The Wizard of Oz and Populism
posted by Gerard Magliocca
Since I have a book coming out about William Jennings Bryan, I’m sometimes asked whether it’s true that L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is an allegory about the 1896 election. The answer is no, but that interpretation is clever.
Consider the following points. The book is set in Kansas — the heartland of Populism in the 1890s. The magic shoes that Dorothy takes from the Wicked Witch of the East (in the book) are silver, which represents the free silver ideology of Populism. The yellow brick road, of course, is the gold standard. Dorothy’s comrades-in-arms are farmers (the Scarecrow), factory workers (the Tinman), and William Jennings Bryan (the Cowardly Lion — all bark and no bite). Where are they going? The Emerald City, where everything is or looks green (Washington DC, which is tainted by corruption.) And then there’s the Wizard, who is a total fraud (William McKinley). I’m not sure who the Wicked Witch of the West, Toto, or the Winged Monkeys are supposed to represent.
So was there a hidden message in this most famous of books? Almost certainly not. For one thing, Baum was a Republican who supported McKinley. Second, nobody developed this reading of the book until the 1960s. Granted, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong from a literary perspective, since texts can mean different things to different generations. Perhaps I should say that the political interpretation is inconsistent with the original understanding of the Wizard of Oz. Or not in accord with the original expected application of the book, but maybe does work under Jack Balkin’s version of originalism (“Click your heels three times and you can go anywhere you want.”)