down the yellow brick road

I really wanted to embed this, but between DCMA & hard-headed corporations, it has to be a link: The Wizard of Oz: Pay No Attention

I came across this gem of an article, courtesy of @carwinb: The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism by Henry M. Littlefield.

It provides background on L. Frank Baum that I never knew about, although I have read (and reread) these stories from childhood (I never even saw the movie version until I had a captioned TV as an adult). I’ve noticed some of the themes, of course, but again, never stopped to think about them. The Wizard of Oz is a quintessential fairy tale and no one stops to look at its underlying message even though it, like most fairy tales, does have one.

The Wizard of Oz has neither the mature religious appeal of a Pilgrim’s Progress, nor the philosophic depth of a Candide. Baum’s most thoughtful devotees see in it only a warm, cleverly written fairy tale. Yet the original Oz book conceals an unsuspected depth, and it is the purpose of this study to demonstrate that Baum’s immortal American fantasy encompasses more than heretofore believed. For Baum created a children’s story with a symbolic allegory implicit within its story line and characterizations. The allegory always remains in a minor key, subordinated to the major theme and readily abandoned whenever it threatens to distort the appeal of the fantasy. But through it, in the form of a subtle parable, Baum delineated a Midwesterner’s vibrant and ironic portrait of this country as it entered the twentieth century.

It turns out there’s a deeper history of midwestern populism that permeates the story, especially once you start digging into Baum’s background and the issues of his day.

The Wicked Witch of the East had kept the little Munchkin people “in bondage for many years, making them slave for her night and day.” Just what this slavery entailed is not immediately clear, but Baum later gives us a specific example. The Tin Woodman, whom Dorothy meets on her way to the Emerald City, had been put under a spell by the Witch of the East. Once an independent and hard working human being, the Woodman found that each time he swung his axe it chopped off a different part of his body. Knowing no other trade he “worked harder than ever,” for luckily in Oz tinsmiths can repair such things. Soon the Woodman was all tin. In this way Eastern witchcraft dehumanized a simple laborer so that the faster and better he worked the more quickly he became a kind of machine. Here is a Populist view of evil Eastern influences on honest labor which could hardly be more pointed.

Notice the well defined yellow brick road of the East has Dorothy skipping along a golden road in silver slippers (ruby in the movie); a clear reference to the more populated and monied East of the 1900s. When the intrepid foursome go on West to fill the Wizard’s demand, the road disappears and instead the Western Witch uses forces of nature (the “West” was seen as a vast natural, untamed region); even the Flying Monkeys are clearly representing Native Americans: unable to leave the land and ruled over by interlopers whether for good or bad purposes. To understand the symbolism of the silver shoes — which contained a power far beyond that Dorothy or her companions completely understood, and which were lost on her return to Kansas — it’s necessary to understand the Populist arguments for a silver standard back in the late 19th century. You can find background information here: United States presidential election, 1896.

When Dorothy and her companions return to the Emerald City they soon discover that the Wizard is really nothing more than “a little man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face.” Can this be the ruler of the land? Our friends looked at him in surprise and dismay.

“I thought Oz was a great Head,” said Dorothy….”And I thought Oz was a terrible Beast,” said the Tin Woodman. “And I thought Oz was a Ball of Fire,” exclaimed the Lion. “No; you are all wrong,” said the little man meekly. “I have been making believe.”

Dorothy asks if he is truly a great Wizard. He confides, “Not a bit of it, my Dear; I’m just a common man.” Scarecrow adds, “You’re more than that…you’re a humbug” (p. 184).

The Wizard’s deception is of long standing in Oz and even the Witches were taken in. How was it accomplished? “It was a great mistake my ever letting you into the Throne Room,” the Wizard complains. “Usually I will not see even my subjects, and so they believe I am something terrible” (p. 185). What a wonderful lesson for youngsters of the decade when Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley were hiding in the White House.

And a lesson that every generation should learn, I might add. It’s not even just the White House. Look at how the corporate lobbyists hide behind the government while all the while paying out vast amounts of money to direct politicians to perform as desired. Look at the GOP’s M.O. — publicly claim one thing and privately cheer on something else (eg Behind Closed Doors, House Republicans Cheer A Possible Shutdown).

Current historiography tends to criticize the Populist movement for its “delusions, myths and foibles,” Professor C. Vann Woodward observed recently.[22] Yet The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has provided unknowing generations with a gentle and friendly Midwestern critique of the Populist rationale on these very same grounds. Led by naive innocence and protected by good will, the farmer, the laborer and the politician approach the mystic holder of national power to ask for personal fulfillment. Their desires, as well as the Wizard’s cleverness in answering them, are all self-delusion. Each of these characters carries within him the solution to his own problem, were he only to view himself objectively. The fearsome Wizard turns out to be nothing more than a common man, capable of shrewd but mundane answers to these self-induced needs. Like any good politician he gives the people what they want. Throughout the story Baum poses a central thought; the American desire for symbols of fulfillment is illusory. Real needs lie elsewhere.

(There’s also more here The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – A Monetary Reform Parable)

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