17 March 2009

Parable? No, Just Full of It

Back in 1964, a social studies teacher named Henry Littlefield stumbled onto a way to teach the turn-of-the-century Populist movement--particularly the argument over whether the US should use silver as well as gold as the basis for its dollars. He tied that long-past debate to L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

That went over so well in the classroom, at least as compared to asking students to read William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech, that Littlefield published his idea in an American Quarterly essay called "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism." Littlefield didn't go quite so far as to suggest that Baum deliberately wrote an allegory on American politics in 1899, but other people grabbed at his hints.

Since then, the idea that the "real" story of The Wizard of Oz is all about monetary policy has popped up in many places. People have proclaimed that characters represent certain people or parts of the American electorate, one schema often contradicting other. Some of the arguments for this interpretation use details found first in the MGM movie, released twenty years after Baum's death.

No one has ever come up with evidence that Baum had Populism in mind. In fact, the evidence that's surfaced since points the other way. In 1964, the only biography of Baum was To Please a Child, which mentioned Baum marching in torchlight parades for Bryan. Research has shown many details of that book to be unreliable. In particular, Baum was a Republican activist in the 1890s, and wrote newspaper verse in favor of William McKinley.

An article about Oz as an economic allegory was what prompted me to write my first cranky letter to a major newspaper, nearly three decades ago. I pointed out that if people really wanted to see Baum's thoughts on the economy they should read The Emerald City of Oz, in which Uncle Henry's farm gets repossessed and Princess Ozma rules over a socialist monarchy.

This week the BBC website covered the Populism angle--accurately, by treating it as a pedagogical aid that some folks decided must be more than that. (I particularly dislike The Historian's Wizard of Oz, which irks me as researcher of both the Oz books and American history. And yet I link to it.)

The BBC story quotes economics professor Bradley Hansen making one of the strongest points against the allegory theory: "Nobody ever suggested it until 1964." Somehow all those obvious parallels that people have spotted in the past forty years went completely past the people of 1900, who were actually immersed in the debate.

Prof. Hansen also goes on to supply the article's money quote:

"While it may have grabbed students' interests, it doesn't really teach them anything about the gold standard and, in particular, the debate about the gold standard."
Exactly. How does walking on a yellow brick road in silver shoes tell us anything about monetary policy?

1 comment:

Sadako said...

Fascinating post. I'd always assumed this was fact--thanks for posting more about it.