The Cause of Oz
By: Katherine Thorsteinson
A tornado of interpretations have circled around L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.’ Some have noted the all too coincidental synchronicity of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and this story’s 1939 film adaptation, labeling the resultant phenomenon ‘Dark Side of Oz.’ Others have identified an unlikely correlation between the death of Judy Garland and the outbreak of the Stonewall riots. But perhaps few have heard about an unusual suggestion made some years earlier. In his 1964 article entitled ‘The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,’ Henry Littlefield posited that the book may be understood as a monetary allegory for the late 19th-century American Populist Party’s promotion of bimetallism.
… it was the land laborers and factory workers who truly found their lives and futures caught up in the unpredictable currents of a storm. It was this group of people, says Littlefield, which L. Frank Baum was allegorically championing in his novel…
With bimetallism, the monetary unit (USD) would have had its value determined by both a measurement of gold and silver. As a result, a fixed exchange rate would have been established between both metals, and supposedly a more stable currency would have subsequently ensued. The debate arose during the economic depression following the Civil War, for which the government had converted from bimetallism to a fiat money currency in order to more easily pay for military costs.
After the war, the government opted for a mono-metallic gold standard which led to clashes between gold advocates and silverites. Throughout this entire economic struggle though, it was the land laborers and factory workers who truly found their lives and futures caught up in the unpredictable currents of a storm. It was this group of people, says Littlefield, which L. Frank Baum was allegorically championing in his novel ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’.
In Littlefield’s view, “Oz” is the abbreviated version of ounce, a standard measurement of gold. The Yellow Brick Road symbolizes the gold standard. Dorothy’s silver shoes (though ruby slippers in the film adaptation) represent the Populist’s promotion of a bimetallic standard, offering personal comfort and home security. The scarecrow becomes a simple farmer, the tin man becomes a dehumanized factory worker, and the cowardly lion becomes the impotent politicians of the time. The Wicked Witches of the East and West signify the trade and banking centres of the American East, as well as the oil and railroad tycoons of the American West. Both opposed the bimetallic standard for its potential to devalue the dollar and their financial investments.
On the other spectrum, the Populist Party created a platform uniting land laborers of the south with northern industrial workers. Both sought to alleviate their debts through currency inflation by reverting back to economic bimetallism, and the Good Witches of the North and South stand in for these two working class groups. Many other comparisons have been made by Littlefield and later readers who have been influenced by his ideas.
Some historical scholarship has cast doubt upon these curious interpretations however. For one, it is not clear from Baum’s other literary works, or from the events of his life, that he supported Populism at all. There is also very little textual or historical evidence to suggest that specific political events during the turn of the century share much in common with the story, beyond a few superficial details which only now with hindsight seem beyond coincidence.
With these developments, the following observation made in the novel’s introduction becomes a useful warning to us all: “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.” We should therefore be skeptical of the theories proposed by writers and critics. Perhaps though, if Littlefield has offered us any insight at all, it is that making money is largely a product of make-believe. The standard of our belief, not of gold or silver, is finally and irrefutably what determines the value of the currency we use.
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