In the United States, it used to be that the movie The Wizard of Oz was only aired annually, during the Thanksgiving weekend. If you wanted to watch it, you watched it then or waited another year. Now we have options for watching movies, even 76 year old movies, so it’s not something we only have a shot at once a year.
I haven’t watched this movie in years and years because, quite honestly, the flying monkeys creep me out. I’ve done unofficial polls over the years, and I’m definitely not the only one who feels this way. It’s really a generational thing. People who grew up watching more sophisticated special effects mock those of us with flying monkey issues.
I mention this because I read an article at History News Network, “What the Wizard of Oz Can Teach Us About Inequality in the 21st Century” by James Robenalt. News pundits and assorted experts have recently made the case that our current level of inequality in the U.S. is dangerously reminiscent of the Gilded Age, a period of time in the late nineteenth century when wealth was concentrated in the hands of the very few. There are other similarities between the Gilded Age and now, mostly in terms of politics, immigration and social issues.
The book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a fantasy written for children by L. Frank Baum, was published in 1900, right at the end of the Gilded Age. Robenalt’s article lays out some of the symbolism that is present in the book (not the movie) that speaks to what was happening at the time. Some of the reasons for the wealth disparity were huge economic growth, immigration from Europe because of the economic growth, and the issue of limiting the country’s money supply by using the gold standard rather than gold and silver.
Although this look into income inequality resonates today, this argument for political symbolism in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been made since the late 1950s. The most well-known is a 1964 article published in the American Quarterly by Henry Littlefield titled “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism”. As is often the case with historical publications, there is an interesting article, “Responses to Littlefield”, that looks at more recent responses to the original Littlefield article. Whether or not Littlefield is correct about Baum’s intent 115 years ago, the issues surrounding income inequality are again an urgently appropriate topic of study.
For me, the question is ultimately one of intention. Although in hindsight the symbolic elements fit and make sense, did Baum intend to write a political allegory? As an example, Baum stated in a 1903 interview that he used the name Oz simply because one of his file cabinet drawers was labeled O-Z. Is this truly the case, or was this interview too soon after publication to come clean about the fact that Oz was really used because it was the abbreviation for “ounce” and referenced the partisan fight over silver and the gold standard?
Intention is one of the most difficult things about history. We can, and do, speculate about intent based on what we know about a person or a situation. But if somebody doesn’t tell us why they did something, can we ever really know for sure?
So does the message matter to you? If his message was political, does it make any difference to your enjoyment of the book and/or movie? And most importantly, do the flying monkeys creep you out?