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The Wizard of Oz as a Tale of Gold, Economics, Politics and the Federal Reserve Banking System
A speculative interpretation of L. Frank Baum's original book

Lyman Frank Baum (who published under the name L. Frank Baum) was born in New York in 1856. He began his career at the age of 25 by writing for musical theater; he was also an actor. Baum eventually turned to journalism, and moved to Chicago in 1891, writing for the "Evening Post." To earn extra money, he also sold porcelain and china; you will see evidence of that in the stories he tells in Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In 1897 he published Mother Goose in Prose, followed by Father Goose in 1899. Based on the success of this book, he was able to give up his other jobs and devote himself full-time to writing.

And in 1900 he published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The book was a bestseller, and Baum immediately created a musical stage version which successfully appeared on Broadway and toured the country for ten years, from 1902-1911. (None of the songs from the theater musical were later used in the musical film starting Judy Garland.)

In 1904, Baum published a next installment: The Marvelous Land of Oz: The Further Adventures of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman. He went on to write a total of fourteen books set in Oz, with a varying cast of characters.

In 1910, Baum and his family moved to Hollywood, California. He founded the Oz Film Manufacturing Company and began making films based on the Oz books. The problem was that back in the early years of the century, nobody had really started making films for children. Baum found it difficult to market the films, and they were not financially successful. But Baum continued to produce the Oz books, publishing a new book every year until his death in 1919, just a few days before his 63rd birthday.

After Baum's death, other authors - notably Ruth Plumly Thompson - continued to produce books for the Oz series. And in 1939, Warner Brothers released the Victor Fleming musical starring Judy Garland, under the title The Wizard of Oz. This film became an icon of American cinema, and most people now know the version of the Oz story presented in that film, rather than the story told by Baum. Fortunately, unlike many Disney productions of children's classics, the Wizard of Oz is amazingly faithful to Baum's original book. You will see some of the most important differences in the reading this week: Dorothy's shoes are not red, and the Emerald City is not actually green, and the whole trip to Oz is real - it is not a dream, as in the movie. Plus there are many adventures in the book which had to be left out of the movie, while the movie added more to the frametale, describing Dorothy's life in Kansas, creating the characters Hunk, Zeke, Hickory, Professor Marvel and Miss Gulch, who are all counterparts to characters in Oz. These Kansas characters are not part of Baum's original story.

Because all of Baum's Oz books were published before 1923, they are in the public domain. This means that you will find plentiful copies of all of these texts on the Internet, although only two books - the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the sequel The Marvelous Land of Oz are available in illustrated editions online.

There are many rumors and legends associated with the Oz books, and with the film. One of the most interesting has to do with where the name Oz comes from. There are many conjectures about that, and Baum himself promoted this charming explanation in a book introduction in 1903:

I have a little cabinet letter file on my desk that is just in front of me. I was thinking and wondering about a title for the story, and had settled on the "Wizard" as part of it. My gaze was caught by the gilt letters on the three drawers of the cabinet. The first was A-G; the next drawer was labeled H-N; and on the last were the letters O-Z. And "Oz" it at once became.

Of course, it is entirely possible that Baum himself was making that story up. Other theories abound. Martin Gardner's theory ("Mathematical Games," in Scientific American. February 1972) is that the name OZ is derived from the abbreviation NY, Baum's home state, with each letter moved up one place in the alphabet (like the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey having the name IBM, with the letters moved one back in the alphabet).

One of the more persistent legends about the filming of the Wizard of Oz musical is that an actor playing one of the munchkins, "driven to despair over his unrequited love for a female munchkin," committed suicide during the shooting of the film. You can allegedly seen the hanged munchkin in the scene where Dorothy and the Scarecrow are gathering apples from the angry apple trees. Like most grisly urban legends, the story of the suicidal munchkin is not true. Apparently there were some peacocks roaming the set, and one of them spread its wings vaguely in view of the camera, creating the strange effect that has been interpreted as the dangling munchkin. Given the enormous popularity of this movie, there is a lot of Wizard of Oz Movie Trivia.

One of the most interesting legends associated with Baum's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is that it is actually a closely argued political allegory in support of "The Radical Free Silverites," a Democratic populist movement in America in the late 19th century. To alleviate the effects of an economic depression in the 1890's, some politicians were arguing for augmenting the monetary gold standard with silver coinage. This platform is most closely associated with William Jennings Bryan, who was the Democratic candidate for President in 1896. You probably read about his "Cross of Gold" speech in your U.S. history class, when Bryan demanded the abandonment of the strict gold standard in order to bring relief to the working classes of America: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." Baum was a lifelong Democrat and supporter of populist politics.

So, what does this have to do with Oz? You will find out that Dorothy does not have ruby slippers in the book; her slippers are silver. Meanwhile, the road to Oz is paved with gold. Here is how Mark Lovewell summarizes the allegorical theory of the metals:

Dorothy, the heroine, symbolizes mid-America at its best -- honest and open-hearted. Uprooted by a tornado, she is enticed to follow a yellow brick road to the fantasy-land of Oz (an ounce of gold). The Scarecrow she meets symbolizes the Western farmer who thinks he has no brain but turns out to be more capable and intelligent than he realizes. The Tin Woodman who joins them represents the American worker whose grinding labours have left him, at least for a time, rusted and heartless. And the Cowardly Lion who tags along depicts none other than William Jennings Bryan, the leader whose lack of courage finally caused him to betray the pro-silver cause. [...] Dorothy is then able to return to the security of home by clicking her silver (not ruby, as in the movie) slippers.

According to this theory, Oz is not a fanciful name made up based on the letters on a filing cabinet: it is the abbreviation for "ounce."

In any case, whether Baum was inspired to write a political allegory, or whether politics were the farthest thing from his mind at the time, the final result is a classic of children's literature. I'm guessing that probably everyone who is doing this unit has seen the musical film version. You will find this week that the book has a different and special charm all its own.

In the original 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 monetary 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). Next, Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, an animal in need of courage (Bryan, with a loud 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.

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 (Ruby shoes in the movie), but on waking in Kansas, she realizes that they've fallen off, representing the demise of the silver coinage issue in American politics.

Regardless of the true nature of the message in Baum's story, it is a true classic, and my niece and nephews did a fine job of entertaining us in their recent school production of the original.

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