The Politics of Oz

3. Oz Is Not What It Seems

So far I have pursued a conventional reading of what are probably the intended ethical standards enthroned in the Oz novels. L. Frank Baum the man, however, fell profoundly short of these values, and a close analysis reveals their limitations within the fiction itself.

Baum accepted the white supremacist ideas of his era and incorporated them into his work uncritically. Because history should not be softened, I will present this racist material bluntly, so you may want to skip ahead if you cannot stomach it. Most infamous are two editorials he wrote during his time as editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer that advocate genocide. The first, published 20 December 1890, concerns the murder of Sitting Bull and includes the following:

The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirits broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. […] We cannot honestly regret their extermination. (quoted in Pierpoint)

The second, from 3 January 1891, Baum wrote in response to the Wounded Knee massacre:

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. (ibid.)

Critics such as Zipes and Rahn, who take Baum’s utopia as a condemnation of American capitalism, may be right to think the Nome King aligns with the US. What they do not consider is that Baum, calling for the complete destruction of a people, aligned himself with the hateful real-world counterparts of the Nome King, Whimsies, Growleywogs, and Phanfasms who hanker for the extermination of the Ozites and theft of their land. Further commentary on these statements is not necessary.

Baum’s literary work is abundantly racist because he and most of his audience lived in a white supremacist country. As Tuerk notes, Baum’s 1899 book of children’s poetry, Father Goose: His Book, includes the dreadful “Little Nigger Boy”: “There was a little nigger boy / Hadn’t any collar; / And when the copper collared him / Nigger boy did holler.” Either a policeman is grabbing the boy by his collar or someone is clamping a copper collar around his neck, which in either case has dire implications but is treated as a subject of mockery for the presumed white child reading the book. W. W. Denslow, later illustrator of The Wonderful Wizard, accompanies this text with the standard blackface-like caricature of the period (reproduced in Tuerk 70).