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The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory

Author(s):Dighe, Ranjit S.
Reviewer(s):Sullivan, Timothy E.

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)


Ranjit S. Dighe, editor, The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. xi + 149 pp. $59.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-275-97418-9; $21.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-275-97419-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy E. Sullivan, Department of Economics, Towson University.

L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published more than a century ago is a celebrated and much-loved classic of children’s literature but as is the case with many fables it appeals to a wide audience and the precise meaning and intent of the story depends on how it is interpreted. It can be read purely as a delightfully entertaining fairy tale, full of whimsical characters and an enchanted adventure. It can, and has, also been interpreted as an allegory of the political, economic and social adventures of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The interesting thing of course, and what makes this such an enduring story, is that there are plausible and contrary interpretations of the fable’s characters and their adventures. Reading it as a pro-populist metaphor for the economic effect of bimetallism and the expansion of the nation’s money supply along with the empowerment of western farmers and industrial laborers seems apparent enough. On the other hand, others have interpreted it as an anti-populist metaphor, or as a parable about Progressivism, or as an allegory of the perils of imperialism and the direction of American foreign policy in the late nineteenth century. Although these interpretations, as well as assorted pro and anti-feminist interpretations that others have attributed to the characters and their adventures, help to make this fable much richer and thus much more interesting than being merely a simple, albeit fantastic child’s fairy-tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz succeeds as a work of fiction not simply because it is entertaining but rather because it engages its readers. Any writer who succeeds in not only entertaining his or her audience but then gets them to imagine things they hadn’t imagined before or even surprises them with questions of how one thing might be related to another thing has accomplished something wonderful indeed. Baum’s story remains a classic because it continues to entertain and surprise a wide audience of readers; whatever was intended when it was originally penned.

Dighe (Economics, State University of New York at Oswego) has put together a very useful and engaging book that introduces and explains the context under which Baum’s book was written and provides some of the basis for the economic and political interpretations that have emerged over the years. Throughout the work, he has synthesized his own interpretations with the work of other scholars and thus not only makes the contributions of others (such as, Hugh Rockoff and Henry Littlefield) more accessible but also provides a more meaningful comparison of alternative perspectives on Baum’s intent and likely meaning. There are a few introductory chapters that outline the basic issues of the American monetary system and the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century but the central part of this work is an annotated reprinting of Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz as published in 1900. Another practical feature of the book is found in an appendix that reprints the text of William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” Speech that was delivered to the Democratic National Convention in July 1896. Dighe’s annotations make this a useful and entertaining book and will, I think, provide functional and amusing information for almost anyone who reads it. In fact, this is the kind of book that I hope reaches a wide audience since it helps to make economics and economic issues more accessible and demonstrates that impassioned debate over economic policy is much older and more pervasive than is commonly believed by some undergraduates. It is not only a concise and thoughtful study of an interesting work of American literature but more importantly it clarifies economic topics and the potential effect of alternative economic policies. Indeed the most compelling characteristic of Dighe’s book is that it demonstrates the usefulness and even the fun of using a familiar work of literature to explain economic events and policies. Speaking from personal experience in the classroom, I have invariably found that undergraduates actually enjoy and benefit from classroom discussions about the Wizard of Oz and its alternative interpretations. As a teaching tool, it encourages students to relate a seemingly simple but familiar story to events and topics that usually seem distant and unfamiliar. And I have to admit that I am looking forward to building on this discussion again next semester since I now have a few additional interpretations and questions to pose to my students after having read Dighe’s handy and thoughtful book.

Since classic works often seem to be those books that people discuss the meaning and significance of without having taken the time to actually read them, this convenient book accomplishes two valuable and worthy objectives. Reprinting the original text clearly makes Baum’s words more accessible, and the author’s annotations ought to encourage a lively and informative discussion of alternative, plausible though opposing interpretations. Baum’s intentions when he created the Wizard of Oz are probably beside the point to a fable that has become part of American culture. Deliberate or not, the fable spun by Baum has taken on a life of its own. Even a cursory Internet search reveals that there are thousands upon thousands of web sites related to Baum’s characters and the possible significance of what is on its surface just a child’s fairy-tale. America’s fascination with Baum can also be judged by the observation that one full-length biography of Baum (Katharine M. Rogers, L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, St. Martin’s Press, 2002) has recently been published and another (by Michael Patrick Hearn) is apparently in the works. The fact that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can be read for pure delight by a child or alternatively can become part of a scholarly debate over the events and significance of economic and public policy is a testimony to the power of words and the importance of metaphors to understanding complex relationships. For students and teachers, for novice and seasoned scholars alike, I heartily recommend Dighe’s interesting and entertaining book.

Timothy Sullivan is Associate Professor of Economics at Towson University; his research interests lie in nineteenth century American industrialization and twentieth century urbanization.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII