WALL STREET JOURNAL
May 11, 2006
DOWN THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD OF OVERINTERPRETATION
JOHN J. MILLER
The day that L. Frank Baum finished the story that would make him famous, he knew he had something special in his hands. So he took out a fresh piece of paper and scribbled a short commemoration: “With this pencil I wrote the manuscript of `The Emerald City.'” Paper and pencil were then framed and hung above his desk. Yet Baum spent the next several months tinkering with that title. He eventually settled on “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
This was a smart revision. Oz went on to become one of the great place names in the fantasy culture of childhood, the predecessor and equal of Never-Never Land, Narnia and Hogwarts. The book proved to be as fertile to the popular imagination as the Kansas soil is to wheat. Out of that original 40,000-word manuscript grew no less than 13 sequels, enough films to keep a movie megaplex busy, and Broadway blockbusters such as “The Wiz” and “Wicked.”
Books are typically better than their movies and occasionally movies are better than their books (e.g., “The Godfather”), but “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is a rare two-fer, a classic on both page and screen. The book remains remarkably brisk and readable, especially considering its age; the 1939 film featured the usual abridgements but also added those familiar songs with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, such as Judy Garland’s classic “Over the Rainbow” and the amusing “If I Only Had a Brain.”
This is a big year for Oz fans. Not only is it the 50th anniversary of the movie’s first appearance on television, but it’s also the sesquicentennial of Baum’s birth. A collection of Baum memorabilia is currently on exhibit at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. Next month, South Dakota will host its annual Aberdeen Oz Festival (this year’s highlight: a visit from two of the original movie Munchkins). There will be other Baum-related events in California, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, New York and (of course) Kansas.
Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856, in Chittenango, N.Y. He was a natural-born entrepreneur with a love for writing and publishing — he printed amateur journals as a boy and a directory of stamp dealers as a young man. If he were a teenager today, he would almost certainly have an elaborate Web site on myspace.com. The concept of the Internet wouldn’t have surprised him: In the 1880s, he imagined a future for “Baum’s Hourly Newspaper,” which would report on events as they happened in a 24/7 news cycle.
The need to make a living soon led Baum in several directions. With his uncle, he started Baum’s Castorine, a chemical company that still does business in Rome, N.Y. He was also an authority on chickens; his first real book, published in 1886, was about a variety known as Hamburgs. “He quickly became one of the country’s leading experts on the breed,” notes Michael Patrick Hearn in “The Annotated Wizard of Oz,” a book that isn’t suited for reading aloud to children because of all the discursive footnotes, but one that is capable of keeping curious parents awake long after bedtime.
There are several theories about how Baum came up with the name Oz, whose pronunciation initially seems to have rhymed with “was.” These include the charming (he enjoyed stories that made children cry out with “ohs” and “ahs”) and the unlikely (he borrowed it from “Ozymandias,” the sonnet by Shelley). The most plausible explanation may be the one that Baum himself supplied: It came to him one day when he was staring at a set of filing drawers labeled “A-G,” “H-N” and “O-Z.”
Yet there is a long history of digging deeper into Baum’s books and searching for hidden meanings. The most famous of these is to interpret “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as a parable of the Populist movement of the 1890s: Dorothy represents the American people, the Scarecrow symbolizes farmers, the Tin Woodman stands in for factory workers, and the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate. One of the leading concerns of Bryan and the Populists was to get off the gold standard (the Yellow Brick Road) and replace it with the silver standard (the color of Dorothy’s slippers in the book).
This hypothesis was first proposed by Henry M. Littlefield, a high-school history teacher. He tested it on his students and argued past their objections — most notably, the fact that Dorothy’s slippers in the movie aren’t silver. The producers had gone with red because they wanted to show off their newfangled color technology.
Littlefield published his ideas in 1964, and it wasn’t long before reading the Oz books became a kind of parlor game. Although many Baum enthusiasts were disdainful of these efforts, the challenge of trying to figure out exactly what Baum meant to imply when he wrote about Toto the dog (teetotalism?) and the Winged Monkeys (Plains Indians?) was too much to resist. According to one analysis, “Oz” is more than a nonsense word borrowed from a filing drawer — it’s a cunning reference to the abbreviation for “ounce,” a common unit of measurement for both gold and silver.
There is no doubt that many educators have found Baum’s tale to be a useful tool for teaching about a certain period of history. Yet pushing the parable too hard recalls one of the best lines in the book: “If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.” Likewise, those determined to read Oz as a roadmap to the politics of the 1890s will spot a few guideposts, but only because they’ve ignored inconvenient facts and overlooked allegorical complexities. Baum, for instance, did not hold any firm political views — and to the extent that he did, there is good evidence to suggest that he supported the gold standard and didn’t think too highly of the Populists.
The real brilliance of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is that it aims chiefly to entertain — a worthy ambition in its own right. As Baum himself once said, “To write fairy stories for children, to amuse them, to divert restless children, sick children, to keep them out of mischief on rainy days, seems of greater importance than to write grown-up novels.”
Now that’s a statement worth taking at face value. It turns out that sometimes a story is just a story. And in the most remarkable of cases, sometimes a story grows into a legend.
Mr. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of “A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.”