Political interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Political interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz include treatments of the modern fairy tale (written by L. Frank Baum and first published in 1900) as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic and social events of America in the 1890s. Scholars have examined four quite different versions of Oz: the novel of 1900, the Broadway Play of 1901, the Hollywood film of 1939, and the numerous follow-up Oz novels written after 1900 by Baum and others.
The political interpretations focus on the first three, and emphasize the close relationship between the visual images and the story line to the political interests of the day. Biographers report that Baum had been a political activist in the 1890s with a special interest in the money question of gold and silver, and the illustrator Denslow was a full-time editorial cartoonist for a major daily newspaper. For the 1901 Broadway production Baum inserted explicit references to prominent political characters such as President Theodore Roosevelt.
In a 1964 article, educator and historian Henry Littlefield outlined an allegory in the book of the late 19th-century debate regarding monetary policy. According to this view, for instance, the "Yellow Brick Road" represents the gold standard, and the silver slippers (ruby in the 1939 film version) represent the Silverite sixteen to one silver ratio (dancing down the road).
The thesis achieved considerable popular interest and elaboration by many scholars in history, economics and other fields, but is not universally accepted. Certainly the 1901 musical version of "Oz", written by Baum, was for an adult audience and had numerous explicit references to contemporary politics, though in these references Baum seems just to have been "playing for laughs." The 1902 stage adaptation mentioned, by name, President Theodore Roosevelt and other political celebrities. For example, the Tin Woodman wonders what he would do if he ran out of oil. "You wouldn't be as badly off as John D. Rockefeller," the Scarecrow responds, "He'd lose six thousand dollars a minute if that happened."
Littlefield's knowledge of the 1890s was thin, and he made numerous errors, but since his article was published, scholars in history, political science and economics have asserted that the images and characters used by Baum closely resemble political images that were well known in the 1890s. Quentin Taylor, for example, claimed that many of the events and characters of the book resemble the actual political personalities, events and ideas of the 1890s. Dorothy—naïve, young and simple—represents the American people. She is Everyman, led astray and seeking the way back home. Moreover, 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. It is ruled by a scheming politician (the Wizard) who uses publicity devices and tricks to fool the people (and even the Good Witches) into believing he is benevolent, wise, and powerful when really he is selfish and cruel. He sends Dorothy into severe danger hoping she will rid him of his enemy the Wicked Witch of the West. He is powerless and, as he admits to Dorothy, "I'm a very bad Wizard."
Historian Quentin Taylor sees additional metaphors, including:
- The Scarecrow as a representation of American farmers and their troubles in the late 19th century.
- The Tin Man representing the American steel industry's failures to combat increased international competition at the time
- The Cowardly Lion as a metaphor for the American military's performance in the Spanish-American War.
Taylor also claimed a sort of iconography for the cyclone: it 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. It was also used by editorial cartoonists of the 1890s to represent political upheaval.
Other putative allegorical devices of the book include the Wicked Witch of the West as a figure for the actual American West; if this is true, then the monkeys could represent another western danger: Native Americans. One suggested interpretation is that the Winged Monkeys in the West could be a symbol for Native Americans. The King of the Winged Monkeys tells Dorothy, "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 was many years ago, long before Oz came out of the clouds to rule over this land."
In fact, Baum proposed in two editorials he wrote in December 1890 for his newspaper, the Saturday Pioneer, the total genocidal slaughter of all remaining indigenous peoples. "The Whites," Baum wrote, "by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation?"
Other writers have used the same evidence to lead to precisely opposite allegorical interpretations.
Apart from intentional symbolism, scholars have speculated on the sources of Baum's ideas and imagery. The "man behind the curtain" could be a reference to automated store window displays of the sort famous at Christmas season in big city department stores; many people watching the fancy clockwork motions of animals and mannequins thought there must be an operator behind the curtain pulling the levers to make them move (Baum was the editor of the trade magazine read by window dressers).
Additional allegories have been developed, without claims that they were originally intended by Baum. The text has been treated as a theosophical allegory. In 1993 W. Geoffrey Seeley recast the story as an exercise in treachery, suggesting the supposed "Good Witch Glinda" used an innocent, ignorant patsy (Dorothy) to overthrow both her own sister witch (Witch of the West) and the Wizard of Oz, leaving herself as undisputed master of all four corners of Oz: North, East, West and (presumably The Emerald City) South. She even showed her truest "Machiavellian brilliance" by allowing the story to be entitled after the weakest of her three opponents. Glinda could have told Dorothy that the "silver slippers would easily do the job [of returning Dorothy to her beloved home] but decided that a destabilizing force such as Dorothy might be just the thing to shake up her other rival [The Wizard Of Oz]." Kassinger, in her book Gold: From Greek Myth to Computer Chips, purports that "The Wizard symbolizes bankers who support the gold standard and oppose adding silver to it... Only Dorothy's silver slippers can take her home to Kansas", meaning that by Dorothy not realizing that she had the silver slippers the whole time, Dorothy, or "the westerners", never realized they already had a viable currency of the people.
- Ritter, Gretchen (August 1997). "Silver slippers and a golden cap: L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and historical memory in American politics". Journal of American Studies 31 (2): 171–203. JSTOR 27556260.
- Swartz, Mark Evan (2000). Oz Before the Rainbow: L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" on Stage and Screen to 1939. The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6477-1.
- Olson, James (2001). Historical Dictionary of the Great Depression, 1929–1940. Greenwood. pp. 315–316. ISBN 0-313-30618-4.
- Hearn, Michael Patrick, ed. (2000). The Annotated Wizard of Oz. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-04992-2.
- Littlefield, Henry (1964). "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism". American Quarterly 16 (1): 47–58. doi:10.2307/2710826. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Sanders, Mitch (July 1991). "Setting the Standards on the Road to Oz". The Numismatist (American Numismatic Association): 1042–1050. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Parker, David B. (1994). "The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a 'Parable on Populism'". Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians 15: 49–63. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Gjovaag, Eric (2006). "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Frequently Asked Questions: The Books". The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Website. Retrieved 2007-06-09.
- Dighe, Ranjit S., ed. (2002). The historian's Wizard of Oz: reading L. Frank Baum's classic as a political and Monetary Allegory. ISBN 0-275-97418-9.
- Taylor, Quentin P. (2004-12-02). "Money and Politics in the Land of Oz". The Independent Institute. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Hansen, Bradley A. (2002). "The Fable of the Allegory: The Wizard of Oz in Economics". Journal of Economic Education 33 (3). JSTOR 1183440. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Michael Patrick Hearn, The annotated Wizard of Oz: the wonderful Wizard of Oz (2000) p. 271
- Jodi A. Byrd, "'Living My Native Life Deadly': Red Lake, Ward Churchill, and the Discourses of Competing Genocides", American Indian Quarterly, 31:2 (Spring 2007), pp. 310-332. See p. 319. For the complete text of Baum's editorials, see A. Waller Hastings, "L. Frank Baum's Editorials on the Sioux Nation", available here.
- Culver, Stuart (1988). "What Manikins Want: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors". Representations 21: 97–116. doi:10.1525/rep.19126.96.36.199p02045.
- Algeo, John (1988). "Oz and Kansas: A Theosophical Quest". In Gannon, Susan R.; Thompson, Ruth Anne. Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Conference of the Children’s Literature Association. Kansas City: University of Missouri. pp. 135–39. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Seeley, W. Geoffrey (1993-12-26). "The Geo-Politics of Oz; Now It Can Be Told! Treachery, Tin Men, Hegemony and Toto". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Kassinger, Ruth (2003). Gold: From Greek Myth to Computer Chips. 21st Century. ISBN 0-7613-2110-1.
- Barrett, Laura (March 22, 2006). "From Wonderland to Wasteland: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Great Gatsby, and the New American Fairy Tale". Papers on Language and Literature (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville). Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), Frank+inauthor: Baum&num=30&as_brr=1 online edition with black and white illustrations; online version from Gutenberg, without illustrations
- Blythe, Martin (2006). "Oz is China: A Political Fable of Chinese Dragons and White Tigers". Sexual Fables. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Bernstein, Robin (2011). Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights,. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-8708-3.
- Clanton, Gene (1991). Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890–1900. Twayne Pub. ISBN 0-8057-9744-0.
- Erisman, Fred L. (1968). "L. Frank Baum and the Progressive Dilemma". American Quarterly 20 (3): 616–623. JSTOR 2711021.
- Gessel, Michael; Koupal, Nancy Tystad; Erisman, Fred (2001). "The Politics of Oz: a Symposium". South Dakota History 31 (2): 146–168. ISSN 0361-8676.
- Gilead, Sarah (March 1991). "Magic Abjured: Closure in Children's Fantasy Fiction". PMLA 106 (2). JSTOR 462663.
- Griswold, Jerry (1987). "There's No Place But Home: The Wizard of Oz". The Antioch Review 45 (4): 462–75.
- Jahangir, Rumeana (2009-03-17). "Secrets of the Wizard of Oz". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Jensen, Richard (1971). The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888–1896. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-39825-0. chapter 10
- Karp, Andrew (1998). "Utopian Tension in L. Frank Baum's Oz". Utopian Studies. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Kim, Helen M. (1996). "Strategic Credulity: Oz as Mass Cultural Parable". Cultural Critique (33): 213–233. JSTOR 1354392.
- Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (1993), pp. 248–260. excerpt and text search
- Leach, William. "The Clown from Syracuse: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum. " introduction to Leach, ed. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz 1991. pp 1–34.
- Nesbet, Anne (2001). "In Borrowed Balloons: The Wizard of Oz and the History of Soviet Aviation". The Slavic and East European Journal (American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages) 45 (1): 80–95. JSTOR 3086411.
- Riley, Michael O. (1997). Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum. University of Kansas Press. ISBN 0-7006-0832-X.
- Ritter, Gretchen (1999). Goldbugs and Greenbacks: The Anti-Monopoly Tradition and the Politics of Finance in America. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-65392-4.
- Rockoff, Hugh (August 1990). "The 'Wizard of Oz' as a Monetary Allegory". Journal of Political Economy 98 (4). JSTOR 2937766.
- Velde, Francois R. (2002). "Following the Yellow Brick Road: How the United States Adopted the Gold Standard". Economic Perspectives 26 (2). doi:10.2139/ssrn.377760. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- Ziaukas, Tim (1998). "100 Years of Oz: Baum's 'Wizard of Oz' as Gilded Age Public Relations". Public Relations Quarterly. Retrieved 2011-10-28.
- The Yellow Brick Road to Utopia—a comparison of the book and film
- Pros and cons of Oz as an allegory