." Despite his entreaties, his father insisted that he remain at the school.

One day during his second academic year his instructor severely disciplined him for gazing out of a window at birds instead of studying his lessons. He fainted and suffered a nervous breakdown. His father came down from Syracuse to fetch him. For the rest of his life, he would suffer from what was then called "heart trouble," probably the result of a bout with rheumatic fever. After the Peekskill ordeal, he studied at the Syracuse Classical School but did not go on to college.

Recently, a writer in a now defunct Peekskill newspaper suggested that one of Peekskill's streets paved with yellow bricks may have been the source of Baum's children's classic, pointing to his brief attendance at the Peekskill Military Academy. Before they were replaced by longer-wearing granite cobblestones called "Belgian blocks," vitrified brick was the preferred paving material. Peekskill was hardly unique in the use of yellow bricks to pave its streets.

Such unfounded speculation linking Oz to Peekskill's yellow bricks, however, overlooks the large and still growing body of scholarship pointing to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as more than a mere children's book. Strong evidence exists that Baum also cleverly included references to the political and economic forces at work in America at the time

Henry Littlefield's Discovery
In 1963, 30-year-old Mount Vernon High School teacher Henry M. Littlefield made a surprising discovery. He found that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contained what he later described as "a symbolic allegory that delineated a Midwesterner's vibrant and ironic portrait of this country as it entered the 20th century." Born in 1933, Littlefield had devoured the Oz books as a latch-key child in New York City. His findings were published as a 1964 article entitled "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism" in the academic journal American Quarterly. Littlefield died in Pacific Grove, California, in 2000 at the age of 66.

His persuasive interpretation saw Baum's Scarecrow, seeking a brain, as personifying a Western farmer. The Tin Woodman, wishing for a heart, is a dehumanized urban industrial worker. And the Cowardly Lion in search of courage symbolizes the politician William Jennings Bryan, who failed to deliver on his promises of change.

The Wicked Witch of the East typifies Wall Street. Dorothy's silver shoes represent the Populist's demand for free silver. Obviously, the Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard.

The Emerald City is Washington, and the Wizard, who turned out to be a humbug, could have been any of the ineffectual presidents from Grant to McKinley. The Winged Monkeys depict the degraded Plains Indians Baum had known on the frontier.

That a bucket of water is enough to melt the Wicked Witch of the West (who symbolizes the malign forces of nature) underscores how important water could be to drought-ridden prairie farmers.

Baum's story of an archetypical American girl in silver shoes on a road paved with golden bricks in a country whose name, Oz, was the abbreviation for ounce (the unit of weight in which silver and gold are measured) surely had more meaning for contemporary readers than it does for those who read it today.

L. Frank Baum was familiar with Populism and free silver. In 1888, he and his family had headed west to Aberdeen in the Dakota Territory, where he started a small store, Baum's Bazaar, offering art pottery and elegant imported glassware. In an area impoverished by drought and falling wheat prices, the store lasted only about a year.

Next he took over one of Aberdeen's nine newspapers and renamed it The Saturday Pioneer. He did everything, writing news stories, editorials, and a regular column sympathetic to the problems of his agrarian readers at a time when the Populist movement was gaining favor among farmers on the frontier. In spite of his best efforts, the newspaper also failed. In 1891, the Baum family left South Dakota for Chicago. He was still without a career.

If his Dakota experience had made him aware of the plight of the farmer and the growth of Populism, Chicago alerted him to the social and political turmoil affecting urban industrial workers. It was perfectly in keeping with Baum's character for him to weave these elements into his playful story, giving it meaningful links to the history of the period.

Nineteen years after his remarkable discovery, Henry M. Littlefield, by then a college professor in California, reminisced in 1982 about his discovery that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a political parable. During the summer of 1963, he taught a remedial summer course at Mount Vernon High School for students who had to pass the U.S. History regents test to graduate.

"It was July," he recalled, "and hot and airless on the third floor of the old Davis High School building (now the A.B. Davis Middle School at 350 Gramatan Avenue in Mount Vernon). But we had the usual public school understanding: the teacher needed the money, the students needed the credit, and we tolerated each other.

"Toward the end of the month, I was reading the opening chapters of The Wizard of Oz to my two daughters, then ages five and two. At the same time, in the history course I taught we were going through the Populist period and the 1890's. I lived just a few blocks from the school, and I remember running to class on that hot, airless third floor the next day.

"I said to my none-too-willing students, 'Guess what? In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wears the silver shoes of the Wicked Witch of the East and walks on a yellow brick road!'

"I waited. And waited. Finally a hand went up. 'Nah, Teach,' came the answer, 'She wears red shoes; we know the movie.' [The film changed the shoes to red for greater color contrast. The Witch's golden cap of the book was changed to a crystal ball in the film.]

"'Remember yesterday,' I said, 'we were talking about the campaign of 1896? What about William Jennings Bryan's Populist issue of silver being added to the gold standard to give the farmers more money to borrow at easier rates?'

"I went on to explain that the Oz book, from which the movie was made, was published in 1900, and that movies change things around. I showed them a W.W. Denslow illustration of the silver shoes--they knew about the yellow brick road--and from that silver and gold campaign issue, we began to brainstorm some other connections."

Littlefield's black students, many of whose parents had migrated from the rural South, readily saw the Scarecrow as a farmer. The Tin Woodman was also easy for urban kids to see as representing workers. Many of their parents were often out of a job. That he was rusted and unable to move, they connected to the long industrial depression of 1893.

Identifying the Cowardly Lion was more challenging. When the students discovered that Bryan could be described in leonine terms, with his flowing hair, his aggressive speaking style, his booming voice, and that Bryan rhymed with lion, "the fit seemed all too perfect," Littlefield recalled.

Even the march of the naively innocent Ozian characters toward the Emerald City to seek favors from a humbug Wizard mirrored the 1894 march on Washington by Coxey's Army of the unemployed to ask for work

The students had identified a farmer, a worker and a politician going to the great leader to have their problems solved. But who, then, was Dorothy? The girls in the class, who had been quiet during the week of brainstorming, offered a candidate. "'She's us,' they suggested. 'She wants to go home; so do we! We all have people to take care of and chores to do--and here we are talking about Oz and wishing we could be home! She's real!'"

Thanks to movies and television, Henry Littlefield's students were already familiar with Oz. He had found a way to make Populism and the politics of a distant historical period meaningful to them. But when word of Henry Littlefield's theory spread, some fans of the Oz books became upset to discover that their simple fantasy had its roots in American economic and political history. Teachers, on the other hand, found it a useful tool for making history come alive.

Over the years, doctoral theses, magazine articles and popular books have analyzed and dissected The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Baum's children's classic has been seen as a secular myth, a tale about the inadequacy of adults, a story that speaks to the exile and a theosophical allegory (Baum was intrigued by theosophy.) It has also been the subject of feminist and psychoanalytical readings.

Hugh Rockoff
Henry Littlefield was not alone in finding hidden significance in Baum's first Oz book. Hugh Rockoff, an economics professor at Rutgers University, agreed with Littlefield's basic conclusion that the first Oz book portrayed the battle over free silver in the 19th century's closing years. But rather than seeing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a Populist allegory, Rockoff saw Baum as a socially conscious satirist.

Rockoff also found other hidden clues: At the palace in the Emerald City, Dorothy is led through seven passages and up three flights of stairs. He saw the numbers 7 and 3 as referring to the "Crime of '73," Congress's elimination of the silver dollar.

In one hall, "many ladies and gentlemen of the court, all dressed in rich costumes," had "nothing to do but talk to each other." Rockoff describes this as "not amiss in a description of Washington, D.C."

He saw the Wizard not as an ineffectual President, but as Mark Hanna--in Populist eyes, the brains behind the McKinley campaign. It was Hanna who raised the millions from giant corporations that defeated Bryan. To Rockoff, the Wicked Witch of the East was pro-gold Democratic President Grover Cleveland; the Wicked Witch of the West was Republican William McKinley, from Ohio.

The enslavement of the yellow Winkies is clearly a thinly disguised reference to McKinley's decision not to grant independence to the Philippines, recently acquired by the United States after the Spanish-American War.

Rockoff published his findings in 1990 in the respected Journal of Political Economy. Two years later, in a collection of essays titled "Money Mischief: Episodes in American History," Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman endorsed Rockoff's paper, calling its conclusions "fascinating."

Gretchen Ritter
A professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, Gretchen Ritter, added fuel to the fire by publishing still another Ozian analysis. Entitled "Silver Slippers and a Golden Cap: L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Historical Memory in American Politics," it appeared in the Journal of American Studies in 1997.

Her article pointed out other clues Baum had planted in his text. When Dorothy and her little group reach the palace, the Wizard sets their appointment for exactly 9:04 the next morning; 1894 was the year another group, Coxey's Army of the unemployed, came to Washington in search of help.

Ritter rejected attempts to characterize Baum and his work as pro-Populist or pro-capitalist and consumerist, seeing it instead as a reshaping of historical memory of the last years of the Gilded Age. She concluded, "Only when we recover the Populist vision of politics and history are we privy to the broader political struggle that was represented in the money debates. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an artifact of a political culture in which money, color and geography symbolize broad struggles of class, race and region." She closed by calling it, "a culture worth remembering."

Sir James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, once wisely observed, "Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much." Whether The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is also a monetary allegory, social satire, or any other interpretation is unimportant. It is what it is, a delightful fantasy told in lively and inventive style that should be enjoyed as such.

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