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Populism in The Wizard of Oz


Farmers and Industrialists and the Bimetallic Standard, Oh My!

Has this happened to you? You’re going about your daily life, thinking The Wizard of Oz is nothing but a children’s story when suddenly someone leads you into a dark alley and tells you everything you’ve ever known is wrong, your whole life is a lie, and that this children’s story is actually a political allegory about the Populist movement in the 1890s.

If so, you’re not alone. And I wish I could tell you you’re entitled to monetary compensation, but all I’ve got for you is this pretty cool PG-13 rated podcast episode:


Here’s the most important thing you need to know about this theory
: The man who came up with it 64 years after the book’s publication, Henry M. Littlefield, was just throwing it out there as a possibility with no factual basis. His primary goal was to find an interesting way to teach this period of history to high school students. But since his article The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism was published in American Quarterly in 1964, a generation of authority figures handed down the story to impressionable students and it became gospel to some.

Held up to any scrutiny, this idea is an incoherent, incohesive mess akin to what The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown might deliver if you gave him an hour to draft a novel about the hidden meanings behind The Wizard of Oz with incredibly low stakes.

Littlefield’s theory has characters representing entire swaths of the country—Dorothy is the all-American everyman, the Scarecrow represents farmers, the Tin Woodman represents industrial workers, and the Wicked Witch of the West represents an entire region (the rugged, unforgiving West).

But somehow, according to Littlefield, the Cowardly Lion represents one specific man: William Jennings Bryan, the Populist nominee for the Democratic Party in the 1896, 1900, and 1908 Elections. Bryan was catapulted into stardom at the 1896 Convention after giving a single speech—his “Cross of Gold” speech where he railed against the gold standard and brought down the house with the proclamation:

“If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

I can’t imagine how anyone would think William Jennings Bryan was similar to the Cowardly Lion. First off, they looked nothing alike. Here’s a photograph of Bryan from a campaign rally in 1896:

Okay, you got me. That’s a terrifying AI depiction of the Cowardly Lion giving a victory speech at a campaign rally in 1896. I’m sorry.

Here’s the real William Jennings Bryan in 1896:

William Jennings Bryan, smoldering, 1896. Library of Congress

And here’s a list of characteristics about him from The San Francisco Call that same year:

Does this list imply that riding the bicycle was looked at in the same way as drinking, smoking, and playing cards?

Now that you’ve got a good look at him and his psych profile, I implore you to tell me how anyone could think he is somehow an influence on the character of the Cowardly Lion.

Aside from the fact that “The Cowardly Lion” and “William Jennings Bryan” sort of rhyme, there is no connection that makes sense. Littlefield supposed that the Lion represented Bryan because Bryan was unable to get the votes of industrial workers in the 1896 Election, and the Cowardly Lion was unable to make a dent in the Tin Woodman, who he said represented those industrial workers. (If there is any truth to that theory, then it’s a good thing no one dug into it during Baum’s lifetime because he would have been excoriated for making such a poor allegory.)

The thing about these kinds of theories is that they’re so attractive to the mind; we want to make connections and discover secrets! I can’t help but find myself what-ifing possible connections between Bryan and the Cowardly Lion that might be convincing if they existed.

For example, one interesting part of the Lion’s story is that in the 1939 MGM film, the Wizard gave the lion “courage” in the form of a medal. Had that metal from the movie existed in the book, and looked like it did in the film, then Littlefield could have called it a “cross of gold”—referencing that “Cross of Gold” speech that made Bryan famous. But that’s not how Baum wrote it.

In the book, the Wizard convinced the Lion he was giving him courage by pouring him a mysterious liquid to drink. Liquid courage—a term for alcohol that long predates Baum’s day. Perhaps if Bryan were known to have problems with alcoholism then that might be a fascinating connection to explore, but alas, according to that irrefutable list of his characteristics, William Jennings Bryan doesn’t drink any more than he rides the bicycle.

And speaking of bicycles, they say once you learn to ride you never forget. That’s more than can be said of William Jennings Bryan, who was once a ubiquitous figure in American politics for decades but turned out to be much easier to forget than his ardent followers ever would have imagined.


For more about William Jennings Bryan and other presidential candidates who never made it to the White House, check out Peter Shea and Tom Maday’s beautiful book In The Arena: A History of American Presidential Hopefuls.

You can also hear Peter talk about Bryan, Aaron Burr, Adlai Stevenson, and John C. Calhoun, along with our full discussion of politics in The Wizard of Oz in our full episode:


Sources:

Special thanks to finance professional and friend of the pod Martin Smith for his insights on the appeal of the bimetallic standard, and to the incredible International Wizard of Oz Club!

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum
The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism” by Henry M. Littlefield, American Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1964), pp. 47-58. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2710826
The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory by Hugh Rockoff, The Journal of Political Economy. Vol. 98, No. 4 (August 1990), 739-760.
“‘Oz’ Author Never Championed Populism” by Michael Patrick Hearn, Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, January 10, 1992
“‘Oz’ Author Kept Intentions to Himself,” by Henry M. Littlefield, Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, February 7, 1992
Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech: Mesmerizing the Masses, History Matters

For another perspective also published this week, see also: “No, The Wizard of Oz Isn’t A Political Allegory” by Jared Davis, The Royal Blog of Oz, May 20, 2023.

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