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Baum's Oz: Gold, Silver, and Marx

extended excerpt from Henry Littlefield's seminal analysis, "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism", from the American Quarterly, 1964 (square-bracket comments by Jim Devine, from


In the story, Dorothy is swept away from Kansas in a tornado and arrives in a mysterious land inhabited by `little people.' Her landing kills the Wicked Witch of the East (bankers and capitalists), who `kept the munchkin people in bondage.'

In the movie, Dorothy begins her journey through the Land of Oz wearing ruby slippers, but in the original story Dorothy's magical slippers are silver [a reference to the bimetallic system advocated by W.J. Bryan]. Along the way on the yellow brick (gold) road, she meets a Tin Woodsman who is `rusted solid' (a reference to the industrial factories shut down during the depression of 1893). The Tin Woodsman's real problem, however, is that he doesn't have a heart (the result of dehumanizing work in the factory that turned men into machines).

Farther down the road Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, who is without a brain (the farmer, Baum suggests, doesn't have enough brains to recognize what his political interests are). [Shades of Marx's critique of peasants!] Next Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, an animal in need of courage (Bryan, with a load roar but little else). Together they go off to Emerald City (Washington) in search of what the wonderful Wizard of Oz (the President) might give them.

When they finally get to Emerald City and meet the Wizard, he, like all good politicians, appears to be whatever people wish to see in him. He also plays on their fears.... But soon the Wizard is revealed to be a fraud--only a little old man `with a wrinkled face' who admits that he's been `making believe.' `I am just a common man,' he says. But he is a common man who can rule only by deceiving the people into thinking that he is more than he really is.

`You're a humbug,' shouts the Scarecrow, and this is the core of Baum's message. Those forces that keep the farmer and worker down are manipulated by frauds who rule by deception and trickery; the President is powerful only as long as he is able to manipulate images and fool the people. [Politics doesn't change, does it?]

Finally, to save her friends, Dorothy `melts' the Wicked Witch of the West (just as evil as the East), and the Wizard flies off in a hot-air balloon to a new life. The Scarecrow (farmer) is left in charge of Oz, and the Tin Woodsman is left to rule the East. This populist dream of the farmer and worker gaining political power was never to come true, and Baum seems to recognize this by sending the Cowardly Lion back into the forest, a recognition of Bryan's retreat from national politics.

Dorothy is able to return to her home with the aid of her magical silver shoes, but on waking in Kansas, she realizes that they've fallen off, representing the demise of the silver coinage issue in American politics.



The Wizard of Oz as a Monetary Allegory
1. The Quantity Theory of Money: MV = PQ
where M = the quantity of money in circulation (M1)
V = the velocity of money. This can be assumed to be a constant. It does go up slowly over time as the technology for clearing transactions through the banking system is improved.
P = the average price level
Q = real national output (GNP or GDP)

1a. The Quantity of Money Theory of Prices: P = MV/Q

2. Historical Chronology

1861-1864 U.S. Civil War, (northern) U.S. goes off the gold standard, war inflation (prices rose).

1869-1879 Deflation, the money supply increased more slowly than GNP, causing price levels to fall. The government pursued a tight money policy so they could eventually resume gold payments.

1879 Resumption of gold standard.

1880s Fast expanding economy demanded so much money, prices still fell.

1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Provided for increased purchase and coinage of silver. People now feared that the U.S. would switch from a gold to a silver standard and so began to hoard gold, depleting the treasury's supply.

1893 Panic and depression, 20% unemployment.

1896 Chicago Democratic National Convention. William Jennings Bryan lost to Republican William McKinley. "Cross of Gold" speech.

late 1890s Gold discovered in South Africa, increase in money supply caused prices to rise. The Boer War between the U.K. and non-English white settlers in South Africa followed shortly after.

1900 Kansas City Democratic Convention. The populists wanted to go "from Kansas to fairyland," i.e., Washington.

3. The Allegory

Dorothy = the American people: plucky, good natured, naive.

Toto = the Prohibition (Temperance) party. Favored the bimetallic standard but like any fringe group often pulled in the wrong direction. So they got to be a dog. (Toto is a play on "teetotalers.")

Oz = the almighty ounce (oz) of gold.

The yellowbrick road = paved with gold bricks, leads to nowhere.

Dorothy's silver slippers = originally the property of the Wicked Witch of the East, until Dorothy drops the house on the witch. Walking on the yellowbrick road with the silver slippers represented the bimetallic standard. (MGM changed the silver slippers to the vivid (garish, even) ruby slippers to exploit the fabulous technology of Technicolor.)

The Good Witch of the North = New England, a populist stronghold.

The Good Witch of the South = the South, another populist stronghold.

The Wicked Witch of the East = Eastern banking and industrial interests. She is killed by Dorothy's falling house because the Populists expected that the eastern industrial workers would vote Populist, but this never really happened.

The Wicked Witch of the West = the West was where the Populists were strongest. The only reason why the West gets a wicked witch is a) you need two bad guys to balance the two good guys, and especially, b) William McKinley was from Ohio, then thought of as a western state. (I guess.) The wicked witch is sometimes identified directly with President McKinley.

The Munchkins = subjects of the eastern banking and industrial interests, i.e., eastern workers who didn't vote for Bryan.

The Scarecrow = western farmers. They were Populists.

The Tin Woodsman = eastern workers. Populist mythology always looked to this group for support, but never actually found it in reality. Baum realized this (most Populists didn't) and shows the Tinman as a victim of mechanization. He's so dehumanized he doesn't have a heart.

The Cowardly Lion = William Jennings Bryan.

The Emerald City = Washington D.C. The color is suggestive of paper greenbacks.

The Wizard = President McKinley, but sometimes his advisor, Marcus Alonzo Hanna.

4. Bibliography

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, New York: Hill, 1900.

Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press/National Bureau of Economic Research, 1963.

Hugh Rockoff, "The Wizard of Oz as a Monetary Allegory," Journal of Political Economy, (1990) 98:4, pp. 739-761.

by Salem Ajluni, Department of Economics, Siena College, from

What follows is a summary of Henry Littlefield's "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism" from Michael patrick hearn ed _The Wizard of Oz_ (New York:Schocken Books, 1983) which is exerpted from lecture notes from a money and banking course I taught at Guilford College in the spring of 1990. Those interested in an economist's analysis can refer to Hugh Rockoff's "The 'Wizard of Oz' as a Monetary Allegory in _JPE_ (August 1990).

The Wizard of Oz and Its Relation to Monetary History

The Great Deflation lasted over 30 years and the entire period was characterized by the pauperization of American family farmers and sharecroppers. To combat consistently falling farm prices, farmers struggled to produce more and more to maintain incomes which led to further declines in farm prices and farm incomes. Millions were pushed off the land as they were unable to meet their debt obligations and were forced to give up their lands to settle their debts. These rural people flooded the cities to join the ranks of the proletariat throughout this period.

But also there was resistance to this process. Agricultural producers banded together to demand, among other things, democratic control over money such that its supply would be sufficient to meet their needs. Thus the farmers and other rural people supported inflationary policies to maintain their incomes. To do so they created the Populist movement which reached the apex of its power in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The Populists pushed a scheme to create a money system independent of gold- a fiat money- which the government (which they saw as the only power capable of challenging the "money trust" of New York, Chicago and St. Louis) would control and mold to meet the needs of farmers and producing classes generally. Thus they sought to circumvent the private banks who controlled the money supply and establish public control of money- democratic money. They ran the People's Party candidate William Jennings Bryan (who was also endorsed by the Democratic Party's candidate) in 1896 on the restricted platform of a bi-metallic system of money in which silver would augment gold as the monetary base.

The story "The Wizard of Oz" is the allegorical story of this period. Dorothy represents the good and simple farmers of the Midwest. Kansas is a dreary and gray place symbolizing the difficult lives of the farmers. Dorothy is swept into a new world by the forces of nature (a cyclone) and kills the wicked Witch of the East- who was a tyrant and detested by the Munchkins who are apparently yeoman farmers. The Witch of the East represents the Eastern banks. The silver slippers of the Witch become the possessions of Dorothy and she sets out to find the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City (Washington, D.C.) who, she is told, will show her how to get back to Kansas.

On the way she first meets the Scarecrow who represents farmers and who has a low opinion of himself and his intelligence. He spouts the urban view of farmers who are seen as ignorant. He sets out with Dorothy to the Emerald City to seek a brain from the Wizard. On their way they come across the Tin Man who represents the urban working-class. The Witch of the East had put a spell on our former woodsman and every time he swung his axe, he would cut off a different part of his body. But in the land of Oz it was possible to repair such accidents by replacing body parts with tin parts. But the rain caused the parts to rust. In the Tin Man, Baum suggests the debilitating power of the banks in both making manufacturing difficult via tight money policies but also seems to be alluding to the Marxist notion of alienation. With each exertion the Tin Man lost his body (his self) and became less human and more part of the machine. Moreover, he feels he has lost his heart and the ability to feel. Baum (like Marx) seems to be saying that with wage labor, the working class creates the means for its continued enslavement by capital. Labor becomes complicit in its own exploitation through its creation of surplus value, part of which becomes the means of the capitalist to enlarge and expand the relations of capital.

The three set out on their journey down the Yellow Brick Road (representing the gold standard) toward the Emerald City and soon come across the Lion representing William Jennings Bryan whose roar is greater than his bite. Bryan was quite an orator but his co-optation by the Democrats and the watering down of Populist demands in the process are the allegory here. He strikes out at the Tin Man but hardly phases him paralleling the inability of Bryan to gain the support of the urban working-classes in the election of 1896. The Lion feels he lacks courage and the others suggest he join them on their journey to see the Wizard and the four set out toward the Emerald City. This is an allusion to Coxey's Army of tramps and indigents marching to Washington in 1894 to ask President Cleveland for work.

The Wizard sees them but appears to them each in a different form, an allusion to politicians' proclivity to be all things to all people. He is feared and respected by all in the land of Oz- including the witches- but he remains an enigma to them. In this Baum is speaking to the awe in which the common citizenry view the political center and its power (which derives from nothing more than their collective consent). The Wizard tells them that in order to grant their wish, they must kill the wicked Witch of the West who symbolizes the cruelty of nature and the perennial droughts which ravaged farmers in this period. Thus the politician passes the buck in effect telling them that their problem is with nature not with the political power. They cross the desert and confront many obstacles before Dorothy kills the witch by dousing her with water- that rarest and most valuable of resources which were it to be in sufficient supply, would alleviate much of the burden of the farmers.

Dorothy and company return to the Emerald City and discover the Wizard to be a phoney (i.e. a real politician). The Wizard is just a common man who informs the four that they had the ability within them to achieve their aims. This is to say that the people have the power to solve their solutions for themselves independent of any reliance on the government. The story ends with the Scarecrow in command of the Emerald City (alluding to the rise of a farmers' lobby in Washington), the Tin Man ruling in the West (an allusion to the westward spread of industrialization) and the Lion ends up ruling a forest full of lesser animals (an allusion to Bryan's defeat in national elections but his continued prominence in the political world of the jungle full of petty hacks and functionaries).

Dorothy, just before leaving Oz, is told by Glinda, the Witch of the South: "Your Silver Shoes will carry you over the desert...If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country. All you have to do is to knock the heels together three times and command the shoes to carry you wherever you wish to go." This is a direct reference to the ability of the people to control money- a democratic money- to serve their needs in any way they choose. It is the affirmation of the power of people to control their own destiny. Dorothy finds her way back to Kansas but loses Silver Slippers on the way which is Baum's way of poking fun at the Populists for whom silver became an end in itself. Dorothy finds reality in Kansas less the silver shoes and perhaps minus the illusion of money in its silver form and the illusions that the solution to the problems of the people of Kansas are to be found in money.

Note: the following article concludes essentially that the Wizard of Oz was not intended as a political allegory. This is an absurd premise, but the article is included because it successfully demonstrates that matters are more complicated than the above would have you believe. The retort to Parker, in short, is that in a political landscape in which the richest of the Wall Street clique fuel the Bolsheviks, it hardly strains credulity that an apparent Republican would write a crypto-Marxist allegory.

from the Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians, v15 (1994) p.49-63, by David B. Parker, from

The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a "Parable on Populism"

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of America's favorite pieces of juvenile literature. Children like it because it is a good story, full of fun characters and exciting adventures. Adults--especially those of us in history and related fields--like it because we can read between L. Frank Baum's lines and see various images of the United States at the turn of the century. That has been true since 1964, when American Quarterly published Henry M. Littlefield's "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism." Littlefield described all sorts of hidden meanings and allusions to Gilded Age society in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: the wicked Witch of the East represented eastern industrialists and bankers who controlled the people (the Munchkins); the Scarecrow was the wise but naive western farmer; the Tin Woodman stood for the dehumanized industrial worker; the Cowardly Lion was William Jennings Bryan, Populist presidential candidate in 1896; the Yellow Brick Road, with all its dangers, was the gold standard; Dorothy's silver slippers (Judy Garland's were ruby red, but Baum originally made them silver) represented the Populists' solution to the nation's economic woes ("the free and unlimited coinage of silver"); Emerald City was Washington, D.C.; the Wizard, "a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of paper mache and noise, . . . able to be everything to everybody," was any of the Gilded Age presidents.(1)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was no longer an innocent fairy tale. According to Littlefield, Baum, a reform-minded Democrat who supported William Jennings Bryan's pro-silver candidacy, wrote the book as a parable of the Populists, an allegory of their failed efforts to reform the nation in 1896. "Baum never allowed the consistency of the allegory to take precedence over the theme of youthful entertainment," Littlefield hedged at one point; "the allegory always remains in a minor key." Still, he concluded that "the relationships and analogies outlined above . . . are far too consistent to be coincidental."(2)

It was an interesting notion, one scholars could not leave alone, and they soon began to find additional correspondences between Populism and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Richard Jensen, in a 1971 study of Midwestern politics and culture, devoted two pages to Baum's story. He implicitly qualified Littlefield by pointing out that not all pro-Bryan silverites were Populists. But Jensen then proceeded to add two new points to the standard Littlefield interpretation, finding analogies for Toto and Oz itself: Dorothy's faithful dog represented the teetotaling Prohibitionists, an important part of the silverite coalition, and anyone familiar with the silverites' slogan "16 to 1"--that is, the ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to one ounce of gold--would have instantly recognized "Oz" as the abbreviation for "ounce."(3)

A few years later, literary scholar Brian Attebery wrote that "it is too much to say . . . that The Wizard is a 'Parable on Populism,' but it does share many of the Populist concerns and biases." Like Jensen, Attebery cautioned against an uncritical acceptance of Littlefield; and again like Jensen, he went on to suggest an analogy of his own: "Dorothy, bold, resourceful, leading the men around her toward success, is a juvenile Mary Lease, the Kansas firebrand who told her neighbors to raise less corn and more hell."(4)

The most extensive treatment of the Littlefield thesis is an article by Hugh Rockoff in the Journal of Political Economy. Rockoff, who saw in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz "a sophisticated commentary on the political and economic debates of the Populist Era," discovered a surprising number of new analogies. The Deadly Poppy Field, where the Cowardly Lion fell asleep and could not move forward, was the anti-imperialism that threatened to make Bryan forget the main issue of silver (note the Oriental connotation of poppies and opium). Once in the Emerald Palace, Dorothy had to pass through seven halls and climb three flights of stairs; seven and three make seventy-three, which stands for the Crime of '73, the congressional act that eliminated the coinage of silver and that proved to all Populists the collusion between congress and bankers. The Wicked Witch of the East was Grover Cleveland; of the West, William McKinley. The enslavement of the yellow Winkies was "a not very well disguised reference to McKinley's decision to deny immediate independence to the Philippines" after the Spanish-American War. The Wizard himself was Mark Hanna, McKinley's campaign manager, although Rockoff noted that "this is one of the few points at which the allegory does not work straightforwardly." About half of Rockoff's article consisted of an economic analysis that justified Bryan and Baum's silver stance.(5)

In a recent history of the Populist movement, Gene Clanton wrote that while The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was "a classic parable on the silver crusade," Littlefield had gotten some of it confused. Clanton explained (as had Jensen) that not all pro-Bryan silverites were Populists. A number of reform Democrats shared the Populists' distrust of railroads and bankers, their support for inflation, and so forth, but the Democrats disagreed with the Populists' call for a strong and active government to solve those problems, and in fact they tended to see Populists as dangerous socialist radicals. Clanton suggested that if the Wicked Witch of the East was the forces of industrial capitalism, then Baum's Wicked Witch of the West was Populism itself. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz "mirrored perfectly the middle-ground ideology that was fundamental among those who favored reform yet opposed Populism," wrote Clanton. "Baum's story was an apt metaphor or parable of Progressivism, not Populism." This was hardly the death knell for Littlefield; he had simply confused pro-Bryan, silverite Democrats for pro-Bryan, silverite Populists.(6)

As scholars continued to extend and modify Littlefield's interpretation, laymen discovered it as well. Perhaps the best example was a widely-reprinted essay, first published in the Los Angeles Times in 1988, in which Michael A. Genovese described The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as "the story of the sad collapse of Populism and the issues upon which the movement was based." Genovese's brief analysis was pure Littlefield. But there was one notable (and somewhat disturbing) aspect of Genovese's piece: Littlefield's name was never mentioned. The phrase "according to one scholar" never appeared. Less than a quarter century after his article appeared, Littlefield had entered the public domain.(7)

Several factors help explain Littlefield's popularity. First, he produced an overwhelming number of correspondences, and others have added to the list. One would be hard pressed to find any character, setting, or event in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that does not have a "Populist parable" analogy.

Second, educators discovered Littlefield's usefulness in teaching Populism and related topics. (This was the reason Littlefield, at the time a high school teacher, developed his analysis in the first place; the correspondences between Populism and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he wrote, "furnish a teaching mechanism which is guaranteed to reach any level of student.")(8) The journal Social Education suggested using The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to help secondary school students understand the issues behind Populism, and I myself proposed the Littlefield thesis as a possible lecture topic in an instructor's manual for a popular college-level textbook.(9) Another textbook contained a two-page "special feature" essay explaining The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a Populist allegory (although once again Littlefield's name was not mentioned).(10)

Third, many people in post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America were fascinated to learn that their favorite children's story was something of a subversive document, an anti-establishment fairy tale. Hence in 1988 the Utne Reader praised a newspaper article for "expos[ing] Oz as a parable on Populism," a movement that had been critical of "Eastern banks and railroads, which [Populists] charged with oppressing farmers and industrial workers."(11)

By the 1980s, Littlefield's interpretation had become the standard line on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.(12) Recently, however, one of his basic assertions--that the book was, like the Populist movement itself, a critique of American industrial capitalism--has been challenged by scholars who argue that the book actually celebrated the urban consumer culture of the turn of the century.

The best statement of this revisionist view is William R. Leach's two essays in a new edition of the book. Baum's masterpiece was popular, Leach explained, "because it met--almost perfectly--the particular ethical and emotional needs of people living in a new urban, industrial society." Leach pointed out that the book exalted the opulence and magic of the metropolis. The Emerald City, with its prosperous homes and luxurious stores, resembled nothing as much as it did the "White City" of Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893, which Baum had visited several times. Furthermore, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz reflected Baum's belief in theosophy, a spiritualist/occultist quasi-religious movement that was popular in the late nineteenth century. Specifically, the book emphasized an aspect of theosophy that Norman Vincent Peale would later call "the power of positive thinking": theosophy led to "a new upbeat and positive psychology" that "opposed all kinds of negative thinking--especially fear, worry, and anxiety." It was through this positive thinking, and not through any magic of the Wizard, that Dorothy and her companions (as well as everyone else in Oz) got what they wanted. "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an optimistic secular therapeutic text," wrote Leach. "It helped make people feel at home in America's new industrial economy, and it helped them appreciate and enjoy, without guilt, the new consumer abundance and way of living produced by that economy." Leach concluded that "the book both reflected and helped create a new cultural consciousness--a new way of seeing and being in harmony with the new industrial order."(13)

Leach's new look at Baum directly challenged much of what Littlefield wrote.(14) Furthermore, it was consistent with Baum's background. Before he became a professional writer, Baum worked as a traveling salesman and owned a dry goods store. In 1897, he founded The Show Window, the first journal ever devoted to decorating store windows, and in 1900 (the same year as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), he published The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors, the first book on the subject. Furthermore, Baum's involvement in the theater, as everything from actor to producer and writer, taught him to appreciate the artistic lifestyle that only the big cities could offer.

Leach's essays did not necessarily overturn Littlefield, however. Baum might have been "a shopkeeper, a traveling salesman, an actor, a playwright, a windowdresser,"(15) but he was also a reform-minded Democrat who supported Bryan's pro-silver campaign in 1896. Given this, Littlefield's thesis still seems plausible.

For years after Baum's death in 1919, the best biography of him was a twenty-five-page sketch written by Martin Gardner for a new edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1957. Gardner wrote just two sentences on Baum's politics: "Aside from marching in a few torchlight parades for William Jennings Bryan, Baum was as inactive in politics as in church affairs [which is to say, pretty inactive]. He consistently voted as a democrat [sic], however, and his sympathies always seem to have been on the side of the laboring classes." Four years later, the first book-length study of Baum appeared. Written by Frank Joslyn Baum (Baum's son, who died during the project) and Russell P. MacFall, the biography did not go beyond Gardner in discussing Baum's politics.(16)

Baum's political affiliation was a big part of Littlefield's argument for seeing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a Populist allegory. Citing Gardner, Littlefield mentioned Baum's support for Democratic candidates and, of course, the torchlight parades for Bryan. "No one who marched in even a few such parades could have been unaffected by Bryan's campaign," Littlefield asserted.(17) If one begins with the assumption that Baum was a Bryan Democrat, it is easy to read a Populist (or at least a pro-silver) message into the book.

But was Baum a Bryan Democrat? In the summer of 1888, Baum moved his family to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he opened a dry goods store. In January 1890, after the business failed, he bought a local newspaper, renaming it the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. The Pioneer was obviously a Republican paper. During the municipal elections that spring, Baum editorialized in support of the Republican candidates; after they won, he wrote that "Aberdeen has redeemed herself . . . [a]fter suffering for nearly a year from the incompetence of a democratic administration." Later that year, Baum urged unity against the growing Independent movement: "We are all members of one great family, the family which saved the Union, the family which stands together as the emblem of prosperity among the nations--Republicanism!" Not only did Baum speak for the Republican party; he spoke against the movement that would soon evolve into the Populists.(18)

It must be admitted that the Pioneer had been a Republican paper before Baum bought it, and perhaps he had to maintain its partisan identification in order to maintain its circulation. Furthermore, Baum's Pioneer, while clearly Republican, was quite progressive: he wrote in support of women's suffrage, alternative religions, occultism, toleration, and so on. So perhaps Baum was a closet Democrat in Aberdeen, forced to hide his true political feelings.

But that appears not to be the case. In the summer of 1896, the year of the election that would mark what has been called "The Climax of Populism," Baum published a poem in a Chicago newspaper:

When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
There'll be a jollification
Throughout our happy nation
And contentment everywhere!
Great will be our satisfaction
When the "honest money" faction
Seats McKinley in the chair!

No more the ample crops of grain
That in our granaries have lain
Will seek a purchaser in vain
Or be at mercy of the "bull" or "bear";
Our merchants won't be trembling
At the silverites' dissembling
When McKinley gets the chair!

When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
The magic word "protection"
Will banish all dejection
And free the workingman from every care;
We will gain the world's respect
When it knows our coin's "correct"
And McKinley's in the chair!

Hardly the writings of a silverite! Michael Patrick Hearn, the leading scholar on L. Frank Baum, quoted this poem in a recent letter to the New York Times. Hearn wrote that he had found "no evidence that Baum's story is in any way a Populist allegory"; Littlefield's argument, Hearn concluded, "has no basis in fact." A month later, Henry M. Littlefield responded to Hearn's letter, agreeing that "there is no basis in fact to consider Baum a supporter of turn-of-the-century Populist ideology."(19)

Thomas A. Bailey once suggested that we set up a computer network to keep track of misinformation that has been corrected--sort of a national clearinghouse for discredited myths. Is it time to move Littlefield to the computer trashpile of misinformation? Given the mounting evidence against it--given that Littlefield himself has admitted that it has "no basis in fact"--should we forget the whole notion of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a parable on Populism? That would be a big mistake. Perhaps we can no longer say that Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz "as an allegory of the silver movement," but we can still read it as an allegory of the silver movement--or, as Henry Littlefield noted just two years ago, "we can bring our own symbolism to it." Recent scholarship might have taken away Baum's intent, but the images are still there, vivid as ever.(20)

And because the images are still there, the Littlefield interpretation (especially as modified by Clanton, Rockoff, and others) remains a useful pedagogical device. Baum gave us a delightful and unforgettable way of illustrating a number of Gilded Age issues, from Populism and the silver movement to the Gilded Age presidency, from the problems of labor to the insurrection in the Philippines.

Thirty years ago, Henry M. Littlefield looked at The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and saw things no one had seen there before. More recently, William R. Leach has shown us another new way of looking at the book, a way that emphasizes a different side of the Gilded Age--the fascination with the city and urban abundance, the rise of a new industrial ethic, and so on. Leach's argument is just as compelling as Littlefield's. "Factual" or not, both are impressive achievements.

But even more impressive is the achievement of L. Frank Baum himself. In the preface to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum stated that he wanted to write a new sort of children's story: a modernized, American story, shorn of all the Old World images and motifs. He was tremendously successful in this, producing not only the first real American fairy tale, but one that showed American society and culture in all its wonderful diversity and contradictions, a story so rich it can be, like the book's title character, anything we want it to be--including, if we wish, a parable on Populism.(21)


1. Henry M. Littlefield, "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism," American Quarterly 16 (1964): 47-58 (quotation on 54); L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Chicago, 1900).

2. Littlefield, "Parable on Populism," 50, 58.

3. Richard Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896 (Chicago, 1971), 282-83.

4. Brian Attebery, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin (Bloomington, 1980), 86-87.

5. Hugh Rockoff, "The 'Wizard of Oz' as a Monetary Allegory," Journal of Political Economy 98 (1990): 739, 751.

6. Gene Clanton, Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900 (Boston, 1991), 149-50. Fred Erisman, "L. Frank Baum and the Progressive Dilemma," American Quarterly 20 (1968): 616-23, made a similar point, but outside the context of Littlefield's analogies.

7. Los Angeles Times, 19 March 1988.

8. Littlefield, "Parable on Populism," 58. For a brief discussion of how he came to write the essay, see Henry M. Littlefield, "The Wizard of Allegory," Baum Bugle 36 (Spring 1992):24-25. The Baum Bugle is published by the International Wizard of Oz Club.

9. David W. Van Cleaf and Charles W. Funkhouser, "Inquiry, 'Oz,' and Populism," Social Education 51 (1987): 282-83; Thomas S. Morgan and David B. Parker, Instructor's Manual and Test Bank to Accompany America: A Narrative History, Second Edition, by George B. Tindall (New York, 1988), 213.

10. Robert A. Divine et al., America: Past and Present (Glenview, Ill., 1984), 594-95. The essay was retained in later editions of the textbook; the third edition was published in 1991. For other examples of educators and the Littlefield thesis, see Michael Gessel, "Tale of a Parable," Baum Bugle 36 (Spring 1992): 19-23.

11. Michael Dregni, "The Politics of Oz," Utne Reader 28 (July/August 1988): 32-33. The newspaper cited was In These Times, 18 Feb. 1987.

12. There have been other interpretations of the book--scholars have read it from psychoanalytical, feminist, theological/philosophical, mythological, and Marxist perspectives, among others----but Littlefield's was easily the best known and most widely accepted of the bunch.

13. William R. Leach, "The Clown from Syracuse: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum," in L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Belmont, Calif., 1991), 2; Leach, "A Trickster's Tale: L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," in ibid., 168, 174. Stuart Culver discussed Baum's book as a reflection of the advertising that accompanied the consumer culture. Culver, "What Manikins Want: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows," Representations 21 (1988): 97-116.

14. One could try to reconcile the differences by suggesting that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was not so much about the Populists themselves as it was about the culture that gave rise to the Populists. Midwestern farmers were well aware of the consumer paradise Leach described (through the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, for example); perhaps their inability to partake more fully in that paradise was one of the reasons for the agrarian discontent that led to the Populists. But this oversimplifies Littlefield's argument, which was about silver and gold, William Jennings Bryan and dehumanized factory workers, not just "agrarian discontent." I appreciate Robert C. McMath, Jr.'s and James Cassidy's helpful comments on this point.

15. Leach, "Clown from Syracuse," 3.

16. Martin Gardner, "The Royal Historian of Oz," in Gardner and Russel B. Nye, The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was (East Lansing, Mich., 1957), 29; Frank Joslyn Baum and Russell P. MacFall, To Please a Child: A Biography of L. Frank Baum, Royal Historian of Oz (Chicago, 1961), 85, 124. ("The Royal Historian of Oz" is a title L. Frank Baum himself had used.) Michael Patrick Hearn is preparing a new biography of Baum; for now, the most reliable source of information is Hearn, ed., The Annotated Wizard of Oz (New York, 1973).

17. Littlefield, "Parable on Populism," 49.

18. Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, 12 April 1890, 19 April 1890, 18 Oct. 1890. For more on Baum's editorship and political affiliation, see Nancy Tystad Koupal, "The Wonderful Wizard of the West: L. Frank Baum in South Dakota, 1888-91," Great Plains Quarterly 9 (1989): 207-8.

19. Robert F. Durden, The Climax of Populism: The Election of 1896 (Lexington, 1965); Chicago Times Herald, 12 July 1896, quoted in New York Times, 20 Dec. 1991; New York Times, 7 Feb. 1992.

20. Thomas A. Bailey, "The Mythmakers of American History," Journal of American History 55 (1968): 18; Divine et al., America, 594; Littlefield, "The Wizard of Allegory," 25.

21. When describing characters and settings that readers have never encountered before, writers (and especially writers of fantasy) might naturally use familiar imagery to help the reader along. This could explain why The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is richer and more vivid than Baum's later books in the series (he wrote 13 others, from The Marvelous Land of Oz to Glinda of Oz): after that original volume, the characters and settings were no longer unknown--from the second book on, readers had encountered them before--and so Baum had less reason to use American images as the basis for his descriptions. And as good as some of those later books are, an Ozian Oz(described on its own terms) was nowhere near as fascinating as an American Oz.