Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Wizard of Oz did not run for president

From Debt: the first 5,000 years by David Graeber:
L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which appeared in 1900, is widely recognized to be a parable for the Populist campaign of William Jennings Bryan, who twice ran for president on the Free Silver platform – vowing to replace the gold standard with a bimetallic system that would allow the free creation of silver money alongside gold. … [O]ne of the main constituencies for the movement was debtors: particularly, Midwestern farm families such as Dorothy’s, who had been facing a massive wave of foreclosures during the severe recession of the 1890s. According to the Populist reading, the Wicked Witches of the East and West represent the East and West Coast bankers (promoters of and benefactors from the tight money supply), the Scarecrow represented the farmers (who didn’t have the brains to avoid the debt trap), the Tin Woodsman [sic] was the industrial proletariat (who didn’t have the heart to act in solidarity with the farmers), the Cowardly Lion represented the political class (who didn’t have the courage to intervene). The yellow brick road, silver slippers, emerald city, and hapless Wizard presumably speak for themselves. “Oz” is of course the standard abbreviation for “ounce.” As an attempt to create a new myth, Baum’s story was remarkably effective. As political propaganda, less so. William Jennings Bryan failed in three attempts to win the presidency, the silver standard was never adopted, and few nowadays even remember what The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was originally supposed to be about.
David Graeber follows up on this passage from the main text in the notes section at the back of the book:
Baum never admitted that the book had a political subtext, but even those who doubt he put one in intentionally … admit that such a meaning was quickly attributed to it – there were already explicit political references in the stage version of 1902, only two years after the book’s original publication.
Perhaps, the most incontrovertible piece of evidence for Wizard’s being a political allegory is this:
Dorothy represents Teddy Roosevelt, since syllabically, “dor-o-thee” is the same as “thee-o-dor,” only backwards.
In his bibliography David Graeber gives the following sources for the above:

Littlefield, Henry. 1963. “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” American Quarterly 16 (1): 47-98.

Rockoff, Hugh. 1990. “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory.” Journal of Political Economy 98 (4): 739-760.

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 14: 49-63.

Taylor, Quentin P. 2005. “Money and Politics in the Land of Oz.” The Independent Review 9 (3): 413-426.

I learned from Graeber’s Debt and I admire his devotion to tracking down this story – four sources! – but what I learned from Debt was not this nonsense about The Wizard of Oz. I was going to slap Graeber around myself but then I happened upon this passage in Paul R. Bienvenue’s The Book Collector’s Guide to L. Frank Baum and Oz:
The impact of [The Wizard of Oz] on American culture was felt almost immediately. The front page of The Syracuse Sunday Herald printed what may have been the first Wizard of Oz-inspired political cartoon on January 20, 1901 [four months after the book was published], and the story continues to be a favorite of cartoonists today. Critics were quick to ascribe symbolic and political meanings to the story : an early review revealed that ‘under the sweet simplicity of the tale for children is a satiric allegory on modern history for big people,’ with the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion representing Russia, Germany, and Great Britain. Over half a century later, the ‘Populist Parable’ theory of The Wizard of Oz, designed by Henry Littlefield as a simple tool for teaching high school American history, would become dogma to academics worldwide, in spite of later protestations from Littlefield himself that it had no basis in fact.
Paul Bienvenue’s sources:

The review that claimed the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion “were originally supposed to” represent European nations was published in The Beacon (Boston), Sept. 1900.

Littlefield, Henry M., “The Wizard of Allegory,” The Baum Bugle v. 36: 1, Spring 1992, p.24; see also Michael Gessel, “Tale of a Parable,” p. 19-23 of the same issue. The Baum Bugle is the official publication of the International Wizard of Oz Club. I’ve been a member myself since 1980.

Perhaps, Mr Graeber, L. Frank Baum never “admitted” he wrote a political allegory in The Wizard of Oz, not because he didn’t, but because as allegory it was meant to be broad and child-like. Check your paper today (if you still get a paper) and see if a political cartoonist hasn’t taken advantage of the simple allegorical possibilities of Brainless, Heartless, and Cowardly. Or the humbug wizard hiding behind a screen. What was the story originally supposed to be about? Not William Jennings Bryan.



Well that was a remarkably childish intervention.

Actually, Baum didn't say it was a political allegory, but he also didn't deny it, which, if the stage version of your play put on only a year after the book came out is put on as an explicit political allegory (it wasn't just a few cartoonists) and you shrug your shoulders and make no comment, suggests at the very least you have no objections to such an interpretation.

I actually say I don't really know if Baum intentionally meant it as a parable but honestly I don't think it makes a lot of difference - since, after all, the fact that the book was immediately and so widely interpreted as a political parable is just as good for making the point I was actually making in the book. It's you who (a) seem to think original authorial intent is all that's important, and (b) seem to think you know for certain what the author's intent was, through what means of divination, god only knows.

But sure, if that makes you happy, think that. You know the mind of Baum and that's all that was important.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I have no way of knowing whether this petulant response is really David Graeber, author & scholar. If it is, it's too bad. The intelligence that underlies the arguments in Debt: the first 5000 years is a human one, no doubt, and thus prone to the usual small feelings of hurt and pique, even when the injury is inflicted by a stranger about whom Mr Graeber knows little to nothing.

The extensive research Mr Graeber exposed in Debt is far beyond my capacity to evaluate, at least, at my present level of interest and energy. The exception was this particular passage. I have been reading and thinking about L. Frank Baum and The Wizard of Oz since I was 6. About 40 years. George Orwell wrote 1984 intending political allegory, wrote it, as I've heard tell, with particular political actors in mind; that doesn't prevent it, decades after those actors have died (& their political system failed?), from continuing to be useful as allegory for present day circumstances. I feel safe saying Baum did not "originally" intend to write about William Jennings Bryan because, unlike Orwell, Baum just wasn't that sort of writer. Baum certainly included light political satire (witness the teasing of both feminists and traditionalists around the all-female army of revolt in Land of Oz) but organizing an entire book around a particular set of political ideas? No. It just doesn't fit with the facts (there's nothing "industrial" about the Tin Woodman, for instance, he's pastoral). Finding an extensive allegory like this is certainly clever. Fun to think about. Just because it's not true doesn't mean it couldn't be a helpful guide "for teaching ... American history." We love stories, imbue them with a power beyond their factual basis.

I'm reminded of the use of PInk Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon as a soundtrack to the MGM Wizard. I heard many times how uncanny was its appropriateness. Finally, my husband & I tried it out. These two overly familiar artworks do occasionally sync, but mostly they don't. If you play random tunes while flipping TV channels (sound off) you'll find correspondences, some really uncanny. Yet there are people who claim to be AMAZED by how closely the MGM movie & the Pink Floyd album come together - was it intended?

I didn't go into the Wizard of Oz Broadway extravaganza because the more you know about it the less like the book it seems. Many characters were created especially for the play (the Lady Lunatic?). The original story was for kids; the Broadway play was for adults and was full of puns and songs and contemporary business that has dated far worse than Baum's book. About six months ago the New York Public Library posted a script for 1902 show. One grateful commenter observes, "What [readers] usually aren't prepared for is how different the 1903 [?] story is, and how little relation the songs and the dances bear to what's going on in the story. This show is a great way to demonstrate the non-integrated nature of many (if not most) of the early musicals." You can download the script of the 1902 Wizard of Oz at the NYPL website.

Let me add one thing, in the off chance that Mr Graeber (if it truly was he) ever returns to read it, I did not write this to disparage him or to hurt his feelings. As I said, I learned from his book as I think most anyone would. Let me thank him for his efforts and the many things he gave me to think about. I am in his debt?