Thursday, December 15, 2011

Isaac & "The Wizard of Oz"

For most readers, especially the children for whom L. Frank Baum wrote, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is as Baum intended, "a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out." In his Introduction for the book, Baum left little doubt about his intentions: "Folklore, legends, myths, and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous, and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations." However, Baum believed, "...the time has come for a series of newer 'wonder tales' in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale." Baum never outgrew his capacity for creative fantasy, and he believed it was important to encourage a child's sense of wonder and imagination.

Yet, as clearly as Baum stated his intention, adults have repeatedly imposed their own interpretations and ideas upon Baum's work. The 1939 movie has several minor changes, ruby rather than silver slippers being one example. The biggest change, however, was to begin the movie with a sepia-colored sequence at Dorothy's prairie home, with actors that were easily recognizable later in the movie as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wicked Witch. The movie, as wonderful as it is, declined to trust children's imaginations to accept that the tornado actually transported Dorothy to a real Land of Oz, suggesting instead that Dorothy's trip to Oz had only been a dream. While L. Frank Baum would surely have loved the movie, as so many generations of children already have, I suspect he would have been disappointed by the movie producers' decision to present Dorothy's visit to Oz as a dream.

So, why am I writing about L. Frank Baum and Oz on Isaac B. Werner's blog? One reason is to share how some scholars have gone even further in pre-empting Baum's fairytale for children. In 1954 a history teacher named Henry M. Littlefield suggested that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz could be interpreted as a parable of the Populist movement, using Baum's characters as stand-ins for people or places connected to The People's Party: the Scarecrow as the farmer; the Tin Woodsman as the industrial laborer; the Emerald City as Washington, D.C.; the Wicked Witch of the East as Eastern millionaires, monopolists, and bankers; and depicting the Populist opposition to the gold standard and belief in a return to bimetallism and renewed coinage of silver represented as the Yellow Brick Road misleading people toward reliance on the gold standard; Dorothy's silver slippers representing the untested power of returning to silver; and the Cowardly Lion as Populist (and Democratic) 1896 Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Littlefield's theories about the allegorical meanings of the book led others to propose their own historical and political interpretations, one of the most interesting being that the name of Oz itself came from the bimetallism ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to one ounce of gold, suggesting to one scholar that Baum had used the abbreviation for an ounce as the name of the Emerald City.

Eventually, Michael Patrick Hearn, who is widely recognized as the leading scholar on L. Frank Baum and who authored the Introduction, Notes & Bibliography for The Annotated Wizard of Oz, weighed in on the debate with a letter to the New York Times, stating that he had found "no evidence that Baum's story is in any way a Populist allegory." A few weeks later, Henry M. Littlefield wrote a letter in reply, agreeing that "there is no basis in fact to consider Baum a supporter of turn-of-the-century Populist ideology." All of this makes an interesting connection between Baum and Isaac, and although Isaac died before the book was published, he was active in the Farmers' Alliance and supportive of Populist candidates.

A second reason is historical, since Dorothy's adventure begins on a farm on the Kansas prairie during the hard times Isaac described in his journal. While I agree with Michael Patrick Hearn that Baum intended to write a book for children and not an elaborate allegory about the populist movement and the election of 1896, I think it is natural that Baum was influenced by the events of his time. After the collapse of the Baum family's theatrical business, L. Frank Baum moved his family to Aberdeen, South Dakota to open a general store, but the hard times meant there were too few customers with money to purchase his goods, and the bank foreclosed on his store. He then purchased and ran a newspaper, which certainly made him familiar with the news of the day. It seems inevitable that some of what he saw around him would weave its way into his story.

Except for the fact that Isaac and some of his neighbors had planted trees on their timber claims and homesteads, Baum's fictional description of the Kansas plains on the opening pages of the book is not too different from what farmers in parts of Kansas might have seen during the years of drought in the late 1880s and 1890s. Baum wrote: "When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere."

The connection between Isaac's Journal and L. Frank Baum's Oz book was recalled to my attention as we prepared for a special event. The Macksville City Librarian, Jody Suiter, asked my husband and me to share our love of Oz with the K thourgh 5th grade students, and it was decided to use the larger space of the grade school library for the presentations. The picture at the right is of my husband handing out diplomas, signed by Oz and awarding each student a Degree of ThD (Doctor of Thinkology).

We had a wonderful time preparing for the day--baking cookies, making bookmarks, selecting which parts of the book to read to the students, printing diplomas, and choosing pictures from some of our favorite Oz illustrators to show them--Michael Hague, Charles Santore, W.W. Denslow, Robert Ingpen, Scott Gustafson, Robert Sabuda, and the unusual Lisbeth Zwerger. We decorated a tree with our collection of Oz ornaments, shared our one-of-a-kind Oz chess board with the 4th & 5th graders, told the story of Oz to the kindergarten & 1st graders with the help of hand-crafted Oz dolls, and compared how different illustrators imagined Oz in unique ways with 2nd & 3rd graders. In short, the innocence and enthusiasm of the students provided us with an afternoon of the very magic Baum wished for children when he wrote his stories, and through them, we experienced it too.

So, the movie makers can be forgiven for using artistic license to alter Baum's story for the screen, and the scholars can be humored for twisting Oz into a historical & political allegory, so long as children can still find magic in the Land of Oz as Baum intended.

(To see more pictures and information about our sessions with the children, visit Jody Suiter's wonderful website at


Deb L said...

I enjoyed your column. I am reminded that as a very young child I asked my mother why the beginning was in black and white. I'm sure she was teasing, but I took it as serious when she said, "They probably had some black and white film they needed to use up first." Waste not :) Deb Ludwig

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Deb, I'm glad you are enjoying the blog. I loved your story about your Mother. Mothers do tell us things that take a long time to figure out. When my mother taught me how to break an egg she told me if I got shell in something it was like glass and could kill anyone eating it. I actually threw out a cake mix (and maybe other things) as an adult before I figured out she was "teasing" or trying to make sure I didn't get shells in the cake mix!

Anonymous said...

I know this post is old, but where did you get those Oz soft-dolls, were they handmade? I'm very interested in them.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Dear Anonymous, I am always a bit uncomfortable replying to someone unknown, but to answer your question, yes, the dolls were handcrafted by me. I am a stickler for accuracy consistent with the author's descriptions, so I studied Baum's descriptions of the four main characters and designed dolls that are consistent with what Baum wrote. Dorothy even has a basket for her bread, and I found a linen hanky in an antique shop to serve as the cloth to cover the bread. I even made a small loaf of bread with a recipe intended not to deteriorate, but the bugs that got into the bread did not know it wasn't edible! She also has a key in her pocket, a small antique key I also found in an antique shop. If you remember, when she left the farm house that had fallen in Munchkin Land, she locked the door and put the key in her pocket. The dolls were a surprise gift for my husband, who is also an Oz fan and collector.