What does it all mean? Scholars study ‘The Wizard of Oz’

08/24/2014 4:00 AM

08/24/2014 7:37 PM

Here’s an ice-breaker to throw out at your next party: Was “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum a parable on Populism?

Either people’s eyes will glaze over or your guests will dive right in, as scholars have been doing for years.

Baum’s 1900 book, which inspired the Judy Garland movie of 1939, has been dissected cover to cover. Scholarly papers, book-length studies and biographies have all searched for its meanings.

Even noted American author Gore Vidal was intrigued and wrote a series of lengthy essays in 1977 about the books in the New York Review of Books.

Is it social satire? Political allegory? Or fairy tale? Maybe, maybe and definitely yes.

“We can read between L. Frank Baum’s lines and see various images of the United States at the turn of the century,” one of those scholars, David B. Parker, wrote in the Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians.

Parker, assistant chairman of the department of history and philosophy at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, likens “Oz” to another influential book.

“The Bible is very rich with events and people, and people can find anything they want in the Bible. You can make it prove anything you want,” he says. “And I think that’s one of the real accomplishments of the (‘Oz’) book.”

You could credit (or blame) Henry M. Littlefield, an obscure high school teacher in Mount Vernon, N.Y., for stirring things up with his 1964 essay in American Quarterly, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.”

Littlefield claimed that the book was Baum’s clever allegory on the Populist movement of his day. The years Baum spent editing a newspaper in Aberdeen, S.D., Littlefield wrote, “also covered the period of the formation of the Populist party,” which championed the cause of the common man over the elite.

In what some scholars have described derisively as “an ingenious act of imaginative scholarship,” Littlefield — as have many since — drew connections between “Oz” and the era’s politics.

Take Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s sad little Kansas farm, battered by the times like so many real Kansas homesteads then. The Populist movement found many followers among struggling Sunflower State farmers around the time Baum wrote the book.

Littlefield suggested that the tornado represented the movement’s storming of the state. The Wicked Witch of the East symbolized evil East Coast financiers; the Munchkins were the “little people” enslaved by them.

The Yellow Brick Road and Dorothy’s slippers, which were silver in the book, referenced the era’s debates over the gold standard and use of silver coin.

The brainless Scarecrow? Midwestern farmers. The Tin Woodman? The nation’s worker bees who had lost their hearts. The Cowardly Lion? Lion rhymed with Bryan, as in William Jennings Bryan, the Populist presidential candidate in 1896 (and again in 1900 and 1908).

Even Toto fit into Littlefield’s narrative: His name was a play on the word “teetotaler,” because Prohibitionists were political allies of Populists.

“Many people in post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America were fascinated to learn that their favorite children’s story was something of a subversive document, an anti-establishment fairy tale,” Parker wrote in his 1994 study of Littlefield’s theories.

By the 1980s “Littlefield’s interpretation had become the standard line on ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.’”

Scholars were and still are mixed on Littlefield. For one thing, Baum wasn’t even a Populist.

But he was a “quality American thinker and satirist,” says Thomas Averill, an English professor and writer-in-residence at Washburn University in Topeka.

“He was just a great cultural sponge and took everything in. The ‘Oz’ books are just full of America.”

Averill has spent years researching the effect of the book and movie on Kansas culture — both blessing and curse, he has concluded — and has his own thoughts on why so many people are fascinated by Dorothy’s story.

“It’s really our one true American fairy tale,” says Averill, who recently wrote his own set-in-Kansas novel, “A Carol Dickens Christmas.”

“And it has all the elements of the fairy tale — the hero’s journey out and back with new awareness of what’s truly important in life, which is home and friendship and love. And it’s about finding home, which is a very American desire … to be some place that you can call home.”

Averill detects the influence of Baum’s religion in the book, “his beliefs in Theosophy, this sort of semireligious belief that to be a full human being means to express the thinking brain part, the feeling heart part and a call to action.

“Unless you combine all those three things you’re not living fully. And of course those are the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion teaming up with Dorothy to make those happen.”

“Oz” has been studied a lot through so many lenses and “each of those brings you to a different insight,” says Averill, who has written three papers of his own about the ‘Oz’ tale.

“But you really just get insights into L. Frank Baum as the quintessential American. He was just a writer who had his finger on the pulse of America.”

To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send email to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.

THE WIZARD OF AUGUST

We’re celebrating this month’s 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz” movie with a story a day.

Tuesday in FYI: TV networks are planning “Oz” spinoffs.

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