Populism, Politics, and Oz

When L. Frank Baum had written “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” he had stated that,” The story of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was written solely to pleasure children of today. This is a major contradiction that I have found with the story. When reading through the story there are many recurring themes that are easy to take at face value, but when one compares it to the historical context of its time there is more happening here than Baum lets on. Maybe he was just trying to protect himself from eastern political influences of the time or maybe it’s the subconscious of a repressed individual colorfully detailing life as they see it in the form of a children’s novel. Before we get started I think it is safest to cover the historical findings of the time period. Other categories that will be detailed in this article are as follows: Emerald City, the cowardly lion, symbolic meaning of the silver slippers, tin-man, and the munchkins.

Before understanding “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” we first have to understand the financial and political influences of this era and how the characters function as allegorical representations of late 19th century influences. Towards the beginning of the story the house is picked up and lands on top of the wicked witch of the East instantly killing her. The wicked witch of the east functions as a representation of the financial interest of Eastern politicians and businesses. Around 1892 Grover Cleveland led the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. With the defeat of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act this caused our country to go from a bimetallic standard to strictly a gold standard. One of the reasons why Grover Cleveland had this act repealed was to work in favor of eastern business and financial markets of the late 19th century. During this era there was not much concern for the Midwestern and Western territories. Much like today the primary focus was shaped around greed and what suited the needs of politicians and their constituents. With the gold standard adopted this put the United States on the same currency with the rest of the world.

A major con with having the world built around the same currency is that when one market inflates that means other countries have to follow suit. So, if you have a crisis in one of the major markets like Europe this can cause a financial crisis here in the states. By removing the bimetallic standard it did not allow for breathing room and for the people of the populist movement, which were comprised of primarily citizens in the Midwestern and Western territories, gold was not exactly a valuable resource of its time. The way the financial markets had worked prior to the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act was that 16 ounces of silver was the equivalent of 1 ounce of gold. Even at the peak of silvers inflated value there was still enough to assist farmers with economic blows. So, after gold became the standard silver ultimately became valueless which left a lot of Americans in state of economic decay.

A few years after Grover Cleveland’s win severe snow storms and droughts plagued much of the Midwestern territories. People witnessed a massive decrease in the job market causing the unemployment rate to circulate to record levels. This became what was essentially the first great depression. During this time there was a hero and his name was William Jennings Bryan. WJB was part of the populist movement (populists are for the people and against the elite) and one of the political messages Bryan had tried to convey was that silver needed to be back in circulation. If he could put himself into a position to be elected as President then he could repeal the gold standard and bring things back to a bimetallic standard, which would help the majority of Americans come out of economic recession. However, his efforts to some extent were considered futile. He had a fierce political battle against the conservative primary William McKinley. McKinley is able to win the debate and wins the support of his political supporters. The businesses, financial markets, and politicians were well aware that if the gold standard had been repealed it could cause a negative consequence in the amount of riches they held in their possession. One other major event that had happened prior to WJB fighting for the presidency is that in 1892 a bill had already been passed that vowed to steer away from a bimetallic standard. This bill was voted with bipartisan support. So, one might say that William Jennings Bryan’s efforts were in vain.

In the story we are introduced to an area called Emerald City. Emerald City is a wonderful, majestic sort of place that people look upon in awe and splendor. Its leader, a grand wizard known by the name of Oz, is its supreme leader. When reviewing the works of Hugh Rockoff and Henry M. Littlefield it is made easier to see why they would use Emerald City as an allegorical reflection of Washington D.C. In Emerald City no one sees their fearless leader and denizens of Emerald City are forced to wear goggles strapped to their heads by gold buckles so the only way they can view the city is in green (money). Greed and money of the time period were more of a primary interest versus focusing on the everyday man.

Next we will invest more of our time into the characters that shape the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” The cowardly lion is someone that had courage once, but somewhere along the way he had lost his moral principles. He had lost sight of who he was and what made him courageous. The Cowardly Lion joins Dorothy for the adventure to see OZ to rediscover courage. The Cowardly Lion serves as a reflection of William Jennings Bryan. As Bryan fought to revive the bimetallic standard he had lost in his political bout against William McKinley. Since this had happened he had to augment his stance on certain political issues. He had shifted from “free silver” to anti-imperialism, which was more of a middle/upper class concern. In doing so he had kept himself from committing political suicide, but he inadvertently labels himself as a coward by the populists that had given him support from the beginning of his political journey.

Eventually McKinley goes on to win the presidency. During his tenure as president we witnessed a decrease in jobless rates and the country started make strides to generating more revenue. However, the majority of this success was not necessarily built around any economic plan from McKinley’s administration. The stroke of luck came about when the European market started to suffer. As this happened they became more dependent on the American market for certain resources which allowed us the opportunity to generate revenue and create jobs. Also, one must factor in the discovery of gold that was being imported from South Africa.

In the story we are able to observe two main recurring themes; gold and silver. When Dorothy inadvertently kills the wicked witch of the East she also obtains the silver slippers. Upon putting on the slippers she and the munchkins do not understand what kind of power silver holds. The silver shoes are an allegory for the bimetallic standard. Towards the end of the adventure Dorothy is confronted by the wicked witch of the West. Upon meeting Dorothy the witch realizes that the girl does not know what kind of power she holds. Looking into her eyes all she sees is goodness and innocence. Because of this the wicked witch is able to take advantage of Dorothy for a duration of time, but eventually the wicked witch ends up being the cause of her own inevitable end when she tries to devise a course of action to rid Dorothy of the silver slippers. Dorothy acts as a reflection of the good American and much like Dorothy the munchkins function as an allegory of the people of the populist movement. While one can be good it allows themselves to not be evil, but they allow evil to be imposed upon them.

In the story tin-man had lost his limbs due to a spell that had been casted upon him by one of the wicked witches. He used to be a man that was in love with a female munchkin, but this upset the old woman that was living with the munchkin and this pushed the old woman to call upon the wicked witch of the East to cast a spell on tin-man. With each swing of his axe he would lose a limb. The harder and quicker he worked he eventually cut himself down to nothing until he was rebuilt as a machine. This can be used as a way to convey the industrial revolution and as a display of corporations that were slowly dominating certain markets of the time period. With innovations in technology meant that businesses could cut down on employment; businesses looking for more cost effective means of producing products. This is one way that tin- man can act as an allegory of the everyday man. The efforts of man are not needed since we have machines that can do the most of the work for a fraction of the cost. The scarecrow, much like the tin-man, can function as a reflection of the farmers, but there seems to be less philosophical meaning when looking a little more into the character. Most people of the time period knew that the farmers were not ignorant people, but in one way the scarecrow is meant to act a direct representation of what maybe Baum felt about some of the members of the populist movement.

Understandably, the research provided could be scholars looking too heavily into the works of Baum and maybe it is something that we should readily accept at face value. However, when looking at the history of when the book was written it is difficult to not draw direct comparisons between the politics and financial markets of its time. Again, most of this is purely theoretical, but it is still fun to ask the question of “what if.”Image

One thought on “Populism, Politics, and Oz

  1. Pingback: The Wizard of Oz as An Economic Parable: A Short Introduction | Wandering Mirages

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