Tuesday, December 25, 2007

In Your Dreams

"Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering..
and it's all over much too soon."

Woody Allen

A Populist Allegory

In 1900, Frank Baum authored a book called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Born near Syracuse, NY in 1856, he spent the years 1887 through 1891 in Aberdeen, South Dakota working as an editor for the local weekly newspaper. His brief stay in South Dakota spanned the period of the formation of the Populist Party, an attempt by midwestern farmers to use the ballot to restrain the power of the banks, railroads, and other economic interests that had been squeezing farmers through a combination of low prices, high freight rates, and continued indebtedness. The Populists, an alliance of farmers and some urban workers, advocated government ownership and operation of the railroads, telephone and telegraph industries, and graduated income tax, postal savings banks, secret ballot elections, direct election of senators, and silver coinage. Although the populist candidate James B. Weaver lost the presidential election of 1892, several states including Kansas voted for him.

When Baum moved to Chicago in 1891, the country was about to plunge into the greatest depression in it's history. Farm prices sunk to new lows. Unemployment caused havoc, desperation and union militancy among the urban working class. In 1896, Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan won 47 percent of the vote, mostly from the Midwest, but lost the election to William McKinley. He ran and lost again in 1900. Bryan was an anti-Darwinist who believed in Divine Creation and may be best known for his role in The Scopes Trial where he went up against Clarence Darrow.

It is apparent that Frank Baum used many of the lessons that he learned from the Populist Movement in the writing of his book. It is widely believed that Baum portrayed The Scarecrow as the midwestern farmers, The Tin Man as the urban industrial workers, The Cowardly Lion as Bryan himself whose "bark was bigger than his bite!" They all followed the Yellow Brick Road (the gold standard) to the Emerald City (Washington) in order to see the Wizard (the President who used deception to control the people). Dorothy is portrayed as the symbol of Everyman who was innocent enough to see the truth before the others. The Munchkins were the little people whom the Wicked Witch of the East (large corporations and banks of the East) kept enslaved.

And so, with the Wizard finally exposed, the Scarecrow (the farmer) rules Emerald City, the Tin Woodman (the industrial worker) rules in the West and the Lion (Bryan) protects smaller beasts in "a small old forest." In Baum's vision, farm interests gain political power, industry moves West, and Bryan, perhaps, returns to Congress.

"Our truest life is when we are in our dreams awake."
Henry David Thoreau