By E.A. Barrera
Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856 in a time when America was still coming into it’s own and had yet to grow past the trauma of it’s birth. He lived through the Civil War, the expansion of the American West, the railroad, the electric light bulb, the motorcar, the motion picture, the airplane, and America’s entry into World War One. He saw the decency of the American spirit time and again tested by the ideals, reality and corruption of his day and he infused all of these observations into a series of children’s books that have continued to inspire generations of people through out the world long after his death on May 6, 1919.
He wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 and began a series of children’s stories in a mythical land called Oz which inspired countless other books, plays, and films - notably the 1939 classic film “The Wizard of Oz” with Judy Garland. In creating Oz, Baum invented the great American fairy tale to stand next to England’s Alice in Wonderland and Italy’s Pinocchio.
There was intelligence to the Baum characters and stories that appealed to readers at every stage. For children, there was the obvious appeal of the fantasy and the thrills within each tale. But adults could also find meaning in the works - both from a nostalgic perspective as well as a sardonic one. For buried beneath all the characters and adventures, there has always been the legend that Baum was in fact using his Oz stories to formulate a running commentary on American culture and politics. .. in the most effective and subversive manner available - satire.
Since the 1960s, Baum’s works have been dissected for their satirical potential and his use of Oz to attack the political leaders of his day. Most notable is the contention that the model for both the Wizard and the Cowardly Lion was former US Secretary of State and three time Democratic Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan.
“The story turns out to be an allegory about U.S. monetary policy of the late 1800s,” said Harvard Economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. “In 1863, the National Banking Act put the United States on a new national currency. The currency, commonly known as the greenback, was not backed by gold or silver and was intended to allow the North to pay for its war with the South through inflation. When, after the war, the U.S. moved back toward a gold standard, monetary deflation occurred,” said Mankiw. “Though the deflation and return to a gold standard resulted in a booming economy in other respects, Democrats of the South and Midwest contended that the plight of farmers justified a move back toward the bimetallic (gold and silver) standard of early America. Making silver acceptable as money would essentially inflate the currency and reduce the value of farmers’ debts.”
This theory was also supported by University of Rutgers Economic Historian Hugh Rockoff. In a 1990 essay for The Journal of Political Economy titled “The Wizard of Oz as a Monetary Allegory,” Rockoff agreed that Baum was making a political statement about Bryan, the state of American politics, and the issue of currency.
“The Silverites called for the wide-spread use of silver coins, in addition to the gold-backed money already in circulation,” said Rockoff, who noted that Baum sympathized with the Silverites, and wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz after the failure of Bryan’s crusade for silver coinage. “Dorothy represents traditional American values; Toto is the Teetotalers, or the Prohibitionist party; the Scarecrow represents farmers; the Tin Woodsman represents industrial workers; the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan; the Munchkins are the citizens of the East, the Wicked Witch of the East is Democrat Grover Cleveland; the Wicked Witch of the West is Republican William McKinley; the Wizard is Marcus Alonzo Hanna, Republican Party chairman; the Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard; and Oz is the abbreviation for an ounce (of gold).”
Baum wrote some of his Oz stories in a home in Coronado which still stands. Baum’s own great-granddaughter Gita Dorothy Moreno, a Lakeside resident and Jungian psychologist, has used the Oz stories in her work and authored the book The Wisdom of Oz. She noted the influences religion and progressive politics played in Baum’s life and made special note of the underlying feminism in the Oz books. Baum’s mother-in-law, Mati-lda Joslyn Gage, was an early suffragette who helped draft the Women’s Bill of Rights. Together with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she co-authored The History of Women’s Suffrage (1881-1886). Gage later wrote Women, Church and State: The Original Expose of-Male Collaboration Against the Female Sex.
“Her (Gage’s) influence as an activist suffragist and dedicated freedom fighter played an important role in the development of the heroine who would come to be known world-wide as Dorothy,” said Moreno during a 2003 reading of her work at DG Wills bookstore in La Jolla. “All of the leading or defining characters in the Oz stories are women. The effect of Matilda Gage’s influence on Baum’s own political sentiments clearly influenced his decision to create an American icon in the form of a little girl, and not another boy in the tradition of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.”
Baum historian Michael Patrick Hearn noted in the introduction to The Annotated Wizard of Oz, which he edited in 2000 for the centennial celebration of the novel, that Baum and his mother-in-law “grew to admire each other” and shared many of the same liberal ideas.
“But that did not stop him from frequently satirizing the ‘new woman’ in his writings, notably the character of General Jinjur and her Army of Revolt in The Marvelous Land of Oz (Baum’s second book in the series),” said Hearn.
In fact, at the conclusion of The Marvelous Land of Oz, Baum lends his hand to Gage’s feminist politics by writing that the Wizard deceptively maintained power through the kidnapping and hiding of the rightful heir to the thrown of Oz. The Wizard gave the baby to an old witch, who hid the child by altering its identity - turning a young girl into a young boy.
“The Wizard brought me the girl Ozma, who was then no more than a baby, and begged me to conceal the child. He taught me all the magical tricks he knew. Some were good tricks, and some were only frauds. I enchanted her ... I transformed her ... into a boy!” wrote Baum in 1904.
Moreno said Baum’s own spirituality influenced the Oz stories and, though raised a Methodist, Baum ultimately rejected organized Christianity as he drifted towards Eastern religions and philosophies.
“In Eastern mythology, mystics describe a coiled yellow snake that lies at the base of the spine as kundalini energy,” wrote Moreno in The Wisdom of Oz. “It represents a potential power that releases and travels up the spinal column when an individual attains enlightenment. Just as the gold snake penetrates the unconscious regions of the psyche, the Yellow Brick Road passes through dark and confusing territories in Oz. Like a labyrinth that twists and turns in opposite directions until it reaches the center core, the Yellow Brick Road does eventually lead Dorothy and her friends back home. When their journey is complete, they are able to relax in a state of wholeness, contentment, and recognition of who they are. In Eastern traditions this is called a state of enlightenment.”
Whatever Baum’s political and philosophical leanings, or the continued revisionism of what his Land of Oz, there is at heart one lasting legacy all can agree on - and it was stated best at the time of the writer’s death in Mercury Magazine.
“Now and then we meet a man who is like a fine mirror, in which we see all the unexpressed beauty and nobility of our own natures. We think the man is wonderful because we ourselves are never so wonderful as when with him … Frank Baum was beloved of all who knew him for the power of thought and the goodness that he aroused in all he met. His influence on America was beyond measure for he spoke to the children of the land. To give wings to the imagination and flame to thought is an endowment that is godly. In this power, L. Frank Baum was wonderful, and his life was a benediction to the world.”