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.