January 21, 2006

Bryan and Dorothy

An historian named Littlefield came up with a detailed analogy between Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the politics of the turn of the 20th Century, in which the now underrated William Jennings Bryan headed a movement for the free coinage of silver, which would, he said, free the farmer and the workingman from the oppression of Wall Street.

Although apparently Littlefield later questioned the allegory, it is so much fun that one hesitates to abandon it.
The Lion represents Bryan himself. In the election of 1896 Bryan lost the vote of Eastern Labor, though he tried hard to gain their support. In Baum's story the Lion meeting the little group, "struck at the Tin Woodman with his sharp claws." But, to his surprise, "he could make no impression on the tin, although the Woodman fell over in the road and lay still." Baum here refers to the fact that in 1896 workers were often pressured into voting for McKinley and gold by their employers.[19] Amazed, the Lion says, "he nearly blunted my claws," and he adds even more appropriately, "When they scratched against the tine it made a cold shiver run down my back" (pp. 67-68). The King of Beasts is not after all very cowardly, and Bryan, although a pacifist and an anti-imperialist in a time of national expansion, is not either.[20] The magic Silver Shoes belong to Dorothy, however. Silver's potent charm, which had come to mean so much to so many in the Midwest, could not be entrusted to a political symbol. Baum delivers Dorothy from the world of adventure and fantasy to the real world of heartbreak and desolution through the power of Silver. It represents a real force in a land of illusion, and neither the Cowardly Lion nor Bryan truly needs or understands its use.

All together now the small party moves toward the Emerald City. Coxey's Army of tramps and indigents, marching to ask President Cleveland for work in 1894, appears no more naively innocent than this group of four characters going to see a humbug Wizard, to request favors that only the little girl among them deserves.

Those who enter the Emerald City must wear green glasses. Dorothy later discovers that the greeness of dresses and ribbons disappears on leaving, and everything becomes a bland white. Perhaps the magic of any city is thus self imposed. But the Wizard dwells here and so the Emerald City represents the national Capitol. The Wizard, a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of paper mache and noise, might be any president from Grant to McKinley. He comes straight from the fairgrounds on Omaha, Nebraska, and he symbolizes the American criterion for leadership -- he is able to be everything to everybody.

As each of our heroes enters the throne room to ask a favor the Wizard assumes different shapes, representing different views toward national leadership. To Dorothy he appears as an enormous head, "bigger than the head of the biggest giant." An apt image for a naive and innocent little citizen. To the Scarecrow he appears to be a lovely, gossamer fairy, a most appropriate form for an idealistic Kansas farmer. The Woodman sees a horrible beast, as would any exploited Eastern laborer after the trouble of the 1890's. But the Cowardly Lion, like W. J. Bryan, sees a "Ball of Fire, so fierce and glowing he could scarcely bear to gaze upon it." Baum then provides an additional analogy, for when the Lion "tried to go nearer he singed his whiskers and he crept back tremblingly to a spot nearer the door." (p. 134)
What sort of an allegory could we create with Karl Rove, Joe Biden, and Michael Moore? Nothing to equal "Oz," I suspect. The mighty have fallen, and the glory of Europe (like America) has vanished forever.

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