This weekend’s opening of the Disney blockbuster “Oz the Great and Powerful” is my opening for a little shameless self-promotion. My nearest claim to fame is a book I co-wrote called The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory. My “co-author” is L. Frank Baum himself, as the book includes all of the first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with about 65 footnotes that I put in to point out various alleged symbolism. The supposed symbols have to do with the political and economic landscape of the 1890s, when Baum wrote the book.
There are several versions of Oz as a political or monetary allegory, but almost all of them focus on farm distress (opening gloom in Kansas, a hotbed of “prairie populism”), the gold standard (yellow brick road), bimetallism (silver shoes (not ruby slippers in the book) on a yellow brick road), quest for the political power center of the nation (Emerald City), supposedly dim farmers who turn out to be quite clever (scarecrow), supposedly all-powerful president who turns out to be a “humbug” (wizard), and so on. The original allegorical interpretation, Henry Littlefield’s “The Wizard of Oz: Parable of Populism” (1964), had a symbol for seemingly every major character and incident in the book, including the name Oz as an allusion to “oz.,” the abbreviation for an ounce of gold or silver. A later version by economist Hugh Rockoff (“The Wizard of Oz as a Monetary Allegory,” 1990) added many more symbols.
The annotations in my book draw on Littlefield’s and Rockoff’s interpretations, as well as those of several others, and add a few of my own. I also have chapters on understanding the gold standard, the “Populist” farm-protest movement, and the inevitable question of whether Baum intended the book to be in any way a commentary on politics or economics. I reach a definite conclusion on that one, but I’m not going to give it away here. Besides my book, I have a freely available article in Essays in Economic & Business History that says all I have to say on the subject.