The Makings of History / The Protest of Oz

Lyman Frank Baum, a native of Chittenango, New York, was a merry and imaginative fellow who never stopped reinventing himself. An expert on poultry farming, window dressing, lubricating oils and a host of other stuff, he was also a journalist, a theater actor and a playwright. "Mediocre playwright," Uriel Ofek called him in a dictionary of children's literature.

Baum, whose father was of German origin, was raised on the Brothers Grimm but had no interest in princes and fairies, denizens of Central Europe's dark forests and gloomy stone castles. He wanted American fairy tales, and since there were none, he wrote them himself, initially as bedtime stories for his children. "His style was shallow and most public libraries in the United States 'banned' his books," Ofek declared.

oz - Archives - October 28 2011

Not that Baum should care. In 1900 he published "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," and over the next 80 years at least 7 million copies of the book were sold, Ofek estimated. It was translated into dozens of languages, led to 13 sequels, and yielded countless adaptations for stage, film and television. The first Hebrew translation appeared in 1946, and since then the book has been translated at least three more times.

The story is about an orphan named Dorothy. A tornado whisks her from her aunt and uncle's farm in Kansas to the magical land of Oz. There she rights social wrongs, freeing the Munchkins from slavery; her friend the Tin Man becomes a leader; and the Cowardly Lion becomes king of the forest.

Generations of dissertation writers sought to prove that "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" is or is not a political allegory. Is the Wizard the U.S. president? Was Dorothy's name inspired by President Theodore Roosevelt? Is the tornado the American social upheaval of the time? Is the magic exposed as a hoax to teach young readers that they must take their fate into their own hands - and, if necessary, march on Washington?

In these days of social protest, someone recalled that Baum had witnessed the first protest march on Washington, D.C., organized by Coxey's Army. That was in 1894, some six years before Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion marched to see the wizard. Thus Coxey's social protest could have given rise to Baum's book.

Jacob Coxey was a fairly wealthy businessman from Ohio with leftist, but not socialist, beliefs. Like the folks from Rothschild Boulevard, the Occupy Wall Street folks that have the United States in a tizzy tend to believe they invented something new. Internet sociologists also say the current U.S. social protest could not have come together without Facebook. Perhaps, but Coxey recruited his "protest army" largely through word of mouth.

He and his wife traveled by carriage; another 100 people followed on foot. By the time they reached Washington they were about 500 people, and several thousand more protesters were waiting for them there. They demanded that the government create jobs and reduce social gaps. Coxey was arrested, ostensibly not because he posed a threat to the economic system's basic principles but rather because he had stepped on the lawn of the Capitol. In 1914 he led a second protest march on Washington. This time he was permitted to address his people from the steps of the Capitol. He failed to accomplish much more than that.

In 1932 a Roman Catholic priest by the name of James Renshaw Cox entered the annals of U.S. social protest. He too led a march to Washington, demanding social justice. It was the biggest protest march to date in American history, with 17,000 to 25,000 marchers. Many of them were World War I veterans. They set up a big tent encampment, and later returned home.

By then, L. Frank Baum was no longer living. His son continued to write sequels to "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and never tired of saying: No, it's not politics!