Saturday, May 20, 2023

No, the Wizard of Oz isn't a political allegory

 This comes up over and over online. Even in comments on this blog, I've seen it come up.

The Wizard of Oz is a parable or allegory on Populism! Everything matches up! The Silver Shoes are the Silver Standard, the yellow brick road is the Gold Standard, the wicked witches are the east and west coast bankers, Dorothy is the common man, the Scarecrow is the farmers, the Tin Woodman is the industrial workers, and the Lion is William Jennings Bryan, who didn't win the presidency, while the Wizard is the president.

It's an interesting way to read it.

The political allegory of Oz took off after Gore Vidal referred to an article by Henry Littlefield in which he describes a view using the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to explain the 1896 presidential election. He first came up with this to explain it to his class while teaching about the economic theory of Populism.

After it hit mainstream, it's been repeated over and over and gotten changed up (the Wicked Witch of the West's hostility is described by Littlefield as "she is Baum's version of sentient and malign nature," not being a banker).

Does this work? To a point, yes.

The problem is when the claim is made that this is what L. Frank Baum intended.

Why do we see fantasy as allegory?

Fantasy opened the door wide for allegory. With fantasy, writers could use utterly impossible scenarios to describe concepts they wanted to communicate.

The most famous allegory is John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. It uses a journey with fantastic monsters and strange locations to describe the life of a believer in Christianity, staying true to their teachings, sometimes getting sidetracked, but eventually making it to Heaven. It's the go-to example of an allegory because there's no mystery as to what the characters and places represent: the main protagonist is named Christian, he is told of the journey he needs to take by a man called Evangelist, he has companions named Pliable who turns back at the first danger he encounters, as well as his successful friends Faithful and Hopeful. While it's clear what it means, it's also a fantasy as Christian faces a monster he must battle and is later captured by a giant.

In 1950, another fantasy was published with clear Christian themes: C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Likely, most of the people reading have read it themselves or have enjoyed some adaptation of it. Like the Oz stories, children go to a land where magic clearly exists, which Lewis clearly says is another world. During the events, one of the children, Edmund, is convinced to betray his siblings by telling the villainous White Witch about them and going to her after all of them enter the land of Narnia, putting them all in danger as the rest go to see the heroic Aslan who is trying to free Narnia from the Witch's reign. Aslan allows himself to be killed in place of Edmund, but as he is innocent, he resurrects and is able to finally defeat the Witch during battle.

 Lewis would claim that the story and its sequels—forming the series The Chronicles of Narnia—were not allegories. In the third book, Aslan reveals to Edmund and his sister Lucy that he also exists in their world, but has another name. Aslan is no longer is a fantasy stand-in for Jesus, he's supposed to be Jesus in a fantasy world. (YouTube literary reviewer Dominic Noble has come up with the phrase "Aslan was Jesus' fursona.") The stories did contain strong Christian themes, but they weren't properly allegorical.

One of Lewis' colleagues and friends, J.R.R. Tolkien, also wrote fantasy stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which some began to interpret as an allegory of World War II. It's not hard to see as the story sees an entire world at war. Even places that aren't going to war are still affected by it. However, Tolkien refuted these claims saying his story was "neither allegorical nor topical." He would also say a key line that I think of when addressing allegory: "I think people confuse allegory with applicability."

So, back to Oz.

In allegory, when something is made to represent a concept, it needs to represent that concept consistently. For me, a big point of the story of The Wizard of Oz that just doesn't get addressed is if the Wizard is a stand-in for a president, he abdicates his throne to help Dorothy. Where does this tie into a president leaving office? Furthermore, the Wizard names the Scarecrow his successor, but given the line of succession, the Vice President steps in as president, an incoming person wouldn't be made the president instead. Littlefield doesn't address this, and I haven't heard much about other interpretations addressing it either. A change in a country's leadership is a huge thing to discuss, but it's not addressed.

This doesn't mean there's no merit to using Oz to talk about Populism or even teaching the 1896 election. But the problem is attributing this—to take the term from Tolkien—applicability to Baum as his intent.

Could Baum have intended an allegory?

Baum was not a Populist. He did not support William Jennings Bryan as might be assumed from the interpretation Littlefield proposed. Baum also wrote many other works both under his name and under pseudonyms and anonymously, some even set in his modern world and in places that actually exist. The most political Baum got was in Aunt Jane's Nieces in the Red Cross, which was actually revised given the United States' position in World War I changing between the first and second versions.

But when it comes to claiming Baum had allegorical intention in his work, generally only The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is brought up. It was Baum's first novel, his previous fiction books being short story collections and poetry. Given his later work, he did much better in stories like Queen Zixi of Ix and Sky Island at creating strong, linear stories, while Wonderful Wizard is a series of story time episodes that link together into a clear narrative. Baum could produce some great work, but some of his other books fall quite short, and it'd be strange that early on in his literary career, he'd masterfully weave in a neat allegory that no one noticed for over fifty years.

I have seen claims that the Wooden Gargoyles in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz represent native Americans and the Awgwas in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus represent Jewish people, but the reasoning behind these was either not presented or very sketchy. Still, it's worth remembering that Baum was a white man from a well-off family in the late 19th century and while eventually becoming poor while caring for his own children (he wasn't good with money) and embracing his mother in law's views on feminism, he fell short in embracing other progressive ideals, his editorials on the Sioux being a dark stain on his legacy.

People have also read the Army of Revolt in The Marvelous Land of Oz as a comment on the suffragette movement of the time, but Baum was a supporter of the suffragist movement, and in that book, Oz is under a woman's rule at the end and going forward, and the Army of Revolt meets another all-female army in Glinda's far more skilled and disciplined forces.

Baum also makes Oz into a communist society without money by his sixth Oz book, The Emerald City of Oz in which everyone is able to get what they need thanks to a benevolent ruler operating a government that doesn't forget that it's supposed to care for the people. People provide for themselves and their fellow citizens and when they need more, they simply are given more by their local leaders. This isn't a reading of the subtext, it's actually spelled out in passages from Emerald City and The Road to Oz. Yet, we didn't see him advocating for a similar system in the United States.

Littlefield later clarified that he didn't mean to claim that his Populism interpretation was Baum's intent. However, his original article could easily confuse readers into suggesting it was intentional:

Yet once discovered, the author's allegorical intent seems clear, and it gives depth and lasting interest even to children who only sense something else beneath the surface of the story. Consider the fun in picturing turn-of-the-century America, a difficult era at best, using these ready-made symbols provided by Baum. The relationship and analogies outlined above are admittedly theoretical, but they are far too consistent to be coincidental, and they furnish a teaching mechanism which is guaranteed to reach any level of student. 

(Emphasis mine.)

It's worth noting that Oz has been interpreted by a number of other philosophies and has even been seen as a reflection on contemporary relations between China and Japan. I even saw someone claim it was supposed to be a Christian story with Dorothy's friends representing God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. (No other explanation was given, simply that three characters must represent the Holy Trinity.)

It's worth pointing out that stories mean a lot to many different people. Once they leave the creator and go out to the public, they're there for audiences to enjoy and part of that is finding meaning in them. It's impossible for everyone to exactly match up with the author's intent while creating the work, and Baum specifically wrote that he intended The Wonderful Wizard of Oz "solely to please the children of today" in the introduction to the book.

Why shouldn't we say it's Baum's intent?

While everyone is welcome to read Baum's works and come away with their own interpretation, claiming their take on it is Baum's intent is to claim you know something you have no proof of. You don't even know what a close friend or family member might be thinking at this moment. Can you really claim you can tell what someone was thinking over 100 years ago?

We do have context for Baum's life in all of his works together and the biographical information researchers have turned up. Yet it doesn't really support the Populist interpretation as mentioned above.

Claiming without evidence colors views of a person unrealistically. These unfounded ideas can get sensationalized and spread far more quickly than their rebuttal. This goes on to this day where if someone makes a strong accusation on Twitter to someone, the accusation can get retweeted and shared, but a fair rebuttal and apology likely won't make the same waves.

Thus, when you're presenting information, it's important to make the distinction between something backed up by facts and evidence and what might be a fair assumption, and what is entirely conjecture. This is why in journalism, someone charged with a completely likely crime they may have committed is only said to have done it "allegedly."

It's why many fans bristle at simply labeling Baum "racist" even though we clearly have evidence to back it up from his articles on the Sioux to his use of stereotypes in his literature to even a few uses of the "n-word." While we can't deny Baum had racist views or views inspired by racism, coloring him as simply a racist ignores what else he was or can stop you from thinking about his work outside of that scope. It's important to understand all of who Baum was when reading his works critically.

I need to link to Eric Gjovaag's take on addressing this on his website's FAQ. An earlier version of his answer was my first exposure to the idea and I did touch on some of the same points he did.


Eric said...

And I appreciate how much you have expanded on my thoughts here. One source I will recommend is the book The Historian's Wizard of Oz, edited by Ranjit S. Dighe. He set out to prove the allegory angle through a close reading of the text and research into Baum's life, only to come out the other side saying that it wasn't an allegory after all!

rocketdave said...

Thanks for addressing this. The oft-repeated claim that it was meant as a political allegory bothers me about as much as the hanging Munchkin rumor. Littlefield's article came out sixty-four years after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published. If Baum had really intended his book to be about the gold standard and silver standard, etc., it's beyond absurd to think that it took well over half a century before someone noticed.

partylike1912 said...

Finally, we agree on something...