The Wizard of Oz — Politically Speaking

Politics, it seems, is on almost everyone’s mind these days. Political pundits are popping up on the nightly news to offer their spin on current events, and groups of like-minded protesters are taking to the streets in condemnation or support of particular ideologies. It’s almost as if politics has been infused into every part of our daily lives. But, are these politically charged times any different from past generations? Well, if you believe the theory about the political metaphors in the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,[1] political discourse is as American as apple pie.

Take a New Look at an Old Classic: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the Political Theory

Poster_2_advertising_The_Wonderful_Wizard_of_Oz_by_L._Frank_Baum_and_issued_by_the_George_M._Hill_Company_1900
Public Domain Photo Wikimedia

Tucked away in the Southern California coastal community of Coronado is the West Coast’s first seaside resort, The Hotel del Coronado. Known simply as “The Del,” the luxurious and whimsical water-front retreat has been the preferred vacation spot for

L._Frank_Baum_(1911)

presidents, royalty, celebrities, and the public alike. One famous writer who stayed at The Del was L. (Lyman) Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Baum was a frequent long-term guest at the Hotel del Coronado and, although he did not write Oz while at the beachfront hideaway, he wrote several other books during his stays.

The Del is also where I first heard an interesting political theory about Oz. While in the midst of browsing through branded souvenirs and other knick-knacks in one of The Del’s many gift shops, I overheard a young woman speaking to an elderly couple. The woman was excited and animated as she talked about a little-known belief that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a political parable. The chatty young girl insisted that the warm and cleverly written fairy tale included a symbolic political message carefully meshed into the storyline.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow People are Arguing over Politics

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I was taken aback when I heard the political theory. I couldn’t imagine that somewhere over the rainbow people were arguing over politics. Are there any safe zones, free of political banter? Before overhearing this bit of news, I’d thought the most interesting description of Baum’s story was something I’d read a long time ago by a television writer.

“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” [2]

There was also a memorable meme, which said that Oz was about, “Two women fighting over a pair of shoes.” But a metaphor? Needless to say, a political wrench was thrown into my perception of Oz, and my curiosity compelled me to take off my green Emerald City spectacles and look askew at an unsuspected depth in a famous American fairy tale. Clearing my mind of the cobwebs of tradition, I was free to dive into my research. In the midst of perusing through documents, the political theory began to make sense, and I remembered The Scarecrow’s astute words.

“Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t you think?”

Was the hay-filled fellow referring to politicians? They are, after all, known for doing an awful lot of talking—just listen to them filibuster. As I continued my quest for answers, I found myself singing the words to a chant attributed to two tough Australian brigades in 1941:

“Have you heard of the wonderful wizard,
The wonderful Wizard of Oz,
And he is a wonderful wizard,
If ever a wizard there was.” [1]

Lions and Tigers and Parables — Oh My!

The_Wizard_of_Oz_1902_musical
1902 Musical—Public Domain Photo Wikimedia

The first obvious hint of politicization came from the pen of a playwright. After the publication of Oz in 1900, Baum and the book’s illustrator William Wallace Denslow partnered with composer Paul Tietjens on a musical stage adaptation of the book. The script, which closely mirrored the book, was initially rejected. A revised version of the musical was co-written by American writer Glen MacDonough, the son of theater manager Thomas B. MacDonough and actress/author Laura Don.[3] The new version dropped the word “Wonderful” from the title and added political humor. Dubbed a “musical extravaganza,” the jocular folly-type production opened in 1902 as “The Wizard of Oz.”[4]

The characters made a number of political jokes and references, but in 1904, producer Fred R. Hamlin ordered a line about Senator Mark Hanna dropped from the script after learning of the senator’s death. One line that was not cut from the farcical production poked fun at American oil magnate John D. Rockefeller; the Tin Woodman worried about what to do if he ran out of oil, and the Scarecrow responded with a wisecrack.

“You wouldn’t be as badly off as John D. Rockefeller; he’d lose six thousand dollars a minute if that happened. “[5]

Fairy Tale vs. Political Tale

The_Wizard_of_Oz_1955_Lobby_Card
Public Domain Photo

In a thesis published in American Quarterly, Spring 1964, titled “The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism,”[1] historian, educator, and author Henry M. Littlefield hypothesized the theory that Baum’s famous story was actually a political allegory of turn-of-the-century America. He speculated that Baum posed a central theme throughout the story— “The American desire for symbols of fulfillment is illusory. Real needs lie elsewhere.”

Littlefield was the first to publically surmise the concept of a clandestine populist theme woven throughout Oz. The foundation for his theory was Baum’s political leanings. Littlefield summarized that Baum carefully placed symbols of those political forces in the characters, scenes, and events of his famous book. Another point of interest was Littlefield’s reference to Baum’s 1904 work, The Marvelous Land of Oz, characterizing it as a blatant satire on feminism and the suffragette movement.

Others confirmed Littlefield’s conclusions regarding Baum’s populist persuasion, including his political activism during the 1890s. Some also documented Baum’s fascination with “The Gold Standard Act” passed in 1900 and signed into law by President William McKinley. This act made gold the only standard for redeeming paper money, and it discontinued bimetallism (the act allowing the exchange of silver, in addition to gold).[6]

Littlefield theorized regarding the specific interpretation of the symbolism, and, like a skilled lawyer delivering a convincing closing argument, he laid out a comprehensive case of facts intertwined with speculation. He concluded by conceding the analogies were “admittedly theoretical,” but ended his argument with the statement that the analogies were also far too consistent to be coincidental.

In the years since Parable on Populism, others have hypothesized different interpretations of Oz, including philosophical and religious themes.[7] Littlefield disputed these opinions, writing, The Wizard of Oz has neither the mature religious appeal of a Pilgrim’s Progress. Nor the philosophic depth of a Candide.

Oz Babble

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©DebWax

Henry Littlefield’s conclusions were not widely accepted. Some disputed the notion that Baum was sympathetic with the Populist Party,[8] while others drew more severe objections, like Baum’s great-grandson who dismissed the parable thesis as “insane.”[9]

Even Baum, himself, claimed his work was written, “solely to please children.” His introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, on the surface, appears to rebuff the suggestion of any hidden meaning.

“Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

 

“Yet the old-time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as ‘historical’ in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer ‘wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

 

“Having this thought in mind, the story of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.”[10]

Metaphors

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Littlefield’s Parable on Populism outlined several metaphoric interpretations:[1]

Dorothy: She was the only one of the four main characters with a real problem. Dorothy is Baum’s “Miss Everyman,” and represents the average human with real problems. The Silver Slippers gave Dorothy the opportunity to go home at any time, but she was ignorant of their power and took the mundane and dangerous Yellow Brick Road. The inference drawn here is that, “while goodness affords a people ultimate protection against evil, ignorance of their capabilities allows evil to impose itself upon them.”

The Scarecrow: The first person Dorothy met was the Scarecrow. A garrulous character with a vacuous smile, he often appeared befuddled. The Scarecrow displayed a sense of inferiority and a large degree of self-doubt, and he concluded that he needed a brain. The Scarecrow represents the American farmer of the late 19th-century, described as ignorant, irrational, and general muddle-headedness by newspaper editor and author William Allen White in an 1896 article titled “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

The Tin Woodman/Tin Man: When Dorothy met the pensive Woodman he was stuck in an abject situation; he’d been in the same position for over a year, rusted and stiff. His cumbersome quagmire exhibited an obvious parallel to the condition of many Eastern workers after the depression of 1893. The Tin Woodman represents the American steel industry and the industrial worker, often dehumanized by the Industrialist with “no heart.”

The Cowardly Lion: Born a coward, he displayed a façade of fierceness with his loud roars, but whenever he sensed danger he’d sob and his heart began to beat fast. The enigmatic Cowardly Lion represents politicians in general but specifically William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, who ran unsuccessfully for president three times. Bryan is described as a pacifist who was often indecisive and mocked as a “coward” by his adversaries.

The Wizard: Described as a successful humbug and little bumbling old man. The Wizard manages to fool everyone into thinking he is the most powerful man in Oz, but in reality, he is just a common man. The Wizard symbolizes the American criterion for leadership (he can be everything to everybody), and he could represent any U.S. President from Grant to McKinley.

The Wicked Witches: Evil ruled both the East and the West, and at the end of the story both evil witches are dead.

The Wicked Witch of the East: She kept the Munchkin people in bondage for many years, and represented “evil” Eastern influences. Dorothy’s house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, which killed her and illustrated that nature, by sheer accident, can provide benefits.

The Wicked Witch of the West: She used natural forces to achieve her ends, and is Baum’s version of sentient and malign nature. The Wicked Witch of the West manipulates the people and holds them prisoner by cynically taking advantage of their natural innocence. Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West by drenching her with a bucket of water; the water is the precious commodity that the drought-ridden farmers needed. Plain water brings an end to the evil natural strength in the West. The Wicked Witch of the West is said to represent banker bosses, who manipulate people through malevolence, and American businessman and Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, who was instrumental in McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan.

The Good Witches of the North and South: The Good Witch of the North represents the workers of the north, while The Good Witch of the South represents the farmers of the south. These two witches contrast the evil industrialists of the East and the railroad moguls of the West. The people of the North and South are ruled by good witches who are less powerful than their counterparts in the East and West.

The Emerald City: This glitzy and glamorous city represents the Nation’s Capitol.

Flying Winged Monkeys: When first introduced, the Winged Monkeys are under the subjugation of The Wicked Witch of the West, however, after her death her spell is lifted and the Monkeys return to a state of goodness. This group represents the plains Indians, and their leader declares, “Once . . . We were a free people . . . This was many years ago, long before Oz came out of the clouds to rule over this land.” The tribe refuses to go with Dorothy to Kansas, and the Monkey King explains, “We belong to this country alone, and cannot leave it.”

The Yellow Brick Road: The road of gold leads to power, and represents the Gold Standard. The yellow brick road does not go in the direction of the Wicked Witch of the West, and in the book, Dorothy walks on the gold road with silver (not ruby) slippers, which together represent the Silver and Gold Standards.

Folklore or Federal Tale

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Littlefield notes Baum’s “prophetic placement of leadership in Oz after Dorothy’s departure.” The Scarecrow, now confident with his intellectual ability and no longer seeking the erudite brain, is the new leader of Oz. The Tin Woodman has taken over the leadership in the West and with his heart, can empathize with the people. And, the Lion, with his courage, protects the smaller beasts in the forest.

In the years following Littlefield’s article, historians, economists, literary scholars, and others have examined the possibility of political undertones, but the concept is not without its detractors. Many people have a visceral reaction to the beloved, almost poetic, fable of Oz, and they remain immutable to the idea that there could be a non-palpable practical point to the story.

So, what’s the truth? Perhaps, as Dorothy discovered she had the power to go home all along, we will one day find that the truth was always right in front of our eyes. But, until then, I may have to return to The Del in search of more information. Maybe I’ll run into an all-knowing wizard who will answer all my questions. “I’m off to see the Wizard . . .”

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1921 Locust Yearbook —Public Domain Photo Wikimedia

About the Author

W-1 Portrait: Self-Portrait
©DebWax

Deb describes herself as a procrastinating perfectionist who is also introspective. She is a writer, avid photographer, and ‘70s music junkie. Deb has written for several online publications, and her writings cover a hodgepodge of topics from the hot-button issues and cracker-barrel philosophy of today’s coffee culture to the Gordian Knot on the secular view of faith and religion.

With regards to her photography, Deb recently completed the 2016 Dogwood 52-Week Photography Challenge and is currently participating in the group’s advanced challenge. Deb is a photo contributor on Shutterstock, and you can find a number of her photos, including her challenge pictures, on her blog: Sunday Artist

Deb has been married for over twenty-five years and describes her existence as a Darby and June life.

You can follow Deb on Twitter, Google +, Flickr, Instagram, and Shutterstock @DebW07

 

Bibliography

1 Littlefield, H.M., (1964), The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism, Retrieved June 23, 2017, from http://www.shsu.edu/his_rtc/2014_FALL/Wizard_of_Oz_Littlefield.pdf

2 Strecker, E. (2012, October 26). ‘Wizard of Oz’ movie description goes viral. Retrieved June 23, 2017, from http://ew.com/article/2012/10/26/wizard-of-oz-movie-description/

3 Maxine, D. (2013, February 22), Musical of the Month: A Production History of the 1903 Oz, Retrieved June 23, 2017, from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/12/15/musical-month-production-history-1903-oz

4 Kalpana, K., (2016, January 18), Political Interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Retrieved June 23, 2017, from https://alchetron.com/Political-interpretations-of-The-Wonderful-Wizard-of-Oz-4014934-W

5 Swartz, M. E., (2000), Oz before the Rainbow: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on Stage and Screen to 1939, Baltimore, Maryland, The Johns Hopkins University Press

6 Rosen, S. (1991, December 19), No Mysticism in Oz, Just the Populist Credo, Retrieved June 23, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/20/opinion/l-no-mysticism-in-oz-just-the-populist-credo-245091.html

7 Steinfels, P., (1991, November 27), Following the Yellow Brick Road, and Finding a Spiritual Path, Retrieved June 23, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/28/us/following-the-yellow-brick-road-and-finding-a-spiritual-path.html

8 Hearn, M.P., (1992, January 09), ‘Oz’ Author Never Championed Populism, Retrieved June 23, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/10/opinion/l-oz-author-never-championed-populism-370792.html

9 Taylor, Q.P., (2012, January 30), Money and Politics in the Land of Oz, Retrieved June 23, 2017, from http://www.ahschools.us/cms/lib08/MN01909485/Centricity/Domain/818/Grade%2012%20Economics/oz.html

10 Baum, L.F., (1900, May 17), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Retrieved June 23, 2017, from http://www.read.gov/books/pageturner/2006gen32405/#page/6/mode/2up

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