The Wizard of Omaha?
Feb 20, 2020 02:57PM
By Bruce Johansen
Without a doubt, L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz has been studied as literary allegory—a place of mystery—but its origins are far more pedestrian, and Midwestern. It has also been speculated that the Yellow Brick Road led to Omaha. The city’s geographic footprints are all over the first Oz book; as Dorothy’s destination and as the home of the legendary wizard.
The first clue is provided by the tornado that transports Dorothy and Toto out of Kansas. Tornadoes usually move southwest to northeast, and if Dorothy, Toto, and their house were “not in Kansas anymore,” and transport was by tornado, they likely came to rest in Nebraska.
Before he is unmasked, The Wonderful Wizard exists mainly as an enigma, unseen by residents of the Emerald City, appearing as a beautiful fairy, a monster, or a giant head, all by sleight of hand. The wizard grants an interview to Dorothy and her traveling party with great reluctance, appearing at first as a disembodied voice. Once all of his many forms have been dropped, the wizard turns out to be Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (“OZ” is the first initial from his first two names), a former salesman from Omaha, who developed all of his facades while he was a circus magician. While living in Omaha, the wizard first worked as a ventriloquist’s apprentice and later as a balloonist. All of these details appear in Baum’s several dozen Oz books, although not in the 1939 movie that popularized them.
At the end of the Oz story, the wizard departs the Emerald City in the gondola of a great balloon with a sign that reads “State Fair, Omaha.” (The annual Nebraska State Fair was held in mainly Lincoln and Omaha between 1872 and 1901, then moved to Lincoln, without interruption; in 2008, it moved again, to Grand Island.) At every turn, the great and grand wizard turns out to be a very ordinary (although creative) working person.
Geography and meteorology cast Omaha as the Wizard’s residence. L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books, was born in Chittenango, New York, and died in Hollywood, California, but lived many of his productive years in the upper Midwest. He was familiar with Omaha as the site of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, which hosted exhibits from 28 of the 45 states. As Baum was writing the first of many Oz books, which would be published in 1900, the exposition was attracting 2.6 million visitors in six months. Among them was President William McKinley, who spoke on October 12, 1898, to an audience liberally estimated at 100,000 people.
Baum was an established author before writing the Oz books. He edited the Aberdeen, South Dakota, Saturday Pioneer from 1888 to 1891.
Objects and characters in the Oz stories also have been analyzed as symbolic of political and social fissures in the Gilded Age, a time when political populism challenged growing inequity of wealth. The Yellow Brick Road has been characterized in this economic interpretation as symbolic of the gold standard, and the silver slippers [which became ruby slippers in the movie] as support for coinage of silver. Dorothy is said to represent the honest and open-hearted nature of common people in the Midwest. The Tin Man is the much exploited eastern industrial worker, and the Scarecrow the Midwestern farmer. The Wicked Witch of the East has been styled as representing Eastern bankers, and the Wicked Witch of the West as symbolic of railroad barons.
The Wizard of Oz may be an allegory for William Jennings Bryan, a candidate for U.S. president at the time that Baum was writing the first Oz book. Bryan also hailed from Omaha. He was a crusader for “free silver,” a populist issue, as opposed to the elites’ advocacy of a gold standard. At the time that Baum was writing the first Oz book, Omaha was a center of activism on behalf of populism, which spread through the Upper Midwest as a farmers’ and workers’ reaction to the ostentatious wealth of the Gilded Age.
The Knights of Labor, Prohibition Party, Socialists, Farmers Alliance, and others gathered under the Populist banner as the People’s Party, holding its 1892 national convention in Omaha, and adopting the “Omaha platform” as its major manifesto. This platform expressed the ideology of a national working-people’s movement, The People’s Party, which received 8.5 percent of the national vote that year. Dorothy donned her silver slippers and made her way to Omaha, aka The Land of Oz, just as Bryan was advancing the coinage of silver, yet another reminder that Baum’s seemingly fanciful story was firmly rooted in the political geography of his time and place. Bryan was an enduring figure in American politics for more than a decade. He ran for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908, and was twice defeated by McKinley—all during the era that Baum spun an imaginary tale out of distinctly Midwestern cloth.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in issue 6 of The New Territory, a print magazine that focuses on literary, anthropological, and ecological articles from the lower Midwest.This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.