New Orleans I’ve never had any time for the Wizard of Oz, book by L. Frank Baum or movie featuring Judy Garland, although of course I know it well as a cultural touchstone. Turns out, thanks to Jacobin, it seems, despite sometimes thinking of myself as a student of late 1800s populism as an organizer, I had been totally missing the fact that the work is likely a political allegory, according to economic historian Hugh Rockoff, and its author was a free sliver supporter. This reading makes the Wizard of Oz all about the struggles between the Populists, dominated by farmers arguing for a silver standard to stop ruinous deflation on their crop prices, in opposition to Greenbackers, who continued to support dollars backed by gold.
The key to this reading runs along these lines:
- Dorothy is America, likely modeled on Mary Elizabeth Lease, the “Kansas Tornado” famous for urging farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.” In the book, her slippers were sliver, not ruby.
- Toto is the Prohibition Party using the play on words common then for “teetotalers”
- Oz is the land where gold, measured as an ounce, abbreviated as oz, is everything.
- Tornado is the free silver movement rising in the West and sweeping the country.
- The gold standard is the yellow brick road, and the Emerald City is Washington, D.C., where the journey to the city is the march in 1894 after the Panic of 1893 of Coxey’s Army of the unemployed.
- Western farmers are the Scarecrow, smart enough to understand monetary policy. The working man is the Woodman, suffering alienation from industrialization.
- The Cowardly Lion is a stand-in for William Jennings Bryan, famed for his “cross of gold” convention speech, but cowardly for backing off the issue of silver in the 1890 election.
- The Wizard is Marcus Hanna, the businessman mastermind behind President William McKinley, who make the gold standard the sole standard for currency in 1890.
- As for the witches, the Wicked Witch of the East, is likely Grover Cleveland, who presided over the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, the Wicked Witch of the West is President William McKinley who ran against silver from his front porch, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South is Southern farmers who were sympathetic to the free silver movement of Western farmers and miners.
Given the popularity of the Wizard of Oz and the importance of other politically fictionalized works like the enduring Animal Farm, I have to wonder why we don’t have more of this now, given their power to teach and persuade. Admittedly, in the Wizard case, the dilution is almost complete after more than one-hundred years, but still what an eye-opener and incentive to re-read that fairy tale in a profoundly political light.
This would seem to be a time made for satire, populated with rouge politicians and bloatedly absurd billionaires. Here’s hoping there will be some to take up the challenge.