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Long Time Gone and the Wonderful Wizard of Oz

By Betsy Barnett

July 10, 2024

L. Frank Baum wrote the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900 because, he said, “It was written solely to pleasure children of today.” It does seem like a lovely and well-written children’s story containing an array of magic, good guys, bad guys, fun, drama, challenges, and problems to be solved. However, it really never was a smash hit with children, as Baum said he would have liked, until Hollywood got ahold of it and the adaptation to the silver screen was nothing short of tremendous.

Since it hit the silver screen on August 25, 1939, The Wizard of Oz has captured the hearts and minds of millions of movie-goers, of all ages. The film was based on the book of the same name by L. Frank Baum and was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). It was one of the first major Technicolor pictures and is known for its use of fantasy storytelling, musical score, and memorable characters. The film stars Judy Garland as Dorothy, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, and Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow. The Wizard of Oz was not an immediate financial success, but it has become one of the most enduring family films of all time. It won two Academy Awards, including Best Original Song for “Over the Rainbow” and Best Original Score, and Garland won an Academy Juvenile Award for her performance.

Although the movie brought the Wizard of Oz into the hearts and minds of most people as a fanciful tale, in 1964 a little-known high school history teacher named Henry Littlefield published his opinion of Baum’s book in the American Quarterly magazine, suggesting that Baum intended the story to be an allegory on American politics in the final years of the 19th Century. Littlefield broke down his analysis of the book and the characters within its pages and effectively proved that, in fact, Baum may have had a little bit more in mind than just a fantasy story for children when he wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” In fact, it does seem Baum had a lot to say about what was going on in America at the turn of the 20th Century and the rise of the Populist Movement.

At the time Frank Baum was writing his classic story, especially during the years 1895-1900, there was, in fact, a great Populist uprising centered around a push to make silver on the same level as gold as it came to the backing of the dollar. In fact, at the Democratic convention of 1896 the Populist platform was a demand for “free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold” at a fixed ration of sixteen to one.

The free-silver proponents advocated unlimited coinage of silver to be available 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 National Democratic convention of 1896 they nominated William Jennings Bryan, an avid supporter of free silver, for President. This caused a split in the Democratic Party as half of them still supported the gold-standard alone. Unfortunately, Bryan and his Populist supporters would not be able to garner enough support to defeat the Republican William McKinley at the polls. It would seem that 1896 convention where the silverites and the goldbugs split is the foundation of Baum’s story.

There is no solid information as to what Baum’s political leanings were, although it is evident he was well-versed as a newspaper publisher, and probably pro-populist, although there is no evidence that the story is a political allegory at all, but rather what Baum had originally intended.

However, there is, to be sure, much symbolism and reference in the story to people and events from 1896-1900. First, is the setting of the story in Kansas. Kansas is described as treeless, sun-beaten, with paint-stripped houses and people like Aunt Em and Uncle Henry who live a dull, drab, colorless, lifeless, gray existence. This description is about the terrible conditions the plains states, but particularly Kansas, was facing in the 1880s and 1890s when a combination of scorching drought, severe winters, and grasshopper invasions forced many of the people who lived on the land to load up and move away. The results were devastating to the farmers as well as to the people who depended upon the farmer.

But some people, these were the beginnings of the Populist mindset, blamed the Kansas calamity on the bankers, the rich railroad barons, and the various middlemen who seemed to profit at the farmers’ expense. Sound familiar? Yes, it certainly does even today.

The tornado or twister in Baum’s story symbolizes the Populist movement that swept out of Kansas and across the Midwest during this time. By 1890, Populist candidates were winning seats in the state legislatures and even to Congress, and two years later Populists in Kansas gained control of the lower house of the state assembly, elected a Populist governor, and sent a Populist to the United States Senate. The “free-silver” movement was part of this Kansas whirlwind that had taken the nation by storm.

Dorothy represents the individualized ideal of the American people. She’s the people’s person who has the best of all of us within her character. She is kind but self-respecting; guileless but levelheaded; wholesome but plucky—she’s the Everyman or the girl next door.

Even the dog Toto, Dorothy’s close companion on the Kansas farm and on her travels through Oz, can be symbolized by the teetotalers of the time—the Prohibitionists who were the Populists’ faithful allies.

Then there are the people in the story who Dorothy meets once she arrives in the Land of Oz. As her Kansas house comes to rest in Oz it lands squarely on the wicked Witch of the East, killing her instantly. As Dorothy arrives from her drab home and into the bright, colorful world of Oz she is greeted as a heroine by the Munchkins as they rejoice about the death of the wicked Witch of the East who symbolizes the east coast money lords. The eastern financial and industrial interests also stood for the gold-standard and thus were the Populists’ main targets. Even as it is today, the Midwestern farmers at the turn of the century, blamed their woes on the nefarious practices of Wall Street bankers and the captains of industry, whom they believed were engaged in a conspiracy to enslave the little people—the Munchkins—just as the wicked Witch of the East had enslaved the Munchkins—until Dorothy, representing the People, killed her.

In Baum’s original book Dorothy acquires the wicked Witch of the East’s silver shoes—later made red in the movie version—representing the free-silver populous. This was at the request of the good Witch of the North, who stands for the upper Midwest, where Populism had gained considerable support. According to the good Witch of the North, Dorothy’s action is cause for rejoicing as the “little people”—the Munchkins, who were vaguely aware that the Silver Shoes were somehow linked to their bondage, had not realized the power the Silver Shoes (free-silver movement) represented for them. But the eastern establishment understood the power of the free-silver movement as their gold required the coexistence of silver to sustain its power.

After Dorothy and her companions reach the Emerald City—Washington, D.C.—the Wizard sends them first to kill the wicked Witch of the West. This witch is also very cruel and enslaves the world around her. She represents the Western elitists who were getting rich off of the railroads, gold mining, oil exploration, and land dealings and using the various immigrant and native populations to successfully do so. The Witch’s death by water ends her evil reign, liberates her slaves, and restores the silver shoes she had stolen from Dorothy. In one fell swoop, the parched lands are watered, the farmers are freed, and silver is returned to its rightful owner—the people.

The fourth witch, Glinda of the South, is a good witch who, unlike her northern counterpart understands the power of Dorothy’s silver shoes. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a Populist through and through, made a bid for the presidency on the Democrat-Populist ticket. Many on the ticket were strong silverites in Congress from the South whereas Northern support for Bryan and free-silver was less welcome.

Dorothy’s traveling companions through Oz also symbolize various players within the Populist movement of the late 19th Century. The brainless Scarecrow who only wanted a brain, represents the midwestern farmers, whose years of hardship and subjection to ridicule had created a sense of inferiority and self-doubt. As it is today, the Populists’ “stupidity” was also attested to by their apocalyptic rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and radical agenda, which included nationalization of the railroads, a graduated income tax, and the unlimited coinage of silver. Critics of the day mocked them and dismissed them calling them “socialist hayseeds.”

However, the Scarecrow character treks through the story with common sense, resilience, and rectitude – he’s not so dumb after all—much like the farmers who understand the causes of their misery is the basics of the monetary policies in Washington.

Dorothy, and the Scarecrow, next encounter the Tin Woodman who was once healthy and productive but was cursed by the wicked Witch of the East, losing his dexterity and freezing his movement—even his speech. The woodman is now made of metal, in essence reduced to becoming a machine, a dehumanized worker who no longer feels, who has no heart. The Tin Man represents the nation’s workers, in particular the industrial workers with whom the Populists had hoped to create a common cause. The Tin Man’s rustiness parallels the condition of labor during the depression of the 1890s, as he became useless and unemployed. But with just a little bit of oil—perhaps representing the oil & gas industry—he is able to resume movement and his labor.

Finally, Baum’s story introduces us to the roaring lion who is mostly a coward. The Lion is represented by William Jennings Bryan, the Nebraska Politician who served as a Democrat in Congress and unsuccessfully ran for president in 1896 and again in 1900. Bryan was known for his roaring rhetoric abilities and sometimes portrayed as a lion in the press. The Populist Party was also portrayed as a lion. William Jennings Bryan won the Populist’s support when he adopted the free-silver mantra, but was unable to rally the eastern workers and was defeated twice by McKinley.

Some of Bryan’s policies were cowardly, according to his critics. For instance, he opposed the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the subsequent annexation of the Philippines. And he disappointed many Populists, when they felt he lacked the courage to strongly fight for the free-silver agenda.

Still the lion in Baum’s story does possess courage after all when he slays a spiderlike monster that was terrorizing the animals of the forest. That great beast symbolizes the trusts and corporate interests that dominated economic life at the turn of the 20th Century. Bryan used the description of the spider and octopus later in describing the monopolistic holds some companies had on commerce. He was key in busting up the trusts and monopolies of the time.

The allegory also addresses the Winged Monkeys as the unwilling minions of the wicked Witch of the West. These creatures represent the Plains Indians. As the Monkeys’ leader relates, “we were free people, living happily in the great forest flying from tree to tree, eating nuts and fruit, and doing just as we pleased without calling anybody master.” When Oz came out of the sky, the monkeys were “sequestered”—a reference to the government’s reservation policy.

Finally, the traveling companions arrive in the Emerald City—the center and seat of the government, representing Washington, D.C. Dorothy and her companions each request help, a gift, from the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard, who can take on any form he wants, represents the politicians of the time period. When Dorothy and her friends access the inner chamber, she is told by Oz, “I never grant favors without some return,”—sounds like a typical political quid pro quo.

Politicians are also known for not keeping their promises—as is the Great and Powerful Oz. But after a while the traveling friends figure out just who the Wizard really is—a manipulative politician. And, as it turns out, the Wizard is actually a man from Omaha who got lost in a hot air balloon. Nebraska was a bastion of Populism, and Omaha the site of the 1892 Populist National Convention. Nevertheless, the Wizard—the politician in Washington—tells Dorothy’s three companions they have what they need already. To each is given a concession—the Tin Man is made master of the West, the Scarecrow supplants the Wizard as the new ruler of the Emerald City, and the Lion is placed over the animals of the forest. Dorothy—and Toto—are transported back to Kansas by clicking her silver shoes three times.

It seems, in analyzing, L. Frank Baum’s story of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz that the Populists won the day and new leadership was eventually replaced in the Land of Oz—and Dorothy—the common man—returned home to the life she wanted to live. However, history has a funny way of changing the storyline on us. The Populist Movement and its push for “free silver” never took off. By 1912, not only was gold the standard monetary system but the Federal Reserve was newly established as well. Thus, was born in its infancy the crippling monetary system we have today.

Perhaps it’s time for another twister to come out of Kansas and for Dorothy to make another visit to the Land of Oz and its Emerald City.

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