Evan Hazard column: There is more to Oz than you might think
Last April, Art Lee, Bemidji State University professor emeritus of history, addressed the Bemidji Area Academy of Lifelong Learning about L. Frank Baum's 1900 book, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Art has given this talk often, but I'd not yet heard it. I was not disappointed, but one seldom is when Art speaks.
Specifically, he told us that Baum, a Midwestern journalist based in Omaha, Neb., built the fairy tale around political and economic conditions in the last decade of the 19th century. The post-Civil War era, with increasing population and industrialization, was known as the Gilded Age. But it was "gilded" mainly for the rich, who built mansions on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue and "cottages" with dozens of rooms in Newport, R.I. In opulence, if not detail, Vanderbilt's "The Breakers" in Newport compares well with "Mad King" Ludwig's "Neuschwanstein" in Bavaria.
But the boom busted in 1893, and the Gilded Age had never been "gilded" for farmers and laborers anyway. Anger at East Coast bankers and West Coast plutocrats was widespread, and a mid-decade drought didn't help. Many believed that the heartland, both north and south, was the true America, controlled financially by corrupt wealth on the coasts. No surprise that Baum's wicked witches rule the eastern Munchkins and western Winkies, while good witches rule the southern Quadlings and northern Gillikins. Art discussed much of the symbolism in the (golden) Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy's Silver Slippers, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and such: look for more on the Web.
I learned to read late, but then rapidly became an avid reader. And I loved Baum's "Wizard of Oz."
In 1939, MGM released the movie. I hadn't seen as many movies as most kids, and was pretty naïve. When my folks and I saw it, I was furious. It didn't follow the book! (I've since learned that movies generally don't.)
The Wicked Witch of the East's slippers were silver (William Jennings Bryan was a "free-silver" advocate); Judy Garland's were red. Besides, Garland was clearly not a simple little girl, as depicted by W.W. Denslow's neat illustrations in the book, but a full-sized gorgeous late teenager. Ten-year-old (and 80-year-old) boys know them when they see them. Several episodes in the book were missing, and, if I remember, there was only one good witch in the movie.
After Art's talk, I had a problem. As a kid, I was an Oz fan for some years, and had read all of Baum's Oz books and several of those written by others after he died (See a list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Oz_books). Before writing anything here, I had to be sure not to conflate events and characters from later books with the first book's story. So, down to the library. They had several copies, and all were out but one, probably borrowed by others who heard the talk. I borrowed the one, read it through in three hours, and confirmed that at least the China People and the Hammerheads were missing from the movie.
But I had another surprise. I'd grown out of Oz fandom and gone on to other stuff in the early '40s. But in the '70s, when our kids were young, we had bought a set of Baum's 14 books, and I had reread them. Mostly I was surprised at how superficial they seemed, and of course watched in our kids the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy the tales: if the Tin Man doesn't eat, where does he get the energy to chop wood, etc. But now, in 2010 with Art Lee's insights, I found myself admiring Baum's subtleties.
In Chapter 18, after the Wizard has left without Dorothy, the Scarecrow rules the Emerald City and "the people were proud of him. 'For,' they said, 'there is not another city in all the world that is ruled by a stuffed man.' And, so far as they knew, they were quite right." The double meaning is no accident.
And, at the end of Chapter 20, after they had already accidentally broken a china cow's leg, the Cowardly Lion "upset a china church with his tail and smashed it all to pieces. 'That was too bad,' said Dorothy, 'but really I think we were lucky in not doing these little people more harm than breaking a cow's leg and a church.'" From sweet little Dorothy, no less. That's worthy of Mark Twain.
The Pioneer website, www.bemidjipioneer.com, has a new blog, "Up in the Sky." Scroll to "Area Voices" and click on "Up in the Sky." If it is not listed, click on the blue "Area Voices" at the top of the section. Among other things, I will post astronomical items that need to be available before the next "Northland Stargazing."
Evan Hazard, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes "Northland Stargazing" the fourth Friday of each month. He also writes a blog titled Up In The Sky at www.bemidjipioneer.com under Area Voices.