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Dayhoff: ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ more than a children’s book, sheds light on turbulent political time

“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” by L. Frank Baum, was published in April 1900. Many understand that it is one of the best examples of political satire of all time.
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” by L. Frank Baum, was published in April 1900. Many understand that it is one of the best examples of political satire of all time. (Submitted photo)

In October 1900, “Perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan campaigned in several Carroll County communities,” according to research for the Historical Society of Carroll County by local historian Jay Graybeal. The Oct. 27, 1900 edition of the Democratic Advocate carried a full glowing account of Bryan’s Oct. 23, 1900 visit.

It was in this same time period that one of the most popular children’s books was “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Written by L. Frank Baum, the book was published in April 1900.

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When the “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” was released many enjoyed it as a children’s fairy tale. In reality, it is one of the best examples of political satire of all time.

There are now many variant readings of The Wizard of Oz. As an economic historian I tend to view “The Wizard of Oz” as an economic-political parable — and read it in the context of the intense elections of 1896 and 1900 when Democrat William Jennings Bryan ran against Republican William McKinley.

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At that time there was a profound hope by the pro-Bryan forces that they could create a revolution to actually overthrow the evils of the reactionary industrial-business order, by armed force, if necessary. But what would the revolution be like? 1896 was a time of severe depression. The voting population was extremely divided into two bitter, hate-filled political camps and the result was total political, social, and economic paralysis.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, we must bear in mind that Baum, who passed away on May 6, 1919, never acknowledged that “Oz” was a political allegory.

Nevertheless, considering Baum’s coverage of the Midwestern political upheaval and reform efforts, from his vantage as a newspaperman in South Dakota and Chicago, there is little doubt in my mind that “Oz” is political satire.

The irony is not lost on many economic-historians who argue that the Panic of 1893 was a result of disastrous and punitive economic approaches against business promoted by Bryan.

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Considering that the 1890s was “one of the crucial periods in American (and Carroll County) political and economic history,” according to Hugh Rockoff, professor of economics at Rutgers University; “Oz” remains one of the most readily accessible methodologies to explain this difficult period.

To that end, the next time you watch the 1939 movie version, keep in mind the following explanation of the characters.

The Cowardly Lion is Bryan. Published accounts indicate that leading politicians were portrayed as lions and yet, for all Bryan’s roar against the captains of industry and promotion of the liberalization of the money supply, he had no bite and no affect.

There are alternating versions of who were portrayed by the Wicked Witch of the East and the West. One line of thought is that the East Witch was the eastern big-money banks and the West Witch was the west coast elite and their oppression of the working class. Another version promoted by Rockoff is that presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley are the witches.

The good witches of the north and the south are the electorates of those parts of the country. The Tin Woodman is representative of the industrial workers immobilized by rust as a result of the factory failures in the Panic of 1893. One source cites that the Scarecrow “is the farmer who apparently doesn’t have the wit to understand his situation or his political interests.” But of course, the Scarecrow proves to be intelligent, resourceful, and responsible, in contrast to the deprecating views of the big-city newspapers.

The Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard and the Emerald City is the nation’s capital. Emerald is a reference to the color of the greenback money, which derives its illusory value from the gold standard.

The Munchkins are the “little people,” representing the politically unsophisticated voting constituency. The cyclone is the Panic of 1893. Dorothy characterizes the average common American worker, who has been swept to a land of utopia, full of unlimited resources, yet kept unavailable by the Wicked Witches.

Of course, the Land of Oz is controlled by the Wizard, the man behind the curtain, who is representative of the president of the United States. In the end, Dorothy is freed by the silver slippers (changed to red in the movie for cinematic reasons,) which represent the idea that only by adding silver at a fixed exchange rate to the economy will provide the capital for Dorothy to return to Kansas (and normalcy).

And oh, the monkeys; it is widely accepted that they represented politicians. A famous political cartoon from 1885 in the cartoon magazine “Puck” depicts monkeys as politicians. I guess we’re all still afraid of them to this day.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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