06 March 2013

Getting Oz Censorship Right

This week’s posting at Banned Books Awareness highlighted L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a story kept off certain shelves over the years. Unfortunately, it overstated the case with this anecdote:
In 2004 both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson conspired to get the movie banned from broadcast on public television because of “moral turpitude.” Robertson would publically state that “The Almighty told me that flying monkeys and witches are an affront to all good Christians.”

When asked at the time if either had ever seen the movie or read the book, they denied, saying that they “feared ungodly influence.”
Those quotes and the story came from this story at Deadbrain.com, a parody site that describes itself as “America’s least reliable news source.” Falwell, Robertson, and the FCC were too politically savvy to take on an American institution like the television showings of the MGM Wizard of Oz.

Complaints about how Baum depicted witches as potentially good, like Glinda, did fuel some small-town religious challenges to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the late 1900s. However, religious objections had little to do with the policy of several big library systems not to stock the Oz books in the middle of that century. I think there’s a risk of projecting present-day issues back into earlier controversies.

As memos reprinted in The Baum Bugle in 2000 showed, some American librarians objected to restocking the Oz books because they were:
  • fantastic and unrealistic.
  • a long series of increasingly indifferent literary quality.
  • cheaply made (and enthusiastically read) and thus quick to wear out.
Glinda had nothing to do with it.

In 1957, this Toledo Blade article shows, Detroit library head Ralph Ulveling told a state library conference: “There is nothing uplifting or elevating about the [Oz] series.” He said they promulgated “negativism” and have “no value.” [Not “no value for children of today,” as the Banned Book Awareness article and other webpages render the quotation.] Some sources state that Ulveling also said the books dragged children down to a “cowardly level,” but that’s a paraphrase from the Blade’s editorial against Ulveling’s policy.

Two years later, Florida librarian Dorothy Dodd wrote a memo calling the Oz books “unwholesome for children in your community.” But, as this editorial in Life magazine shows, she didn’t single out the Oz books. She grouped that series with “Uncle Wiggly [sic], Tom Swift, Tarzan, the Bobbsey Twins,…Horatio Alger, the Campfire Girls, the Hardy Boys, and others of the ilk.” That editorial also reports and exemplifies the reaction against Dodd’s edict.

The 1950s brought to light other examples of librarians choosing not to stock or shelve the Oz books. But that institutional disapproval wasn’t really a reflection of the decade. In at least some cases, those practices had been in place for years. Responding to critics, Ulveling protested that he was simply explaining a policy that was three decades old.

The fact that people were asking about the Oz books and newspapers were covering the controversy showed how Americans of that decade wanted more access to the series. Few people complain about libraries stocking books that nobody wants. In 1956, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz entered the public domain, and in 1959 the MGM movie was shown on television for the first time. Widespread access to the original story cemented its place in American culture, good witches and all.


Anonymous said...

As you noted, that entire Banned Books piece was extremely garbled fact-wise. What many people don't seem to realize is that many of the censors of the Oz books (and comics, and other popular entertainment) until the past few decades were not rabid right wingers (religious or otherwise)but individuals who considered themselves socially "progressive" and didn't want youth corrupted by "trash" that would spoil their appreciation for good literature.
The infamous Frederick Wertheim, was such a person, and I suspect that librarians like Ralph Ulveling and Dorothy Dodd were similarly disposed.

J. L. Bell said...

Ulveling's Wikipedia entry says he was known for "support of intellectual freedom, interracial understanding, and the advancement of the library and information science profession."