The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy: A Rubik's Cube for Readers
Everybody has seen The Wizard of Oz sometime. The 1939 Judy Garland film is shown on television at least yearly Many of us profess to having read the book that started it all by L. Frank Baum. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz should probably go on the top ten list of books that Americans say they have read, but really didn’t.
I read it, but that was back when Eisenhower was president (no kidding). I remember clearly the librarian at the San Bernardino public library urging me to get a “smaller book”. With only my eyebrows showing over the checkout desk, I assured her that I could manage it. I did manage to get through it, but boy, did I miss a lot of nuances! Certainly, the story of how the Tin Man became the Tin Man got a quick once over or that little California girl would remember the nightmares it would have brought on.
I know now what I missed because I finished reading “The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy, Wicked Wisdom of the West” edited by Randall E. Auxier and Phillip S. Seng, published in 2008 by Open Court in the Popular Culture and Philosophy series. Essays on all things Ozian fill the book. Philosophers throughout the book link Baum’s characters to Socrates, Plato, Hegel and Langer.
The book is a Rubik’s cube.The essays hold up the classic story and examine it from all sides. Twisting the story this way and that, essayists wonder about the monkeys, slavery, the back story of Oz, movie and book and why Dorothy would want to get back to Depression era Kansas to name a few of the squares on the cube.
Essayists delve into other aspects of Oz in modern culture. Pink Floyd’s musical contribution to Oz lore is a treat for devotees of the band and the book. The 1978 musical, The Wiz, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, is explored for what it says to and for black culture. Here’s just the start of Tommy Curry’s essay, “When the Wiz Goes Black, Does It Ever Go Back?”
“Since the late seventies, African Americans have gathered around the televised version of The Wiz and anticipated sharing the stories and reveling over the novelty of an all Black cast in the remake of The Wizard of Oz. Often referred to as the “Black Wizard of Oz” The Wiz is a wonderful fantasy that literally flips the script on the 1939 screen adaptation of Baum’s classic story.”
Gregory McGuire’s “Wicked”, the book that became a Broadway musical and spawned a string of sequels, gets in-depth treatment. The Wicked Witch of the West is given a name by McGuire, Elphaba, and a life and troubles of her own. Some essayists prefer the Wicked Witch to Baum’s young heroine. Pam Sailor confesses in “Wicked Feminism”:
"I’ve lost all respect for Dorothy. First, she simpered her way through The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, letting the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion maneuver her through every obstacle L. Frank Baum could dream up. Not only did they do all the heavy lifting, they also chivalrously gave her credit for their gains, simply because she invited them to come with her to see the Wizard. And, being the crowd-pleaser that she was, she took the credit…”
The book is not a Great Philosophers of Western Civ study course, by any means. It’s funny and self depreciating. The essayists know that introducing themselves as philosophers at cocktail parties is a sure conversation stopper. All go out of their way to write for us who don’t know Hegel from hot dogs or Plato from place settings. And from this novice’s viewpoint, they succeed mightily.
I can hear you now saying, “Read philosophy? Me? Yuck.” All I can say is give Auxier, Seng and their merry band of philosophers a chance. The book is chock full of information about the Baum books, the movies (the 1939 version was not the first attempt at translating Baum to the silver screen), the historical context and the offshoots that sprung up over the past sixty years.
Going from grey Kansas to Technicolor Oz in the original movie had a more profound effect on movie goers in the 30’s than it does now in our blasé HD addicted society. Kansas itself had a different connotation then than it does now. Kansas to the 21st century is an endless landscape of wheat fields. Into the 20th century, it was still “Bloody Kansas”, the memories of raids and counterattacks in the lead up to the Civil War, stories from grandma and grandpa.
Sure, not every essay will elicit an Aha moment from every reader. I confess I am not a Pink Floyd fan. Analysis of “Dark Side of the Moon”, the album that tracks to the ’39 movie, was lost to me. There are actually websites devoted to the album’s connection to the film?? Wow.
There is no reason not to grab the Rubik’s cube that is “The Wizard of Oz, Wicked Wisdom of the West” and start twisting. There truly is something for everyone – even those of us with straw for brains, ticking watches for hearts and draughts of liquid courage in our tummies.
I look forward to the next installment in the Popular Culture series. Auxier has already co-edited a book on Bruce Springstein and both authors have published scholarly articles applying philosophy to movies. I can envision books on Batman, Alien vs. Predator, X-Men, the zen of Ron Howard and why slasher movies continue to slay their audiences.