Daily Archives: February 28, 2010

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

 

Original Wizard of Oz book.

Actually, I am in Kansas right now, but I couldn’t resist that statement, and I’m not alone.  It’s a very popular phrase to explain wonderment when entering a fantastic new environment.  Recently I saw a version of the phrase in the New York Times Coming-of-Age Filmgoers: You’re Not in Kansas Anymore, which had nothing to do with the movie or the book.

(Judy Garland’s line as Dorothy Gale in the film The Wizard of Oz was “Toto, I have the feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”)

Growing up in Kansas, I was always fascinated by The Wizard of Oz movie, even though it didn’t show our state in a very favorable light.  However, as black and white, dusty and tornado-prone as Kansas was shown in the movie,  Dorothy couldn’t wait to get home!  L. Frank Baum, the author, never visited Kansas but fashioned the Kansas in his book, published in 1900, after the drought years  he experienced when he lived in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

I didn’t interpret the movie (I hadn’t read the book) as anything more than a fantasy, until I got to college.  There, I learned that like most fairy tales, there is a deeper interpretation, usually something sinister or despotic.

L. Frank Baum, 1901.

In these times of great economic uncertainty, I thought it might be helpful to take you back to the good old days of the 1890s, depicted as allegory in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”   The “Gay Nineties” period was really a time of widespread economic depression in the United States, set off by the Panic of 1893.  The depression lasted until 1896, when the Republican Party took control of the White House. Full prosperity didn’t return until 1899, which didn’t last, of course.  Boom and bust times continue, most notably The Great Depression.

Henry M. Littlefield wrote an essay in 1964 called “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” which showed that the people and events in the book were metaphors for actual people and events in the 1890s. 

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion in an illustration from the first edition.

Dorothy represents Everyman.  How wonderful that Everyman is a woman!  Here’s  an excerpt from the wikipedia version:

 “Many of the events and characters of the book resemble the actual political personalities, events and ideas of the 1890s.  The 1902 stage adaptation mentioned, by name, President Theodore Roosevelt, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, and other political celebrities. (No real people are mentioned by name in the book.) Even the title has been interpreted as alluding to a political reality: “oz.” is an abbreviation for ounce, a unit familiar to those who fought for a 16 to 1 ounce ratio of silver to gold in the name of bimetallism In the play and in later books Baum mentions contemporary figures by name and takes blatantly political stances without the benefit of allegory including a condemnation in no uncertain terms of Standard Oil. The book opens not in an imaginary place but in real life Kansas, which, in the 1890s as well as today, was well known for the hardships of rural life, and for destructive tornadoes.  

The Panic of 1893 caused widespread distress in the rural United States. Dorothy is swept away to a colorful land of unlimited resources that nevertheless has serious political problems. This utopia is ruled in part by wicked witches. Dorothy and her house are swept up by the tornado and upon landing in Oz, thehouse falls on the Wicked Witch of the East, destroying the tyrant and freeing the ordinary people—little people or Munchkins. The Witch had previously controlled the all-powerful silver slippers (which were changed to ruby in the 1939 film to take advantage of the new technicolor film). The slippers will in the end liberate Dorothy but first she must walk in them down the golden yellow brick road, i.e. she must take silver down the path of gold, the path of free coinage (free silver). Following the road of gold leads eventually only to the Emerald City, which may symbolize the fraudulent world of greenback paper money that only pretends to have value, or may symbolize the greenback value that is placed on gold (and for silver, possibly).  Henry Littleton’s Essay about “The Wizard of Oz.”

Political Interpretations of “The Wizard of Oz.”   About L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”    About the “Gay Nineties.”

About “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

1903 poster of Dave Montgomery as the Tin Man in Hamlin's musical stage version.

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