David Parker in his article, “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a ‘Parable on Populism” looks closer at the many interpretations of the Wizard of Oz and gives us his opinion that sometimes a book is just a book and that interpretations pulled out of thin air are often just as ephemeral. I have always been very interested in what adults think about children’s literature. More often than not they read into the stories political, religious, and even topical themes of their own time or the time in which the story was written. Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz is probably one of the most interpreted pieces of children’s literature. There are whole schools of thought dedicated to the ideas behind the characters and the symbolism throughout the entire book series. From ideas of female empowerment to the political/Marxist ideologies of turn of the century America, Oz has inspired many writers to look beyond the curtain to find out what Baum was really trying to say. Most people familiar with critical theory and the interpretation of the Oz stories have come to accept that Baum was writing from either a Populist or Marxist position. While this interpretation is almost ubiquitous it is a fatally flawed conceit constructed by closed minded and biased English professors and promoted by equally biased university English departments. Baum was not a Marxist neither was he a populist. He was merely a man seeking to tell a rousing story for children.
David Parker focuses his deconstruction of the flawed critical interpretations of Oz by taking a close look at the work of Henry M. Littlefield. In his seminal book on Oz, The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism. Littlefield seeks and finds hidden metaphors throughout the Wizard of OZ . In fact, almost every character, object, and even action in the book is meticulously scrutinized and explained as part of a populist/Marxist agenda. Littlefield finds great meaning in assigning the Scarecrow the role of the beleaguered farm worker and the Tin Woodsman the role of industrial laborer. Dorothy, the Lion, the Wizards, and Witches are assign fitting roles as either the oppressed or the oppressors. Littlefield even matches objects in the story to ideas held by populists and progressives. Littlefield believed that the slippers which were silver (not ruby) in the book represented the Silverite movement, an early American progressive movement which wished to devalue American currency. The argument that Oz is a work that is politically populist and Marxist became the major interpretation of the work in large part due to Littlefield. Marxist and populist interpretations of Oz popped up one after another on the heels of Littlefield’s work. Some agreed with his thesis some disagreed with how he interpreted each character, object, or plot point in the book, but almost all agreed on Littlefield’s primary message. This is not a surprising development for anyone familiar with late twentieth century university English departments.
The problem in the populist and Marxist interpretations of Baum’s work would not surface until years later. The Problem as David Parker lays out in his article is that Baum just did not conform to the idea of a populist. Parker looks at the political activity of Baum in depth before making his conclusion. Baum was a registered democrat and voted democrat, but he did not support populist ideology. In fact as Parker states, “Not only did Baum speak for the Republican party; he spoke against the movement that would soon evolve into the Populists.” (Parker 54) Baum even made pleas to support Republican candidates in a newspaper he owned. This was not the work of a populist. Parker in all fairness suggests that Baum may have taken the Republican stance in the newspaper to boost sales in the Republican majority city of Aberdeen South Dakota. However, Parker points out this was not Baum’s last pro-Republican piece of writing and these appear in publications that would be in much less Republican friendly areas. In fact Baum calls for the “silverites’ dissembling” (Parker 60). These same silverites were part of the progressive movement and wanted to change the gold standard to a silver standard. They are also the foundation of much of the interpretation that Littlefield created to explain the The Wizard of Oz.
Parker concludes the article by examining what Baum said himself about the book and it’s purpose. Baum wanted to create a uniquely American Fairytale that had none of the European holdovers spoke to the American spirit.
I don’t think Baum meant for the book to be interpreted, analyzed, or approached from a feminist, Marxist, or any point of view other than as a story for children. I think the best way to examine Dorothy and her journey through Oz is through Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey. I think we should put aside all the other interpretations and merely see this story for what it is. This is the story of a brave little girl who is confronted by obstacles and learns from her experiences. Looking at this story from the idea of the hero’s journey we can find a novel yet more satisfying way to approach the text.
I believe we should look at Dorothy as a Heroine. She conforms to all the aspects of Campbell’s Hero archetype. She begins the story by undertaking a quest to find the Wizard. Tragically flawed companions also accompany her on this quest. She encounters one physical obstacle after another that she overcomes by wit will and tenacity. In the end she overcomes an internal obstacle that changes her perception of the world and those around her. The final obstacle gives her new wisdom, which she now can take back, and use for the betterment of herself and those around her. Dorothy meets all the basic requirements for a hero according to Campbell. In the prologue to Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces he states that the hero, “is to return to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed” (Campbell 4) This is Dorothy in a nutshell her entire journey led her to understand the importance of her life in our world. The great realization was that there was “no place like home”. While the character of Dorothy never says those famous Hollywood created words as she clicks the heels of the slippers together in the novel that sentiment is certainly in the book. Dorothy’s goal was always to return to Kansas, but her time in Oz taught her a lesson about the importance and joy of being home.
I think an approach to Baum’s work that doesn’t dwell on trying to find some underlying meaning to the text may be one of the best ways to understand what Baum himself sought. He was telling a modern fairy tale and he was creating a Heroine for children of his day. In fact in the introduction Baum says just that, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today.” (Baum 1) There is no metaphorical story about progressive politics, and no hidden feminist, homosexual, or agrarian agenda on the part of Baum. He was simply writing a story for children and to place too much emphasis on analysis could take away from what the author saw as his job. Sometimes an author’s only job is to create a Hero or Heroine to entertain us with their struggles and their revelations.
David B. Parker JOURNAL OF THE GEORGIA ASSOCIATION OF HISTORIANS, vol. 15, pp. 49-63.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973. print.
Baum, Lyman Frank. Wonderful Wizard of Oz. New York: Dover Publications, 1960. Print.