The Wizard of Ounce

Jeffrey Saut:

While most people know “The Wizard of Oz” as one of the most popular films ever made, what is little known is that the book was based on an economic and political commentary surrounding the debate over “sound money” that occurred in the late 1800s. Indeed, L. Frank Baum’s book was penned in 1900 following unrest in the agriculture arena due to the debate between gold, silver, and the dollar standard. The book, therefore, is supposedly an allegory of these historical events, making the events easier to understand. In said book, Dorothy represents traditional American values. The Scarecrow portrays the American farmer, while the Tin Man represents the workers, and the Cowardly Lion depicts William Jennings Bryan. Recall that at the time Mr. Bryan was the official standard bearer for the “silver movement,” as well as the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate of 1896 who gave the “Crucified on the Cross of Gold” speech at that year’s Democratic National Convention. Interestingly, in the original story Dorothy’s slippers were made of silver, not ruby, implying that silver was the Populists’ solution to the nation’s economic woes. Meanwhile, the Yellow Brick Road was the gold standard, and Toto (Dorothy’s faithful dog) represented the Prohibitionists, who were an important part of the silverite coalition. The Wicked Witch of the West symbolizes President William McKinley; and the Wizard is Mark Hanna, who was the chairman of the Republican Party and made promises that he could not keep. Obviously, “Oz” is the abbreviation for “ounce.”

After Hollywood was through with it, the lessons of Baum's story were trite conventional wisdoms:

1. Don't aspire to anything greater than slopping hogs outside that prairie shack you're living in (even though we're having a blast here in Tinseltown).

2. Life is irrational and threatening but eventually the witch melts and you get through it OK.

3. People have more talent than they think they have. Wooo, deep.

Update: Alan N. Shapiro has a better way of looking at Item 3 above. It isn't made clear in the Hollywood version but is ultimately more satisfying to read than Sauter's reduction of Baum's tale to dated political symbols above (which now seems flimsy, in comparison to the passage below):

Speaking of classics about wizards, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) is a very important text of Western literature – much more than a children’s novel as it is usually regarded to be – that has yet to be lucidly interpreted. The enormous popularity of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland, is in some ways responsible for this missing interpretation. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story about why the psychological character of the cultural citizen of modern Western society is that of someone who does not have a brain (the Scarecrow), who does not have a heart (the Tin Woodman), and who does not have courage (the Cowardly Lion), although at the same time the cultural citizen of the West secretly (always already, to use the Althusserian phrase) has a brain, has a heart, and has courage, but he has not yet figured out how to existentially access them.