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Following the Yellow Brick Road: The Real Story Behind ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Popular literature frequently skirts the boundaries between truth and fiction. Many classic literary works have actually been thinly veiled allegories of contemporary or historical events, and many of the world’s most famous writers of fiction such as George Orwell, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, and Aldous Huxley are perhaps remembered even more for the depth and quality of their social and political commentary than they are for the overall quality of their writing.

It will certainly be no surprise to anyone to hear that famous classic books such as 1984, The Jungle, or Brave New World have a much more serious purpose than just pure entertainment. But many may be surprised to learn that the most popular children’s fantasy of all-time, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, also has a deeper meaning. This classic work of children’s fiction, which in the hundred-plus years since it was written has become perhaps the most familiar fictional story in the world, is in fact a sly political satire filled with rich allegorical and metaphorical imagery that could act as an historical primer on the issues that dominated the political climate of its day.

The History of an Idea

Until 1964, it never occurred to anyone that The Wizard of Oz, which had captivated millions of children around the world in both it original literary form and on the silver screen, was anything more than a vividly imaginative work of fantasy. But it was in that year that a high school history teacher named Henry Littlefield published an article in the journal American Quarterly making the case that this well-known tale, which had been published for the first time in 1900, had been written as a parable on Populism, an influential political reform movement that flourished for a time in the latter part of the 19th century. The Populists, who mainly focused on monetary reform as a way to create more equitable economic growth and opportunity, were mainly supported by farmers, small businessmen, and other powerless groups who suffered acutely during the boom-and-bust cycles that plagued the American economy throughout the post-Civil War era. Littlefield found a number of parallels between the characters in the book and historically-significant political figures who lived during those times, and also identified themes and archetypes in the story that seemed to clearly relate to life and politics as they had been experienced in Gilded Age America.

Over the course of the next twenty-five years, as other historians and academics looked more closely at Baum’s tale they became convinced that Littlefield had been right, and the idea that The Wizard of Oz was really intended as a political allegory started to enter the realm of conventional wisdom. But an important part of the allegory theory had been the idea that Baum was sympathetic to Populism, and that his choice of themes in The Wizard of Oz had been based on his agreement with their principles. But when further research revealed that this had not been the case, that Baum as a journalist and editorialist in South Dakota had in fact authored several pro- Republican pieces and had even written disparagingly about the Populists, most consigned the political allegory theory to the category of urban legend. Traditional Baum scholars had always been hostile to the idea that The Wizard of Oz was anything more than a delightful children’s story, and they encouraged and cheered the apparent demise of the Baum/Populist connection.

But as it turned out, the story was far from over. As interested scholars began to look more closely at Baum’s tale, they began to realize that the flaw in the original theory had been the idea that Baum had been expressing sympathy for any particular political viewpoint. In fact, it became clear after closer analysis that The Wizard of Oz had been basically skewering all of the interest groups and political ideologies that had been influential or popular at the time, including Populism, and when the book was read from this perspective, the allegorical nature of the work became all but impossible to ignore.

The Wizard of Oz as Satire – A Closer Look

To some extent, allegory and metaphor are always in the eye of the beholder, and unless an author has explicitly explained just exactly what he or she was trying to say in a particular work – and Baum never revealed his true intentions with respect to The Wizard of Oz to anyone – there will always be room for disagreement and variations in interpretation.

With that disclaimer out of the way, what follows are a list of some of the political-historical allegories and metaphors that careful analysts have identified after looking very closely at the characters and situations in The Wizard of Oz:

  • Dorothy – the all-American girl who represents virtuous, hard-working citizens who were attracted to radical politics because they realized things had gone terribly wrong and that something needed to change.
  • The Cowardly Lion – this was William Jennings Bryan, the Populist and Democratic candidate for president in 1896 and 1900, who was nicknamed “The Lion” for his fiery rhetoric and called a coward by many for his refusal to support America’s decision to go to war with Spain in 1898.
  • The Scarecrow – the American farmer, who was often portrayed as illiterate and brain-dead by elite policymakers who feared their radical activism and support for Populist-style reforms.
  • The Tin Man – the American industrial worker, who had been exploited and treated like just another piece of machinery by rich and powerful employers.
  • The Munchkins – the poor tired mass of citizens in the United States, enslaved by powerful interests and clueless about what to do to change things.
  • The Yellow Brick Road – the gold standard. Monetary policy was a huge political issue at the time, with big businessmen generally supporting tight money and the gold standard while reformers favored an enlargement of the money supply through the coinage of silver or the issuance of paper money.
  • Dorothy’s Silver Slippers – a representation of silver. Just as many in the book believed the silver slippers that Dorothy had acquired after accidentally killing the Wicked Witch of the East had magical powers, many farmers, laborers, and small businessmen believed that expanding the money supply by putting more silver in circulation would stop the boom-or-bust business cycles that plagued the economy during that time. More money would increase demand for goods and services, freeing up more funds for smaller investors and making things easier on debtors hurt by tight monetary policies that kept the value of the dollar artificially high. In the movie the magic slippers were changed to ruby, so the importance of this metaphor was obscured.
  • The Wicked Witch of the East – a stand-in for Wall Street financiers, eastern elite big businessmen, and Washington politicians.
  • The Wicked Witch of the West – western industrialists, bankers, and the railroads.
  • The Good Witch of the North – Midwestern farmers and others in the heartland who were strong in their opposition to the powerful elites who ran the economy and the political system.
  • Glinda the Good Witch of the South – a personification of southerners who realized they were being exploited and repressed by eastern political elites.
  • Yellow Winkies – Chinese laborers, abused and controlled by powerful western interests just as the Wicked Witch of the West abused and controlled the Winkies.
  • Oz – the abbreviation for ounce, which was significant because bimetallists wanted silver coined along with gold at a ratio of sixteen ounces of silver for each ounces of gold.
  • The Wizard – any president of the United States, whose power was ultimately illusory. The Wizard, like everybody else, was just trying to survive and was really subservient to the power of the Wicked Witches of the East and West. Parallels between the Wizard and William Jennings Bryan have also been noted, possibly because Bryan had been a candidate for the office of president twice.

This is only a sampling of some of the most obvious connections that have been identified between characters and situations in The Wizard of Oz and the real-life politics of its time. Many more have been identified, so many in fact that at this stage the claim of some Baum aficionados that these connections are all just coincidence can no longer be considered credible.

The Real Yellow Brick Road

To family, friends, and contemporaries, L. Frank Baum was known as a practical joker and a storyteller who liked to bend the truth every now and again, and those who were treated to one of his “true life” fantastic tales were never quite sure if he was talking about something that had really happened or spinning an elaborate yarn out of fairy cloth. Disguising political satire as a children’s story is just the sort of thing that would have appealed to someone with Baum’s trickster personality and sense of humor, and he was also the type who would never have admitted to anyone just exactly what he was up to.

L. Frank Baum worked as a journalist and wrote many editorials on political topics, so there is no question that he was aware of the hot button issues of the day and of the kinds of critiques of American political society that reformers and activists were making

at the time. Given this experience, it is perhaps not surprising that The Wizard of Oz adopts a sly and cynical attitude toward power, associating it with witchcraft, sorcery, and humbug. But while The Wizard of Oz as a political satire makes fun of politics and the pomposity it breeds, there is something more to the book than just this.  The Wizard of Oz also functions as a spiritual allegory, showing people how they can make miracles happen in even the most difficult of circumstances just by relying on the natural gifts they have been given by God.  The characters in the book found the answers they were seeking only when they turned inward and stopped looking for someone to tell them what to do, and the lesson they learned is that the power to re-shape their realities and transform their lives had been lying dormant inside of them all along.

So it turns out that what at one time had seemed to be nothing more than a highly-imaginative children’s story has a lot more to offer its readers, no matter what their age, than just delightful escapist fantasy. In reality, The Wizard of Oz deserves to be placed alongside all the other classic works of literature that have been officially categorized as political allegory or commentary. In addition, it also stands as a tribute to the spiritual tradition of self-help and self-reliance, which can bring us happiness and freedom if we are willing to surrender to God and live fully in the wisdom, strength, and clarity that are our natural birthrights.

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