The Wizard of Oz
Frank L. Baum
1900

OK, it’s The Wizard of Oz. It’s Dorothy and little Toto, Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Woodsman, witches good and bad. It’s one of the best known children’s books, the inspiration for countless re-tellings, and the source material for Gregory McGuire’s Wicked series – which is, I gotta say, one of the greatest adult variations on an old standard I’ve read, and one that each and every one of you should read, too. I don’t need to tell anyone why this book is culturally important, or how it continues to shape us. So instead, I’ll focus on something else about Frank L. Baum’s fairytale.

A few years back I was in Chicago for a union conference, and went on a fantastic labour history tour that included some awesome mural projects, Haymarket Square, and the home of Chicago’s Evening Post, the newspaper that employed the Oz author. This in a labour history tour? Yup. And why that was appropriate came out in a long story told by the tour leader, based on a thesis that’s been kicking around academic and political circles for a number of years: that The Wizard of Oz is much more than a kids’ story – it’s a parable about America, industrialization, and the political economy of financial markets. Now, whether this is indeed the case is widely-debated. But a whole lot of people read Oz as a story of nation-building and struggle, and so whatever the original vision of its author and making no claims to historical truth, here’s the myth that keeps growing in a nutshell.

The whole thing is a parable about the debate over the gold standard. The value of US currency was pegged to gold, whose world supply was controlled by a small group of bankers and financiers. In the 1890s, a substantial political movement – represented most notably by William Jennings Bryan  – sought to have the dollar pegged to silver, which was plentiful in the American West, in hopes that this might break the political-economic power of the financial elite and give greater clout to the broader mass of the population. At the time, many of the characters and symbols we associate with the Oz story were common devices in editorial cartoons and popular media, representing specific figures or ideas of political import. So, what to us appear products of Baum’s imagination were widely understood in that time as something else entirely.

The cyclone was a common symbol of political upheaval and social revolution at the time, figuring prominently in many a political cartoon.

The Scarecrow is the politically-naive farmer, his common-sense knowledge increasingly eschewed in favour of the bullshit spewing from economists and bankers.

The Tin Woodsman is the industrial worker – alienated, dehumanized, reduced to a cog in the machine.

The Cowardly Lion is Jennings Bryan himself, talking a good game but never willing risk the confrontation with big finance that is necessary.

The Wicked Witch represents the money-elite of the West, foreclosing on farmers and destroying the agricultural heart of America. And she is defeated, of course, by water – the rains being the primary protection for small farmers for whom drought so often preceded the eviction notice.

The Wizard himself, of course, is the political manipulator – no individual as much as the machine that is the political system.

The Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard. And where does it lead but the Emerald City, which represents the dollar, and is fundamentally a place of all style and no substance – an imagined wealth which has nothing of real value behind it.

And Dorothy? The Everyman/ Everywoman, just trying to make her way in the world. What’s critical here, though, is the slippers. We all immediately fly to images of the ruby shoes, but that was a device of the movie. In the book, Dorothy wears silver slippers – representing, of course, the silver standard proposal at the heart of Jennings Bryan’s campaign, and the only thing that can safely carry America through this land that is all magic and mystification.

Oh, and Oz as title? That’s something we still see today, in gold and cookbooks – shorthand for ‘ounce’.

Again, is all this true? Who knows. Frank L. Baum always maintained that The Wizard of Oz was just a children’s story. And while some academics maintain the allegorical reading, others point out a number of political discrepencies that make it unlikely. But Baum was a reporter, he fell on the Jennings side of the gold-silver debate, and in later books he was known to mention political figures by name and go hardcore on the offense against massive institutions like Standard Oil. But really, at this stage it just don’t matter. The metaphor is there. It’s been debated extensively, and has taken on a life of its own. Cause books are as much about the readers as the writer.

 

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