OZ and Transition
The Wizard of Oz provides Americans with a text that helps them make the transition from the country to the city and sets the stage for the commodified American popular culture of the 20th century. This paper will show how, thanks to its pristine (Emerald) beauty and adventurous episodes, Oz makes "the city" much more appealing than the muted, old-fashioned of America. It will also explain why Dorothy returns to Kansas (someone has to take back home the message of how amazing "the city" is).
Baum's Oz shows that everyman can become a king if he pursues his own desires: thus, the Scarecrow is awarded leadership over the Emerald City, the Tinman leadership over Winkie County, and the Cowardly Lion kingship over the forest. Each character, of course, rises to meet his own personal challenge -- but, nonetheless, these are clear examples of how the American Dream is perfectly attainable in one's own life if one just determines to set off in search of it.
With the Industrialization of America, this Dream seemed more possible than ever. At the end of the 19th century, America had faced several banking crises, its people were picking up the pieces after the horrors of the previous generation's Civil War, and new wars (foreign ones) loomed on the horizon (for example the Spanish-American War and the advent of American Imperialism). America as a nation had changed and was changing still more: it was being urbanized as more individuals (migrants) moved to the big cities to find work and monopolists like Rockefeller consolidated power. The big bankers would make their gambit for total control of the nation's money supply (and win) in 1913 with the passing of the Federal Reserve Act: in a sense, these men were like the mighty Wizard of Oz -- hucksters posing as men of brilliance (but the promise of free and easy credit after WWI coupled with a scofflaw attitude thanks to Prohibition made the 20s a "Roaring" time indeed -- a boom that ended in a bust). In one way, Baum's Wizard of Oz helped prepare the way for these changes and certainly helped Americans transition from the country to the city (Dorothy, for example, is the farm girl from Kansas who is swept off to Oz where she makes wonderful friends and has fantastic adventures). Baum's American fairy-tale also prepares the way for the commodification of 20th century popular culture by suggesting that abstract ideas like "courage," "brains," and "heart" can be bought and sold by powerful elites (wizards, bankers, corporations) who "magically" know how to produce them for the average citizen who lacks them.
Baum's book was published in 1900; in 1902 the Broadway musical adaptation was produced; and in 1939 the film version was released: thus, there is a forty year span from the time that Oz was first introduced to the time that it became translated into one of the most iconic films of all time. The transformation marked the transformation that the nation itself had undergone, as its "brains," "courage," and "heart" were invariably tested by episodes like the Great Depression or WW1 and WW2. Movements like the Harlem Renaissance also helped to shape the way that Oz was perceived from one generation to the next, as a more dynamic and exciting version (film) replaced the old print medium.
But if the "City" is so wonderful and magnificent, why is it that Dorothy still longs for home and eventually returns to Kansas? The answer actually has two parts: just as the artists of the Harlem Renaissance (and, later, of the Hip Hop era) sought to identify themselves by their roots (rather than by the white establishment culture that they felt to be forced upon them) (Rose, pp. 271-275), Dorothy is compelled by a sense of nativity and homestead identity to want to return to her place of native origin, which is Kansas. The other side of the answer has to do with the fantasy world that is "the big city" and the "American Dream." On this level, Baum is returning the reader to his own "home," by taking him out...
The Emerald City is wondrous, to be sure, and the adventures were great -- but there is an element of make-believe to it all that conflicts with the down to earth realist in us all -- the practical side of human nature. Baum's Oz, in a way, makes it so that both the down home, nostalgic sense and the yearning for more glamorous things can be satisfied at once: Oz allows the reader or viewer to have his cake and eat it too and invites all of us to join along. It asserts that one can achieve the "impossible" Dream and yet keep one's innocence, earthiness, good-heartedness, and homespun sensibilities without being corrupted by the big city and its wickedness (represented by the wicked witches, of course). Most importantly, the power utilized by the wicked witches (the silver shoes and the golden cap) has a non-corrupting influence when wielded by the pure of heart (Dorothy and Glinda). Thus, Baum suggests that absolute power does not corrupt absolutely, as has been said, but on the contrary that power in the right hands can do good things (as is seen in the consolidation of power by the three helpmates of Dorothy at the end -- each is given to rule over a certain part of the territory). If looked at in this manner, Baum's Oz reflects a belief or affirmation of a dual-system of power as the basis of the American Dream -- a kind of classless society (or a society where one can easily rise from one class to the next) by simply following the right road, obtaining the right commodities, and, of course, having a little luck (like landing on a wicked witch and getting her silver shoes).
At the same time, Baum does not forget the shyster's role in "paradise," which belongs to that of the wizard himself -- a man who in some respects reflects the monopolizing power of Rockefeller, a rival dynasty of the Baums. The wizard makes people see him as they are won't to perceive things, but ultimately his tricks are exposed and his humanity is touched and restored. The American trickster is thus given a benevolent underbelly, which does not exactly match the reality of the actual American underbelly which is made more and more manifest in the 20th century (Austin & Taylor). Yet, it is this unrealistic insistence upon the benevolence of the "wizard" that helps the reader/viewer to transition from the country to the city more easily: it asserts that there is nothing really to fear from the big images and loud voices of the city -- that, in fact, it is all rather harmless and that deep down the "wizards" are just like you and me -- down home, earthy, good country people -- and that if one stays true to oneself the rewards are great (evident from the fact that the Tinman, Scarecrow and Lion are all given great positions of authority). This sense that the country folk will not be "out of place" in the city but will, in fact, find others just like themselves and not only "fit in" but rise to the top is part of what makes the allure of the "city" so tempting: there is nothing to fear but fear itself (as one Statesman put it during a time of mid-century turmoil).
In conclusion, Baum's Wizard of Oz is a work that appeals to the dreams and ambitions of the rural individual and invites him to engage in the big city life that awaits him "over the rainbow." In the 20th century, it helped to draw the rural individual to the urban square -- but its promise of a golden cap and silver shoes most likely eluded the individual. But that didn't matter in Oz because as Baum suggests, one could easily return home just by clicking one's heels. In the fantasy, this was so -- but in reality, returning home was never so easy (as Mailer's "hipsters" showed -- in search of a new "code" to fill the gap left by their departure from "home" where things were, or at least should have been, defined). In this sense, the Munchkins and different inhabitants of Oz are like the urban blacks whose culture attracted so many whites in the 20th century: the whites had become disenfranchised and disillusioned and saw in black culture a new type of "city" with new "charms" -- but this too was illusory in a way.
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