If ever an association between a book and state has been stamped on the national consciousness it must be the up-and-down literary-geographical marriage between Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the State of Kansas. As any Kansan who has traveled outside our fair state can testify, he will be repeatedly accosted by various Munchkins with the gleeful nostrum that he “isn’t in Kansas anymore.” Worse, he will be forced to suffer the snickering of sophisticates as they offer their greetings to Dorothy and Toto back home.
Not to be outdone, our enterprising state government even launched an expansive campaign to brand Kansas as the “Land of Ahs” back in the 1980s. The irony of this reversal was apparently lost on the punning geniuses at the Kansas Tourism Department. Unfortunately, these giants of literary perception (both inside and out of our state) do as much of a disservice to Baum’s masterpiece as they do to Kansas. In fact, the Kansas of popular imagination—a desolate cultural wasteland of drudgery and boredom from which only a lucky few escape—is not a product of Baum’s vision at all, but rather of Hollywood’s bastard interpretation.
In the 1939 film adaptation The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s Dorothy is stuck in the grey world of Kansas, home of dust, tornadoes, and nothing to do. She pouts and pines and sings that “Some day I’ll wish upon a star” and go “Somewhere over the rainbow / Way up high.” Soon her wish is granted as she is whisked off by the dreaded twister to the Land of Oz. To emphasize the transformation, Dorothy emerges from the black and white Kansas landscape into the full Technicolor world of Oz with all of its delights and strange, exotic occupants. Definitely not in Kansas anymore.
By the end of the film Dorothy has learned the moral that she has always had the power to go home because she never really left. She carries Kansas with her wherever she goes, just as, it is clearly implied, she will carry Oz with her back to Kansas when she returns. This mythical ability to go and be everywhere and nowhere at once has become a staple of modern children’s literature—appealing as it does to the deracinated angst of children who have never really been at home anywhere.
To hammer the point home, after the incantation “there’s no place like home,” Garland’s Dorothy wakes up back in Kansas to find out that, literally, she never left. It was all a dream, one that will no doubt inspire Dorothy to set out into adulthood forever chasing another Technicolor dream, comforted by the sugary confection of the home she takes with her everywhere.
This profoundly anti-place notion of “home” was just what the nation didn’t need as the European continent descended into the darkness of World War II. In fact, the 1939 film version of Wizard (complete with goose-stepping bad guys) quickly became the anthem for Allied—and especially American—participation in World War II. The war became the social watershed of the twentieth century, with its massive mobilizations that gutted Middle America and left it for dead in the purported cause of its defense.
Soldiers marched to Germany singing “We’re off to see Herr Hitler” and beleaguered Britons wished upon a star singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” during the Blitz. A hundred thousand American farm boys carried their homes with them to foreign fields, found Technicolor bullets waiting, and never woke up. That scion of Kansas, Dwight Eisenhower, did come home—to Washington—and comforted the nation with a grown-up Dorothy-complex.
The film’s message and prominence as a vehicle for mobilization undoubtedly influenced a little-known cartoonist named Theodor Geisel, who was busy at the time producing anti-isolationist tracts and generally agitating for America’s entry into the war. Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, would crystallize that moral in his 60-odd children’s books, none more so than his last, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
With echoes of magic shoes and brains, Seuss tells his young charges:
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
But, Seuss warns, don’t get stuck in “a most useless place. / The Waiting Place”:
That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape
all that waiting and staying.
You’ll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing. . . .
So get on your way!
Kansas—life’s waiting room. Land of Ahs, here we come.
Nothing has been as damaging to the real Middle West than this upwardly mobile notion now infecting its third generation of prairie dwellers. Get smart and get out. Even better, you don’t even have to really leave when, as Milton’s Satan once reminded us, “the mind is its own place.”
If Hollywood and General Eisenhower stole Dorothy from Kansas (only to have her later filched by the progressive-transgressive gay-pride movement), I’m stealing her back.
While it was the political and social mobilization of World War II that defined the reception of Hollywood’s Wizard, it was an entirely different social context that gave meaning to Dorothy’s adventures in the original. Published in 1900 at the height of the populist revolt in Kansas against eastern interests and powers, Baum’s Wizard is animated by the same populist spirit in defense of home.
The lion William Jennings Bryan roared at the 1896 Democratic Convention: “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked . . . We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!” So too, Baum’s Dorothy defies the eastern powers of “Oz” in the Emerald City (where everything is a shade of green) in defense of her homeland.
Gone are the sickly characteristics of the film’s Dorothy—there is not a hint in the book of Dorothy pining to go somewhere over the rainbow; Baum’s Dorothy is full of pluck and folk wisdom rather than the simpering, helpless provincial of the film; the real Dorothy has no truck with Hollywood’s sentimental vision of “home” and bears instead love and affection towards a real place. Completely absent from the book is the destructive moral that “the mind is its own place.” In fact, Baum gives us the opposite lesson: places are real, Kansas is real, Oz is real, their interests do not always align, and to truly belong to one place, we must reject other places. Ultimately, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an Odyssean tale of forsaking the Technicolor dream of immortality in favor of the dirt that is one’s own.
In perhaps my favorite exchange in all of literature, the Scarecrow tells Dorothy that he cannot understand why she should want to leave the beautiful Land of Oz to return to the admittedly dusty plains of Kansas. “That is because you have no brains,” says Dorothy. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful.” The Scarecrow concedes: “Of course I cannot understand it. If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and then Kansas would have no people at all. It is fortunate for Kansas that you have brains.”
Baum captures perfectly the prairie populist’s eye-twinkling, slightly self-deprecating sense of the superiority of humbly standing on one’s own two feet in one’s own country. Dorothy did indeed have brains.
Fortunate daughter of Kansas—fortunate home.
Caleb Stegall is a lawyer and writer in Perry, Kansas. His forthcoming book on the history of prairie populism and the future of American regionalism is due out from ISI Books in 2009.
Posted: November 30, 2008 in Essays.
Did you see this one?
The Decline of the Liberal Imagination
Volume 37, Number 3 (Fall 1997)