So Was the Wizard of Oz an Allegory for Populism?Roundup: Talking About History
[Quentin P. Taylor is an assistant professor of history and political science at Rogers State University, Claremore, Oklahoma.]
“The story of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was written solely to pleasure children of today” (Dighe 2002, 42). So wrote L. Frank Baum in the introduction to his popular children’s story published in 1900. As fertile as his imagination was, Baum could hardly have conceived that his “modernized fairly tale” would attain immortality when it was adapted to the silver screen forty years later. Though not a smash hit at the time of its release, The Wizard of Oz soon captured the hearts of the movie-going public, and it has retained its grip ever since. With its stirring effects, colorful characters, and memorable music (not to mention Judy Garland’s dazzling performance), the film has delighted young and old alike for three generations. Yet, as everyone knows, The Wizard of Oz is more than just another celluloid classic; it has become a permanent part of American popular culture.
Oz as Allegory
Is Oz, however, merely a children’s story, as its author claimed? For a quarter of a century after its film debut, no one seemed to think otherwise. This view would change completely when an obscure high school teacher published an essay in American Quarterly claiming that Baum’s charming tale concealed a clever allegory on the Populist movement, the agrarian revolt that swept across the Midwest in the 1890s. In an ingenuous act of imaginative scholarship, Henry M. Littlefield linked the characters and the story line of the Oz tale to the political landscape of the Mauve Decade. The discovery was little less than astonishing: Baum’s children’s story was in fact a full-blown “parable on populism,” a “vibrant and ironic portrait” of America on the eve of the new century (Littlefield 1964, 50).
In supporting this thesis, Littlefield drew on Baum’s experience as a journalist before he wrote Oz. As editor of a small newspaper in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Baum had written on politics and current events in the late 1880s and early 1890s, a period that coincided with the formation of the Populist Party. Littlefield also indicated that Baum was sympathetic to the Populist movement, supported William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896, and, though not an activist, consistently voted for Democratic candidates. (In 1896, the Populists joined the Democrats in backing Bryan’s bid for the presidency.) Finally, Littlefield noted Baum’s penchant for political satire as evidenced by his second Oz tale, which lampoons feminism and the suffragette movement.
In coupling Baum’s political and literary proclivities, Littlefield built on the work of Martin Gardner and Russel B. Nye, who were among the first to take a serious interest in “The Royal Historian of Oz.” According to Nye, Baum all but admitted that his writings contained a veiled subtext, confessing his desire to pen stories that would “bear the stamp of our times and depict the progressive fairies of the day” (Gardiner and Nye 1957, 1). For Littlefield, Baum’s revelation appeared decisive. Yet even without it, the numerous parallels and analogies between the Oz story and contemporary politics were “far too consistent to be coincidental” (1964, 58). And although the parable remains in a “minor key” and is not allowed to interfere with the fantasy, “the author’s allegorical intent seems clear”-that is, to produce “a gentle and friendly Midwestern critique of the Populist rationale” (50, 58, 57).
The reaction to Littlefield was, predictably, mixed. Scholars and teachers, who saw the allegorical reading (as Littlefield himself had) as a useful “teaching mechanism,” tended to be enthusiastic. Many among the Oz faithful, however, were not impressed, including Baum’s great-grandson, who curtly dismissed the parable thesis as “insane” (Moyer 1998, 46). Although neither side produced much evidence, Littlefield’s interpretation gained widespread currency in academic circles, and by the 1980s it had assumed the proportions of an “urban legend,” as history textbooks and scholarly works on Populism paid homage to the Oz allegory.
The contention that Oz is a cleverly crafted political parable reached its apogee in the erudite pages of the Journal of Political Economy. In an article entitled “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory” (1990), Hugh Rockoff examined the analogies between Baum’s use of imagery and the monetary politics of the Populist era. In the book version of Oz, Dorothy treads the Yellow Brick Road in silver shoes, not in ruby slippers. Silver shoes on a golden road? A key plank in the Populist platform was a demand for “free silver”-that is, the “free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold” at a fixed ratio of sixteen to one. Populists and other free-silver proponents advocated unlimited coinage of the white metal in order to inflate the money supply, thus making it easier for cash-strapped farmers and small businessmen to borrow money and pay off debts. At the Democratic National Convention in 1896, the assembled delegates nominated William Jennings Bryan, an avid supporter of free silver, for president. The Bryan nomination created a split in the Democratic Party, as gold-standard delegates bolted the convention. When the Populists convened two weeks later, they decided to endorse Bryan, putting all their reformist eggs in the free-silver basket. When Bryan was roundly defeated by the “sound money” Republican William McKinley, the Populist Party, which had considerable strength in the Midwest and South, fell into rapid decline. By 1900, when Bryan was again defeated by McKinley, Populism already had one foot in the political grave.
According to Rockoff, the monetary politics of the 1896 campaign, which divided the electorate into “silverites” and “goldbugs,” supplied the central backdrop for Baum’s allegorical adaptation. Incorporating the analogies developed by Littlefield and others, and adding a few of his own, Rockoff provided a detailed and sustained analysis of the political and economic issues symbolically refracted in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
With Rockoff, the allegorical interpretation reached a peak of sophistication, yet its subsequent decline was no less precipitous than that of the Populist Party itself. In 1991, Michael Hearn, a leading Baum scholar, published a letter in the New York Times that demolished Gardner and Nye’s claim (based on interviews with Baum’s son and biographer) that Baum was a Democrat and a Bryan supporter. Indeed, the record shows that Baum was neither. His editorials for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer expressed support for Republican candidates and criticized the nascent Populist movement. Later, during the 1896 campaign, Baum published a poem championing McKinley and his economic policies: “Our merchants won’t be trembling / At the silverites’ dissembling / When McKinley gets the chair!” Further evidence, from Baum’s later books and activities, indicates that he was, if not a regular Republican, then certainly no Democrat or Populist.
On the basis of these revelations, Hearn found “no evidence that Baum’s story is in any way a Populist allegory,” and he concluded that the Littlefield reading “has no basis in fact” (1992). In response, Littlefield conceded that “there is no basis in fact to consider Baum a supporter of turn-of-the-century Populist ideology,” adding that whatever Baum’s intentions were in writing Oz, he kept them to himself (1992). The Oz purists could only rejoice.
Critics of the allegorical reading of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz have made much of the discovery that L. Frank Baum was not a Democrat or a Bryan supporter. In itself, however, this discovery proves nothing. At most, it suggests that Oz is not a pro-Populist parable, something quite different from the claim that there is “no evidence that Baum’s story is in any way a Populist allegory,” as Hearn (1992) argued. The originator of the allegorical interpretation characterized Oz as a “critique” of Populism, not a defense. The assertion that there is “no evidence” of an allegorical subtext is simply myopic in the extreme. As the foregoing reconstruction shows, the evidence from the text is overwhelming, and, in light of Baum’s political background, trickster personality, and subsequent work, it is all but conclusive: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a deliberate work of political symbolism.
Again, this conclusion does not require that each correspondence I have cited was intended allegorically or represents Baum’s precise intention. Nor does it imply that each symbolic reference has a specific correlate; often the metaphors and analogies are merely suggestive. Conversely, the presence of “inconsistencies” and the absence of an obvious moral in no way diminish the reality of the symbolism.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is clearly neither a pro-Populist parable nor an anti-Populist parable. Strictly speaking, it is not a parable at all if parable is defined as a story with a didactic purpose. Baum aimed not to teach but to entertain, not to lecture but to amuse. Therefore, the Oz tale is best viewed as a symbolic and satirical representation of the Populist movement and the politics of the age, as well as a children’s story. Quite simply, Oz operates on two levels, one literal and puerile, the other symbolic and political. Its capacity to fascinate on both levels testifies to its remarkable author’s wit and ingenuity.
Editor's Note: This is a long article. We have included the beginning and the end only.
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Stephen Tallackson - 7/7/2005
I agree tha the Wizard of Oz was meant as a critique of the Populist Party. I also believe that it was meant as a parable with a "moral" to teach. When Dorothy clicks the silver slippers and returns from Oz to Kansas, nothing has changed in Kansas(a point that the movie made in a visually stunning and effective way when the movie reverts from Technicolor to black and white). What point was Baum trying to make?
When the Populist Party met in 1896 to decide whether or not to endorse William Jennings Bryan, many delegates, particularly from the South, were opposed. One of the main arguments of opponents of endorsement was that Bryan had only adopted one of the Populist's proposed economic reforms and the one he had "stolen", unlimited coinage of silver, was one of their more minor economic reforms. Most Populists believed that their most important proposed economic reform was the SubTreasury Plan. The biggest problem for western and southern farmers was the extremely low prices for wheat and cotton. The SubTreasury Plan would allow them to store their crops in government warehouses and get government loans while they held their crops off the market during harvest season. They hoped this would enable them to sell their crops at higher prices in the winter, spring and summer. No such reform was in Party Platform of Bryan's Democratic Party.
I would suggest that Baum was trying to make the point that it was foolish, and would change nothing, to pin all your hopes on the gimmick of inflating the currency and trying to artificially raise the price of crops (and in the process the price of everything else).
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