The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (Chicago, 1900) is a parable about Money Reform and the 1890s Midwestern political movement led by William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925); three times candidate for President of the United States (see his poster at bottom of this page). From 1891-1895 Bryan served in the House of Representatives, where he advocated the coinage of silver at a fixed ratio with gold, in order to break the bankers’ monopoly and manipulation of the gold-backed currency.
Bryan and his supporters accused Eastern banks and railroads of oppressing farmers and industrial workers. Bryan believed that a switch to silver-backed currency would make money plentiful. Although correct, Money Reformers today would argue that money need not, and should not, be backed by either silver or gold, but only by the people, their skills, and their resources.
In 1896 Bryan delivered the following words at the Democratic National Convention: “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the labouring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their [i.e. the bankers’] demand for a gold standard by saying to them: ‘You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’”
Although only 36 years old, this speech resulted in his nomination for the presidency. He contested, and lost to, William McKinley. He stood again for the Democrats in 1900 and 1908, losing both times.
Carroll Quigley wrote about the 1896 Presidential election in Tragedy and Hope: A History of The World in Our Time (MacMillan, 1966, p. 74): “Though the forces of high finance and of big business were in a state of near panic, by a mighty effort involving large-scale spending they were successful in electing McKinley.”
L. Frank Baum was editor of a South Dakota newspaper and he wrote the first of his Oz series on Bryan’s second attempt in 1900.
Oz is short for ounce, the measure for gold and silver.
Dorothy, hailing from Kansas, represents the commoner.
The Tin Woodsman is the industrial worker, rusted as solid as the factories shut down in the 1893 depression. The Scarecrow is the farmer who apparently doesn’t have the wit to understand his situation or his political interests. The Cowardly Lion is Bryan himself; who had a loud roar but little political power.
The Good Witches represent the magical potential of the people of the North and the South.
After vanquishing the Wicked Witch of the East (the Eastern bankers) Dorothy frees The Munchkins (the little people). With the witch’s silver slippers (the silver standard), Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road (the gold standard) to the Emerald City (Washington), where they meet the Wizard (the President), who appears powerful, but is ultimately revealed as an illusion; the real Wizard being just a little man who pulls levers behind a curtain.
This can be interpreted in two ways: Either, the President himself is really just a little man who pulls levers to sustain an illusion of power, or, the real power of the President rests with the little men behind the curtains who pull the levers and create the illusion.
When the real Wizard is exposed, the now enlightened Scarecrow denounces him. Dorothy drowns the Wicked Witch of the West (the West Coast elite); the water being an allegory for the Midwest drought. The real Wizard flies away in a hot-air balloon, the Scarecrow is left to govern the Emerald City, the Tin Woodsman rules the West, and the Cowardly Lion returns to the forest where he becomes King of the Beasts after vanquishing a giant spider which was devouring the animals in the forest. Dorothy’s silver slippers were changed to ruby in the 1939 film.
POLITICS AND THE WIZARD OF OZ
By Richard Jensen, University of Illinois — Chicago:
The following was originally from: www.uncg.edu/psc/courses/jktullos/policy/oz.html (a link which is no longer working) but this one is.
There are many variant readings of The Wizard of Oz. I see it as an election story, and read it against the amazingly intense elections of 1896 and 1900 when Democrat William Jennings Bryan ran against Republican William McKinley. At that time there was a profound hope by the pro-Bryan forces (silverites) that they could create a political revolution to overthrow the evils of the reactionary industrial order — but what would the revolution be like? 1896 was a time of severe depression — much like 1932. Making silver money at the ratio of 16 ounces of silver to 1 ounce of gold was their formula. In a vastly popular pamphlet Coin’s Financial School the teenage fictional hero “Coin” argued there was lots of silver out West, but the world’s small stock of gold was controlled by wicked bankers in New York and London.
Author Frank Baum was for a while a silverite newspaper editor in South Dakota where he watched the mounting excitement. He wrote Wizard during the rematch election of 1900, and it immediately became popular. After the Wizard book Baum moved to Los Angeles and churned out a whole series of Oz books, none of which are political. He also wrote a non-Oz novel that was a parable of the progressive era. Did people at the time see the novel as political? Yes: on October 6, 1906 the cover of Harper’s Weekly magazine featured William Randolph Hearst (“Citizen Kane”), the newspaper editor who was running for governor. It depicted him as the scarecrow and the title was “The Wizard of Ooze.”
The tale opens in the present in grey, deadening, drought-stricken Kansas. A sudden cyclone (silverite triumph at the polls) carries Dorothy (every-woman) into a flawed utopia — a land overflowing with milk and honey yet controlled by cruel witches.
The cyclone lands Dorothy’s house atop the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her and releasing The Munchkins from serfdom. (The money trust is deposed by Bryan’s election, freeing the common people from bondage.)
However the Wicked Witch of the West remains loose. The Good Witch of the North (the northern electorate) tells Dorothy that the Wizard of Oz may help her return to Kansas (to normality).
To reach the Emerald City she must follow the Yellow Brick Road, which can be safely traversed only with the magical silver slippers (gold and silver must be in proper parity). Dorothy is protected by an indelible kiss from the Good Witch of the North (an electoral mandate.)
On the yellow brick road, surely one of the most dangerous routes in American literature, Dorothy encounters the silverite constituents. First, the ridiculous stuffed Scarecrow (the farmer), who cannot scare anyone and who fears he has no brains. Actually his behaviour shows him to be highly imaginative and responsible (so much for the ridicule of the hayseed in big-city newspapers).
The travellers then encounter a vivid symbol of the oppressed industrial worker, the Tin Woodsman. The Wicked Witch of the East had cast a spell so that every time he swung his axe he chopped off part of his body. He is entirely tin now, a purely mechanical being who fears he has lost the power to love. Alone he’s helpless — he can’t oil his joints — but in teamwork he proves effective and compassionate. (The industrial workers, dehumanized by industrialization, need to become aware of their latent compassion, and co-operate in a farmer-labour coalition.)
Finally they encounter the Cowardly Lion, who does frighten people but who says he lacks the courage to do his duty. Working together the coalition fights its way to the citadel of power, the Emerald City (the national capital). The Wizard, of course, is a charlatan who tricks people into believing he wields immense power; even his Emerald City is only an optical illusion. (emerald-green paper money is likewise a delusion.)
To achieve true freedom for herself and her allies Dorothy must destroy the Wicked Witch of the West — who enslaves the girl before being dissolved by a bucket of water. (The western elite, especially land barons and mortgage holders, are the remaining obstacle; rain relieves the drought and permits the farmer to assert his superior power.)
The story ends as the Good Witch of the South tells Dorothy that her silver slippers are so powerful that they can fulfil her every wish, and they carry her directly back home, quite without help from the fumbling Wizard. Alas the magic silver slippers are lost in flight when Dorothy returns to Kansas. Utopia thus is possible, with the proper coalition, with the mandate of the North and South, with the silverite panacea — in the process the forces of evil will be vanquished.
With so much election literature featuring the ratio of 16 oz of silver to 1 oz of gold, the colourful utopia just had to be called Oz.
Francis MacDonnell, “The Emerald City was the New Deal: E.Y. Harburg and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Journal of American Culture, Winter 1990, v.13, n.4, pp. 71-
Hugh Rockoff, “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory.” The Journal of Political Economy. August 1990, v.98, n.4, pp. 739-
Richard Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 282-3.