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Oz

  • Date: 05/13/2006
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • It is common in commencement speeches to suggest that this is where you now travel into the "real world," that "a path now awaits you" and it urges you to take "the road less traveled," or to be excited about "the places you will go."

    Some even suggest that you follow "the yellow brick road" - and this is the season when television stations rebroadcast the movie classic, The Wizard of Oz.

    In fact, 2006 is a big year for Oz fans as reported last week in The Wall Street Journal. "Not only is (this year) the 50th anniversary of the movie's first appearance on television, but it's also the sesquicentennial of (the birth of the book's author Lyman Frank Baum)."
    (Miller, John J., "Down the Yellow Brick Road of Overinterpretation," The Wall Street Journal,
    May 11, 2006, p. D6)

    One of the most engaging movies of its time, The Wizard of Oz was hailed for its innovation in Technicolor and the use of special effects, particularly the creation of a tornado that magically transports Dorothy, her dog Toto and their Kansas farmhouse to the magical place that she often dreamed about.
    (Harmetz, Aljean, The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM, Hyperion, December 1998)

    While the MGM's special effects might be considered primitive by today's computer graphics standards, in 1938, the movie-maker received high marks for creating an in-studio tornado using brown dust, compressed air and a 35-foot muslin wind sock.
    (Marshall, Tim, The Oz Tornado, www.stormtrack.org, 2006)

    In writing the manuscript for the book, Baum knew that he had created something special - something unique. And, after months of contemplating a title, he eventually decided on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
    (Miller, Ibid)

    "There are several theories about how Baum came up with the name Oz..."
    (Miller, Ibid)

    According to John J. Miller, who wrote last week's article, the most plausible theory originates from the author himself, who explained that the name "...came to him one day when he was staring at a set of filing drawers labeled ‘A-G,' ‘H-N' and ‘O-Z.'"
    (Miller, Ibid)

    As a result, files O through Z became the basis for "...one of the great place names in the fantasy culture of childhood, the predecessor and equal of Never-Never Land, Narnia and Hogwarts."
    (Miller, Ibid)

    Fertile to the imagination, Baum's storyline has created some 13 sequels from the original manuscript, including the Broadway smash hits, The Wiz and Wicked.
    (Miller, Ibid)

    Yet, as successful as he was in developing this magical story, "...there is a long history of digging deeper into Baum's books and searching for hidden meanings" - to go "Down the Yellow Brick Road of Overinterpretation," if you will.
    (Miller, Ibid)

    "The most famous of these is to interpret The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a parable of the Populist movement of the 1890s..."
    (Miller, Ibid)

    According to this theory, "...Dorothy represents the American people, the Scarecrow symbolizes farmers, the Tin Woodman stands in for factory workers, and the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate."
    (Miller, Ibid)

    "One of the leading concerns of Bryan and the Populists was to get off the gold standard (the Yellow Brick Road) and replace it with the silver standard (the color of Dorothy's slippers in the book)."
    (Miller, Ibid)

    "This hypothesis," according to Miller, "was first proposed by Henry M. Littlefield, a high-school history teacher. He tested it on his students and argued past their objections - most notably, the fact that Dorothy's slippers in the movie aren't silver. The producers had gone with red because they wanted to show off their newfangled color technology."
    (Miller, Ibid)

    "Littlefield published his ideas in 1964, and it wasn't long before reading the Oz books became a kind of parlor game. Although many Baum enthusiasts were disdainful of these efforts, the challenge of trying to figure out exactly what Baum meant to imply when he wrote about Toto the dog (teetotalism?) and the Winged Monkeys (Plains Indians?) was too much to resist."
    (Miller, Ibid)

    "According to one analysis, "Oz" is more than a nonsense word borrowed from a filing drawer - it's a cunning reference to the abbreviation for "ounce," a common unit of measurement for both gold and silver."
    (Miller, Ibid)

    "There is no doubt that many educators have found Baum's tale to be a useful tool for teaching about a certain period of history. Yet pushing the parable too hard recalls one of the best lines in the book: ‘If we walk far enough,' says Dorothy, 'we shall sometime come to someplace.'"
    (Miller, Ibid)

    "The real brilliance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, writes Miller, "is that it aims chiefly to entertain - a worthy ambition in its own right. As Baum himself once said, ‘To write fairy stories for children, to amuse them, to divert restless children, sick children, to keep them out of mischief on rainy days, seems of greater importance than to write grown-up novels.'"
    (Miller, Ibid)

    "Now that's a statement worth taking at face value," Miller concludes. "It turns out that sometimes a story is just a story. And in the most remarkable of cases, sometimes a story grows into a legend."
    (Miller, Ibid)

    And so, graduates, wherever your yellow brick road starts or goes, walk with the confidence of your knowledge and the openness to new perspectives.

    And please, have the wisdom not to undermine that which you do not understand, nor to destroy that which you yourself cannot create.

    Whether mulling over the plot of a book or assessing a real-life event, don't fall prey to over-analysis.

    Sometimes, nothing is only what it seems. Sometimes, it is simply what it is! Or, as the saying goes, "It is what it is"!

     

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