Henry Littlefield's Interpretation of The Wizard of Oz
Though he never lived in Kansas, L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, had lived on the Great Plains, where Populism had the greatest influence. Henry Littlefield explained that Baum was not a political activist but he noted a number of events in Baum's life that indicated an interest in Populist politics. According to Littlefield, "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." Littlefield found that The Wizard of Oz was an effective means to teach his students about Populism and the 1896 election because the Baum's imagery was so vivid and so easily attributable to the personalities and events of that period in history.
According to Littlefield, Dorothy is "Baum's Miss Everyman." Accompanying Dorothy on her journey down the yellow brick road are the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, which Littlefield noticed served as apt symbols for farmers and industrial workers. Baum's Scarecrow is a response to the prejudicial notion that farmers were not smart enough to recognize their own interests. The Tin Man, dehumanized by factory labor, had rusted solid, symbolizing the closing of factories in the depression of 1893. The Cowardly Lion represents William Jennings Bryan, who was the Democratic nominee for president in 1896 and was also endorsed by the Populist Party. When the Cowardly Lion first meets Dorothy and her companions, he strikes the Tin Man but does not make a dent in his metal body. Littlefield equates the Cowardly Lion's futile act with Bryan's failure to win the vote of industrial labor.
Together the group journeys to Oz, which symbolizes Washington DC, to visit the great Wizard of Oz, symbolizing the president. Their trek is reminiscent of a march on Washington DC that occurred in the winter of 1893-1894. A populist named Jacob Coxey organized a small group of unemployed workers to march on the national capital in en effort to convince the government to put more money in circulation and to use those funds for public works programs to put people back to work. "Coxey's Army" was modest in size and easily put down, but it did a number of similar such protests and brought the plight of the unemployed to national attention.
The 1939 MGM film made a number of changes to Baum's original story. In Baum's book the Emerald City isn't green at all but a bland white. People are required to wear green glasses upon entry to give the city the illusion of being emerald colored. Also, when the group visit the Wizard of Oz, be appears to Dorothy as a giant head, to the Scarecrow as a gossamer fairy, to the Tin Man as a beast and to the Cowardly Lion as a ball of fire, just as a politician tries to be all things to all people. These changes blunt the cynicism about the self-serving nature of politicians in the original story. In order to get what they desire, the Wizard of Oz tells them to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, who represents the destructive forces of nature according to Littlefield. Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch by dousing her with a bucket of water, symbolizing the end of the drought that had been plaguing the West in the 1890s. When Dorothy and her friends return to the Wizard of Oz with the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West, he is exposed as a fraud. "The fearsome Wizard turns out to be nothing more than a common man, capable of shrews but mundane answers to these self-induced needs. Like any good politician he gives the people what they want." The Wizard of Oz manages to provide everyone in the group something to satisfy their desire. Everyone except Dorothy, that is, because her goal of returning to Kansas, which Baum describes as dull and gray, is selfless.
Another change that the 1939 film made to Baum's original story was that in the book, Dorothy wore silver shoes rather than ruby slippers. MGM wanted to highlight the Technicolor cinematography and changed the color of Dorothy's shoes. Ruby slippers may have been a more appropriate choice for the film, but the imagery that Littlefield suggested was lost. The silver shoes, with the magical powers to solve Dorothy's dilemma, symbolize the silver standard, just as the Populists believed that free silver would solve the problems facing farmers. But like many people, however, Dorothy does not understand the magical power she possesses. Instead she sets out on the yellow brick road, symbolizing the gold standard, which proves to be a perilous journey. She finally learns of their power at the end of the story, but the shoes are lost when Dorothy returns home. With the decline of the Populist Party, the free coinage of silver also faded as a national issue.
Henry Littlefield, "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism," American Quarterly 16 (Spring, 1964), p. 50. The full text of this article is also online at www.amphigory.com/oz.htm.
Littlefield, p. 57.